I am always a bit tentative when I read a book by an author I have never read before. I am such a raging bibliophile that I get easily bored and/or frustrated with writing that doesn’t enthrall me like I want to be enthralled. This wariness is multiplied exponentially when it is a book of historical fiction. I know too much to be able to lightly overlook errors, even errors I know had to have come from an author’s good faith trust in popular non-fiction historians. Thus, I approached Susan Higginbotham’s novel Her Highness, the Traitor with due caution.
I needn’t have worried because by the end of the first chapter I was ready to sing alleluia and strike up the band! I had found the Holy Grail of historical fiction; a book that was both well written AND historically accurate. Joy!
The book was presented from the point of view of two frequently overlooked historical figures, Frances Grey and Jane Dudley. Frances Grey, the Duchess of Suffolk, was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary and his best friend Charles Brandon and was the often unfairly maligned mother of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen. Jane Dudley, the Duchess of Northumberland, was the wife of John Dudley, the former Viscount Lisle who came to power during the regency of Henry’s son, Edward VI. The events of the last few years of Edward VI’s life, Jane Grey’s brief reign, and Mary’s successful usurpation of the throne as well as the early period of her ill-managed rule. Higginbotham does not sugarcoat any of the people in her novel, revealing instead both the good and the bad elements of their personalities and temperaments as best she can based on historical records. There are no plaster saints, and no one-note villains, anywhere in the books.
The only problem I had with the the book is that it made the historical figures so immediate, so real, that I started to dread their future. I started rooting for an alternative time line. I wanted them to turn right instead of left and escape the doom hurtling at them. In my opinion, that is extremely good writing.
Ironically, Higginbotham’s extreme historical exactitude has occasionally hurt her in the reviews of her book at Amazon. Some reviewers have griped that the characters were too “unlikeable” or were presented too “differently” than they were in “other accounts”. This drove me slightly bananas, since it is the “other accounts” that are based on flawed research while Higginbotham’s information comes from sources like Ives, Loades, Porter, and Whitelock. A historian such Eric Ives has damn few equals and NO superiors, so any data that contradicts his research should be regarded with profound suspicion and much peer-reviewed fact checking.
In short, I highly and unreservedly recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction or the Tudor time period. Even if her writing style is not entirely your cup of tea, you will be able to appreciate the meticulous quality of the research.