The Queen of Last Hopes
A Review by Judith Arnopp
In 1445, aged fifteen, Margaret of Anjou was married to King Henry VI of England, a marriage intended to restore peace between France and England. When Henry declined into madness eight years later, the heavily pregnant Margaret was drawn to the forefront of English politics. In stepping from her prescribed feminine role to oppose the claims of the Yorkist faction she became a target for enemy propaganda. Her fierce protection of her son, Edward of Lancaster, and her refusal to admit defeat did not attract acclaim, as would have been the case had she been a man, instead she was accused of a variety transgressions.
Since the Wars of the Roses Margaret of Anjou has been seen as a vengeful, violent figure. Shakespeare presented her as an adulterous bitch whose natural female instinct for nurture was corrupted to homicide. Later historians and novelists have taken this opinion of Margaret and run with it and in numerous works she appears as a virulent, unnatural woman, a ‘she wolf’ meddling in the affairs of men. Recently, however, there have been revisions of Margaret’s character, a reassessment of her actions and a more balanced, detached view of her is emerging.
Susan Higginbotham’s novel, The Queen of Last Hopes, is spawned of this revisionist opinion. The tale is told from a Lancastrian perspective, multi-narrated by Margaret herself and various members of her retinue.
Although meticulously researched Higginbotham’s Margaret is, for me, unconvincing. In trying to negate the slander I feel the character emerges as ‘too nice for words,’ as my mum would say. Recorded instance of brutality are glossed over or excused and so she emerges almost as saintly as her husband, King Henry.
I also found that, in many areas, Higginbotham’s research gets in the way of a good story. I wanted to feel blades slicing through flesh, the horror of cousin fighting cousin, the raw, tearing grief of losing a child. Instead the trauma of Margaret’s experiences seem twice, even thrice removed. I did not hear her voice and received instead an anaesthetised account.
On the whole I found the male characters more convincing. The Duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, slightly rakish, foolhardy, is likeable because of his flaws and a far more comfortable read than Margaret. King Henry’s complex mix of confusion, religious dedication and loyalty makes him a likeable king, touchingly naive. And Margaret’s son, Edward of Lancaster’s honest narration and unfortunate end is just as well rounded and his death painfully poignant.
I appreciate the amount of research that Susan Higginbotham has put into this novel. Most novelists have approached the Wars of the Roses from a Yorkist point of view, I believe and I like the refreshing Lancastrian perspective. I admire the way Higginbotham dispenses with the propaganda against Margaret but, for me, she shines just a bit too brightly to be real. Also in ignoring the vilification against Margaret it would have been good if she could have done the same with the slanders that the Tudors levelled against the Yorkists but instead, many of the old defamations of Richard of Gloucester and Edward IV remain.
On the whole it is a solid, entertaining read, a little less historical detail and a little more blood and sweat would have improved it for me but, there, I am a bloodthirsty girl. The Queen of Last Hopes is a winner and will please Higginbotham’s fans and attract new readers from the adherents of the Lancastrian faction.