Amazon link for the book is here.
Susan Higginbotham weaves a familiar Tudor tale but uses unusual voices as her narrators, namely Jane Dudley, the Duchess of Northumberland, and Frances Grey, the Duchess of Suffolk, two women who are rarely given a voice in other fictional portrayals of the time from Edward VI to Mary I. Through these women and their children, we get a quite different view of the story. From the coronation and untimely death of Edward, to the coronation of Jane Grey, to the eventual reign and revenge of Mary, this book tells the story strictly from the perspectives of these two women, wives, duchesses, and mothers that they were.
In using these narrators, the reader gets a novel take on events. I particularly enjoyed the depictions of John Dudley and Frances Grey, which deliberately countered the typical portrayals that exist in novels. In most books, John Dudley is made out to be the ultimate villain – a cruel manipulator of the young boy king, religious zealot, and voraciously ambitious traitor – Higginbotham treats him very differently. She details his strong affection for and devotion to his wife and children, his deep loyalty to the king, his concern for the people, and his enduring friendship for his boyhood friend and current political rival Edward, Duke of Somerset. Even his last minute conversion to Catholicism is shown as an act of compassion for his children rather than the futile attempt to save his own neck, as readers are typically told.
Frances Grey is often portrayed as a callous, unstable woman, who with the assistance of her conniving husband, is willing to do anything, including physical abuse, to propel her daughter all the way to the throne. Often described as a woman of more beauty than intelligence, Frances is frequently presented as heartless, cruel, fiendish, and power hungry. Higginbotham throws this image on its face, showing Frances as a self-conscious woman who struggles to make a bond with a scholarly daughter who is her father’s favorite, a self-important and overly opinionated girl who spurns her mother and mouths off without much thought of the consequences. This Frances is married to a man of wealth and intellect who has everything but common sense, and Frances is compelled to follow the king’s wishes for her oldest daughter, rather than being the author of them. After members of her family die on the block, she is not depicted as the wonton woman who sneaks off with a servant, rather she is shown as one who grabs her chance for a happy marriage, one that will keep her safe and far away from the throne and politics of the court.
Higginbotham gives us a fresh perspective and does not create these new personas out of thin area; in fact, her careful research provides ample support for her theories, which makes the book all the more interesting. I like it when an author goes against an established norm, putting the character in a fresh light and allowing the character a new, perhaps more accurate, voice. It is far easier for an author to reinforce a cliché, having the character play the same, tired role over and over again, than to creatively reimagine the reasoning behind a person’s motivation. For a retelling of this well-known tale in a new way, I think this book is a great choice.