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Book Review: Her Highness the Traitor

Keeping Up with the Tudors

Her Highness the Traitor

by Susan Higginbotham

Sourcebooks Landmark, 2012

Anyone who’s watched Trevor Nunn’s delightfully overwrought 1986 film Lady Jane will remember Frances Grey, the Duchess of Suffolk, from one brutal scene: confronting her daughter Jane and demanding that she marry Guildford Dudley, the fourth son of the powerful Duke of Northumberland, Lady Frances makes it clear to her daughter that if she doesn’t comply with the match, she’ll be whipped into submission. Not whipped metaphorically, with stern words or withheld meals, but whipped with a horsewhip. And not whipped by servants or hired hands – whipped by her own mother, Lady Frances herself. Jane continues to refuse, and Lady Frances (played perfectly, with a dead face and a startling muscularity, by Sarah Kestelman) proceeds to whip her half dead. It’s an exhausting, harrowing little scene, and it’s very likely a slander, although one of long derivation. Centuries of history have tended to portray the Duchess of Suffolk as a cruel, scheming mother when there’s virtually no historical evidence for it, beyond the fact that she was a professional Tudor courtier – one of the hardest breeds of human ever developed.

Lady Frances was also something more than a courtier: she herself was royal, the daughter of Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII. When Henry was succeeded by his son Edward VI, Lady Frances stood third in line to the throne, behind Edward’s two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. The Duke of Northumberland stood high in Edward’s favor, and whether through scheming on his part or Edward’s, the succession was altered to favor not Lady Frances but her daughter Jane, who became very briefly the ill-fated Queen Jane upon Edward’s death.

Susan Higginbotham has set her latest historical novel, Her Highness the Traitor squarely in the middle of these years of turmoil, and the book is fantastic. Higginbotham has written a handful of historical novels, and all of them are quite good (The Queen of Last Hopes in particular), but this may be the best thing she’s ever done.

She splits the narration of her story between the two women at the heart of all this political jockeying: chapter-viewpoints switch off between Lady Frances and Jane Dudley, the wife of the Duke of Northumberland. And she very refreshingly opts to tell a story virtually devoid of outright villains – instead, she gives us complex (if sometimes foolish or venal) human beings striving to advance and protect their families. Her men are often hapless, strutting figures, but it’s the women who command this book – not just the two duchesses, but the whole vast female constellation of which they’re a part: Dowager Queen Katherine Parr, the princesses Mary and Elizabeth, the noble wives, the newborn baby girls, the ladies in waiting. Higginbotham does a superb job of conveying both the pleasures and the riddling uncertainties of the life these women led, and her Lady Frances is anything but a monster (in the book, she’s startled and dismayed by the idea of her daughter marrying somebody’s fourth son) – instead, she’s a thoughtful, melancholy figure given to momentary flights of whimsy Sarah Kestelman’s version of the character would have disdained:

Had someone told me in the summer of 1552 that it would be the last one I would spend at Bradgate, I surely would have lived it differently. I would not have passed my days indoors, sewing or listening to music or reading or playing cards, for those were things I could do anywhere. Instead, I would have spent my days in our gardens and in our parks, breathing in the sweet fragrance none of our other properties, no matter how grand, could match. I would have sat on the grounds at dusk and watched the rays of the dying sun cast a mellow glow upon the red brick walls of the manor house. I would have taken off my stockings and waded through the cool streams like a young girl, and tried to see if I could balance myself on the thick log that had fallen across one of them.

Jane Dudley has less of a posthumous reputation for brutality than her narrative counterpart (possibly because she was too tired – the woman produced something like 100 Dudley offspring), but even so, she was married to a powerful and (despite the gilding job Higginbotham does here) ruthless man who very likely had his eyes on the throne and at the very least wanted to become Lord Protector of the realm by ousting the previous occupant, the Duke of Somerset – a case could certainly be made that Jane (the daughter of a man who started out life as a provincial nobody) was even more consumed by ambition than her husband. In Her Highness the Traitor, Higginbotham seems almost to tease the reader with this possibility, having Jane Dudley make a point not only of forcing her way to the front of the crowd to watch Somerset’s execution but then immediately going to see Somerset’s wife – not to gloat, as other authors might have had it, but to offer sympathy:

Surrounded by her ladies, Anne Seymour was slumped on a chair, her luxurious brown hair wild around her face. She was not even dressed properly, but was in her nightclothes. “Get out,” she hissed.

“I came to see if you needed anything,” I said, realizing as I spoke how stupid a remark that was. What could I do for her? Resurrect her husband? “I mean, to see if you needed any physic, or some spiritual comfort.”

Anne shook her head vaguely and gathered her robe around her more closely. She seemed to have forgotten she’d ordered me out. “I saw them bring him back just now … There was so much blood. He must have lost most of it on the scaffold, but there was plenty in the cart.” She gave a macabre laugh. “Who knew that a man could hold that much blood? Not me. Now I do. They didn’t even bother to wrap his body in a sheet. Just the head.”

By far the most likely supposition is that none of these people – the husbands or their wives – would actually have warranted our sympathy in real life. But that’s never mattered to novelists, nor should it. The point is, there are stories to tell – stories in their infinite variety. This one has been told half a dozen times in the last few years (including last year’s utterly winning Three Maids for a Crown by Ella May Chase), but not quite like this: Higginbotham uses her dual voices to excellent dramatic effect (readers will naturally plump for a favorite – mine was Jane Dudley, who’s got a flair for caustic comments when the chips are down). This is the quick rise and quick fall of Jane Grey like it’s never been depicted before – readers of Tudor historical fiction should download a copy before the day is much older!

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