The Traitor’s Wife by Susan Higginbotham was my first foray into 14th century England. I’ve never read historical fiction about England’s royals, and I knew nothing of Edward II when I picked up the book. I’m glad for that, as not knowing the fates of the main characters made the book more exciting for me. Higginbotham tells the story of Edward II’s reign through the eyes of his niece, Eleanor de Clare. The book opens in 1306, when Eleanor is 13 years old and preparing to marry Hugh le Despenser the younger. It was an arranged marriage, like most marriages of the time, and King Edward I made the match. Eleanor is fortunate that she and Hugh are a good match, and they fall in love and have a happy marriage.
The book spans many years, with Edward II taking the throne, marrying Queen Isabella from France, and carrying on openly with his lover (whom he calls his brother) Piers Gaveston. Edward’s love for Piers and his desire to give him great things cause some tensions among the earls and others in court. During this period, Eleanor is the queen’s lady-in-waiting, so she is privy to the goings on in the royal household. There also is the matter of the Scots, and Edward is not very successful in battling the Scottish king Robert Bruce. After Piers meets his maker and Eleanor inherits lands from her brother, Hugh becomes hungry for more. His quest for more land, more money, and more power brings him to Edward II’s bed. Edward loves Hugh, and over time Hugh comes to love him, too, but his devotion to his wife Eleanor never falters. It is Edward’s love for Hugh and his willingness to let him run the country behind the scenes that leads to his and Hugh’s downfall. The book is only halfway through at this point, and Higginbotham goes on to detail the start of Edward III’s reign, the relationship and dirty deeds of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and Eleanor’s imprisonment and efforts to build a new life despite being known as the traitor’s wife.
Higginbotham covers so much ground and includes so many details, but the writing is never dull. I was captivated by all of the main characters, and I’m glad she chose to tell the story through Eleanor’s eyes. Because Eleanor was ignorant of many of Hugh’s dealings, the reader gets to see more than just the greedy, cold side of him. We get to see Hugh as a gentle and loving husband and father. Also, focusing so much on Eleanor gives readers a glimpse of how women were treated in 14th century England, both as relations of royalty and relations of the worst types of criminals. We get to see her struggles as a wife standing behind her husband despite his actions, and we see her struggles as a prisoner trying to be strong to ensure the health and safety of her children. Although there were times I wanted to reach inside the story, slap her upside the head, and ask her how she could be so blind, I really liked Eleanor. The Traitor’s Wife also features numerous other interesting characters, and while it can be hard to keep track of all the Hughs, Edwards, and Isabellas, not to mention all the earls, Higginbotham provides a character list at the beginning that helps keep everything straight.
I highly recommend The Traitor’s Wife for lovers of historical fiction. After researching on my own some of the history covered in the book, it seems Higginbotham did her homework. I’m not an expert on 14th century England, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the details about mannerisms and dialogue, but to me, they didn’t feel out of place. I definitely will be checking out more of her work in the future.
**Stay tuned because I will be posting an interview with Susan Higginbotham, author of The Traitor’s Wife, on Monday.**
Other stops on The Traitor's Wife book tour:
Carla Nayland Book Review
A Reader's Respite
Passages to the Past (review and interview)
S. Krishna's Books
The Tome Traveller's Weblog
Jennifer's Random Musings
StevenTill.com (review and interview)
Peeking Between the Pages
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore...
Savvy Verse & Wit (review and interview)
Sam's Book Blog
My Friend Amy
Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Traitor's Wife from Sourcebooks for review purposes.