Aged only thirteen, Lady Eleanor de Clare is contracted into marriage by her father to Hugh le Despenser in order to pay a debt. Though nervous, especially on her wedding night, she and Hugh quickly fall in love. When her brother dies, Eleanor comes into a much greater inheritance than she or her comparatively lower status husband ever expected. As the niece of the king, Eleanor places Hugh in a position of great power and as he begins to take advantage of that, Eleanor’s loyalty is tested as she discovers what it’s like to be the wife of a traitor and the beloved niece of a failed king.
This is one big, thick book. I liked that each chapter heading had the months and years covered because otherwise it would have been difficult to keep track of just how much time passes between events and there is a handy guide to all of the historical figures right at the beginning of the book. This is necessary to cover Eleanor’s life and relations. The author keeps to the more interesting parts, so while the book is long, the plot doesn’t bog down even when it moves more slowly and it isn’t too hard to keep track of who is who.
By the end, I grew quite fond of the characters, particularly Eleanor. I found it impossible to like Hugh though. I know way too much about what he did, and I’m sure my opinion of him is colored by a particular professor’s attitude, to ever feel much sympathy for him. I did feel sorry for Eleanor. To me, it seems perfectly logical that Hugh would hide his nefarious doings from his wife, especially given they didn’t see each other all that often once he became powerful.
I was surprised by feeling sorry for Edward II. I always have to some extent but never considered what his personality may have been like, mostly just thought of him as a very poor king. In any case, I could still feel for Eleanor and understand why she loved such men, which I thought was quite impressive considering I formed my opinion of these particular historical figures years ago. I did find one of her acts particularly unlikely and a little off-putting, but given the author says in the end note that there was a rumor about it at the time, I can’t argue with it except to say that if I was Eleanor I would NOT have done that. There was another rumor that I was hoping wouldn’t turn up, but it did. I know this is horribly vague, but I don’t want to give the story away. I can say that from what I know, Susan Higginbotham has done a terrific job with historical accuracy, and even if I squirm away from certain things or wouldn’t include them personally, there is basis for all of them. There is also one of those author’s notes which I love so much at the back of the book explaining what’s real and what’s not.
So, now that I’ve ranted on about history, did I actually like the book? Yes, I did. It’s excellent for a historical saga and if you’re interested in medieval England in fiction, I’d highly recommend this work. Convincing characters, historical accuracy, deep plot with a fair share of scandal and excitement that kept my attention despite being long and familiar; this book is historical fiction worth reading.
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