The Queen of Last Hopes

Susan Higginbotham

Sourcebooks, 2011. ISBN 978-1402242816. 332 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in England, France and Scotland between 1444 and 1482, The Queen of Last Hopes tells the story of Margaret of Anjou, the French princess who became queen to Henry VI of England and found herself having to fight for his throne during the power struggle known to history as the Wars of the Roses. The novel covers Margaret's life from her marriage to Henry until her death. All the major characters are historical figures.

Married at age fourteen to Henry VI of England to seal a peace treaty, Margaret of Anjou finds that although Henry is a good man - indeed, bordering on the saintly - this is not at all the same as being a good king. Simmering conflicts claim the life of Margaret's friend, and then explode into outright war when Henry suffers a bout of mental illness. With a baby son to fight for as well as her husband and herself, Margaret has to take command, raising armies and on occasion marching with them. Margaret's indomitable spirit carries her through war, exile, shipwreck and robbery - but her greatest personal cost is yet to come.

If you are familiar with the cruel and vengeful Margaret of Anjou made famous by one William Shakespeare ("O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!"), you are in for a surprise. The Queen of Last Hopes undertakes the commendable task of telling the story from Margaret's side and mainly through her eyes, and presents a much more sympathetic Margaret than Shakespeare's "…. stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless". The reader can hardly fail to admire beautiful, unlucky Margaret, battling on with courage and perseverance literally to the last hope.

The Queen of Last Hopes is narrated in first person, mainly by Margaret. Although Margaret played an unusually active role in events, even she could not be everywhere at once, and some chapters are narrated in first person by other characters who were at the centre of the events described. In this way the novel can recount events directly even when Margaret was not present, avoiding the need to have Margaret listen passively while someone else tells her about them, and can also show some other points of view. Each chapter is headed by the narrator's name and the date, and you do need to pay attention to these to be clear about who is speaking (and the time frame, as sometimes the novel skips forward by several months or even years in one go).

The most successful of the secondary narrators for me was Henry (Hal) Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Like many of the English nobility he changed sides more than once as the fortune of war ebbed and flowed, and sometimes found himself with friends and family on the opposite side. His narrative touches on the conflicts and divided loyalties inherent in a civil war between two branches of the same family in a way that Margaret, who as a Frenchwoman is outside most of the kinship and obligation networks that criss-cross the English aristocracy, cannot. Hal's affair with a down-to-earth London confectioner, Joan Hill, is a delightful story in itself, and adds a warmly human counterpoint to the high politics of the rest of the novel. It's a reminder that while the aristocracy were trying to murder each other for a grab at the crown, the rest of the country was busy getting on with the workaday business of earning a living, regardless of who was calling himself king this week. Anne Neville's relationship with Margaret's son Edward is also refreshingly down-to earth, a political alliance that both parties are prepared to make the best of, and with the makings of a successful marriage.

Margaret's narrative is framed from the perspective of Margaret looking back over her life from old age. Perhaps time and reflection have distanced her from her tumultuous youth and prime. Her narrative is remarkably matter of fact and the emotion is understated, even when she is recounting heartbreaking loss and hair's breadth escapes. As de facto leader of the Lancastrian party, Margaret had to guard her feelings and put on a brave face in public, and there is a guarded quality about her narrative, almost as though she is maintaining a similar protective shield against the reader. The epilogue, narrated by her lady-in-waiting Katherine Vaux in extreme old age, is an especially poignant vignette. Amidst the celebrations of Henry VIII's wedding to Catherine of Aragon, Katherine Vaux watches the beautiful, hopeful young foreign princess and, remembering Margaret of Anjou, fears for her future - fears that the reader, who knows how Catherine's marriage worked out, knows to be all too justified.

A helpful Author's Note summarises the underlying history and sets out the reasons for any divergences, and a useful list of characters at the front of the book helps to keep track of the large cast (probably especially helpful to readers who are new to the period). A list of Further Reading provides suggestions for interested readers who want to pursue the history in more depth.

Detailed, sympathetic portrait of Margaret of Anjou.