Hugh and Bess by Susan Higginbotham
Published July 2009 by Sourcebooks, originally published 2007
Review copy provided by the author/publisher
The Burton Review Rating:
I had saved this review so that I could post it close to Valentine's Day, as it is a perfect read to celebrate love. Hugh and Bess is the medieval story of two people who were not a love match at first sight. Young Bess Montagu expected to marry high due to her father's (William Montacute, 1st Earl of Salisbury) high standing in the royal ranks. She never expected to have to marry a man whose very name of Despenser was known as traitorous, due to both Hugh's father and grandfather having been executed at Queen Isabella's orders in 1326. But Hugh was working hard to restore his family name, and he knew it would please the king and himself to marry someone so close to royal favor. Hugh at 32 was also much older than Bess was; she was 14 and had naturally been hoping for a match that would be with someone closer to her age (and rank). We learn about Hugh's upbringing and the effects of being a traitor's son, and we meet Bess at a very young age as she is growing up within an exalted family.
"Forced to marry Hugh le Despenser, the son and grandson of disgraced traitors, Bess de Montacute, just 13 years old, is appalled at his less-than-desirable past. Meanwhile, Hugh must give up the woman he really loves in order to marry the reluctant Bess. Far apart in age and haunted by the past, can Hugh and Bess somehow make their marriage work?
Just as walls break down and love begins to grow, the merciless plague endangers all whom the couple holds dear, threatening the life and love they have built.
Award-winning author Susan Higginbotham's impeccable research will delight avid historical fiction readers, and her enchanting characters will surely capture every reader's heart. Fans of her first novel, The Traitor's Wife, will be thrilled to find that this story follows the next generation of the Despenser family."
As Susan tells it, the marriage was rough for a year so, and then especially so when Bess found her trusted friend in bed with her husband. Emma had become Bess's friend after she had been Hugh's mistress for years before he had married, which is something Bess had not known. Somehow, they got past the infidelity and fell in love with each other. They soon had a happy marriage, although childless. Sadly, the ending is not quite a happy one, and as I finished the story I had to struggle to maintain my composure. The beginning of the story started off with more of the historical facts of the times, where there were uprisings between the factions for Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, versus those who were for the king. The history lessons abate as we get more into the marriage between Hugh and Bess. The history and the marriage are very interesting (perhaps in reality the marriage wasn't all that interesting) and even in the author's note we learn that the story still has so much more to tell.
I truly enjoyed this charming medieval love story, and however much is fictitious as far as the "love" part may be, it doesn't detract from the amount of historical detail that Susan imparts. I would see this as an excellent introduction to the years circa 1335 in England. There is quite a bit of information on the Edward the II and the III and many historical figures were also mentioned. There are not a multitude of encyclopedic facts to weigh the main story down, so those who have no idea about those particular years in England need not fear of being lost in the details. I would have liked to see a genealogical chart, as I always enjoy those; both Hugh Despenser and Bess each had enough siblings that could have gotten confusing. I truly enjoyed the characterizations of the two main characters, and I always wonder how true to life my historical reads are. I would hate to be disappointed but there doesn't seem to be alot of information available online as far as this particular Despenser. I am certainly intrigued enough to browse around for some other reads of the time period, such as Queen Isabella by Alison Weir which has been on my shelf for almost two years now.
Hugh and Bess: A Love Story by Susan Higginbotham is a fast and fun historical piece of work that I recommend to anyone who enjoys their history with a lot of love, romance and entertainment. Even though a love story, it also had its share of stark reality, such as the poignant scenes owing to the Black Death. This was my first Susan Higginbotham novel, but it won't be my last. Her wit and subtle humor shine through in this telling, and it helps to make this an easy read. Although this novel stands alone, Susan's earlier novel The Traitor's Wife, focuses on Hugh's father. The Stolen Crown: A Novel of the Wars of the Roses will be published in March 2010. Although the writing style is still with the same easy wit, The Stolen Crown is steeped with much more historical detail and not as quick a read as this one. Visit Susan's blog for more of her insights. And for Edward II facts I must mention Alianore's blog, because she has some very in depth essays there which are quite fun to peruse.
I will be reviewing Susan's The Stolen Crown on its release date March 1, and Susan is scheduled to be here March 9, 2010 with a guest blog, so be sure to check back to read about more Medieval History! (giveaway alert!!)