Last year, I read Succession, a true breath of fresh air given my slightly masochistic tendency to lurch from one piece of bad historical fiction to the other. I felt that this was one of the most under-rated books of 2014, perhaps unsurprising given Michael’s tendency to focus less on the drama and more on the people, but that is what makes her approach so appealing. It is hard as a reader to relate to the wider machinations around the overthrow of a government but it is far easier to sympathise with the characters summoned forward by Michael. They may possess less nobility of spirit than their Shakespearean counterparts, they may even speak with less articulacy but they are more human and more fallible and far more believable.
I was not sure at the end of Succession whether a sequel was intended and was delighted to discover that it was – even more so when the author asked me personally if I would like to receive a copy as she had so enjoyed my review of the first volume. In many ways Rebellion is a direct continuation of its elder sibling, continuing with the pattern of referring to chronicles and expanding on chance words or phrases to breathe life into these people long-dead. Once again, Margarets Beaufort and Anjou are struggling to protect their sons from the conflict, yet while both go down in history as hard-faced harridans with unhealthy obsessions with their offspring, once again Michael dials down the drama. Margaret Beaufort is the woman who only has one child and knows that she will never have any more, it is no strange thing that she longs for her son but what Michael traces masterfully is how the changing tides of fortune repeatedly thwart her desperate attempts for a reunion. When at last she has him before her once more, he is out of his boyhood and beyond wishing to be held in his mother’s arms and the dull thud with which Margaret realises this is devastating in its simplicity. She has lost him once and for all.
The quietly shrivelled Henry VI watches his wife and feels a sadness that she cannot simply let go of monarchy as he has done. For Margaret of Anjou herself, we sense a detachment from reality, a feeling that this cannot have happened. Indeed, as the fallen queen struggles through the undergrowth, beset by robbers, it is hard to see how much lower she can go. Michael is not looking to create a historical romance, so that when the brigand thinks better of himself and decides to save the queen and her son, he speaks too quickly for Margaret to understand, but she comprehends his intention and is relieved. To have gone from sitting on a throne at court to cowering in a cave is quite a tumble and Margaret is a woman struggling and failing to regain her footing throughout the novel – we sense her loss as each of the people who seemed able to offer a chance of something solid once more are snatched from her and the final disaster feels like a kick too far. Michael may perhaps take a step into bodice-ripper territory along the way, but yet one cannot help wishing some kind of comfort for this woman who circumstance cast adrift.
In contrast to Shakespeare and the many, many writers who have stuffed their own words into the mouths of these characters, Michael grants silence in her interpretation. The Duke of Somerset walks to his death with his ‘mind emptied suddenly like an upturned bowl’. Time and again we return to the mundane – this is not epic fantasy as in Game of Thrones, these are real people and somehow they are granted a dignity here which has been denied them in other imaginings more concerned with the hullaballoo than the history. There is a strong theme of regret in Rebellion, with the reader being granted access to those night-time thoughts that creep in during the dark hours and ward away any chance of sleep. Margaret Beaufort feels ashamed that she did not reach out to her husband upon realising his secret. She is guilt-ridden for the mistakes she made that put obstacles between herself and her son. The Duke of Somerset frets over his betrayal. The Earl of Warwick is horrified at what his ambition has driven his family to, listening to his daughter keening in her labour below decks, knowing that they cannot save her child. Edward IV has everything he wants and yet he feels unutterably alone. There is no triumph born from rebellion.
Both Michael’s novels have been like intricate papercuts, incredible in their detail. From brief sentences in medieval chronicles, she hatches and extrapolates whole characters. Even those opaque figures such as the Duke of Somerset are lent a voice and a motive. Yet it is the poignancy of these isolated moments where we are all alone with our thoughts and self-recriminations which is what makes her work most distinctive. We listen as Edward IV lies abed and mourns Somerset’s betrayal, having wanted to convince himself that they were truly friends. Yet it is his regrets over his wife that were most thought-provoking for me; historical romance would have us believe that Edward and Elizabeth Woodville had a marriage of true love as surely he could have had no other motivation for marrying someone so very far beneath his dignity, but here Michael implies that it was a mutual mis-step. Elizabeth Woodville calculates and sets out to catch a king, becoming an Anne Boleyn figure. Years into their marriage, Edward reflects unhappily that in the case of most royal couples, they begin as strangers and then fall in love whereas in his own union, he had been in love with her and she now seemed a stranger. The Woodvilles were notorious for their scheming and their infiltration of government, is it really so much to suggest that this thirst for control cooled the royal marriage?
Rebellion did have a feel of a book in need of a sequel, ending on a cliffhanger as events seem ready to take a turn for Margaret Beaufort. What has always struck me is how the women of the Wars of the Roses were badly-served by the chronicles of that era which then overshadowed how they were ever portrayed in stories, right down to modern historical fiction. Margaret of Anjou was painted as a savage tyrant, as she had to be so that the people of England would not want her back. Margaret Beaufort also became a frosty figure because it was impossible to fit her into the template of a romantic heroine – so she had to be the antagonist. So it was heartening to read this portrayal which sees them instead as two mothers who loved their sons and whose experiences of motherhood were thwarted by the Wars of the Roses. Margaret of Anjou watches as the Battle of Tewkesbury begins, frozen in panic as she tries to remember whether she did say to her son that she loved him or if she only said it in her heart. Margaret Beaufort has to let her son go or lose his affection forever but we sense her broken heart as he chooses warfare over her. Neither woman is as bloodthirsty as chronicles recorded, making it all the more poetic that it is by the use of chronicles that Michael has once more rendered them human. I can’t wait for the next instalment.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Penguin UK on August 13th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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