While the Wars of the Roses ripped through England in the 15th century, two women in particular held the future of the land in their hands, even if one, at least, might have thought herself as powerless as a lamb in a wolf pen. Margaret of Anjou is the Queen and sometime regent of Henry VI, a sickly, righteous and occasionally insane king, whose illness and the emotional paralysis it inflicts is largely responsible for the division within his family, now split along Lancastrian and Yorkist lines. Margaret, at least as she is portrayed here, is more than up for the task of holding the dynasty together for the sake of her young son. If only she were permitted to take to the battlefield. Margaret Beaufort may be just a child but, because she is fatherless and the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt (the son of Edward III), she is fiercely fought over by men with their own eyes on the vulnerable throne. By the age of thirteen she had already had two husbands and had given birth to Henry Tudor, known to history as Henry VII.
In Succession, Livi Michael tells the stories of both Margarets, jumping from one to another, usually swiftly but sometimes leisurely, surrounding each with the experiences of other significant figures. Chief among these are William, the Earl of Suffolk, his wife Alice Chaucer, Richard, the Duke of York and his wife Cecily Neville, both partnerships circling the King and his Queen. The Tudors and the Suffolk dynasties likewise play an important role in the life of Margaret Beaufort.
Every chapter includes extracts from contemporary chronicles, giving the narrative a timeline, describing events, such as unrest in the towns and countryside, the movement of nobles or forces, conflict with the French, the fate of key individuals, the acts of Parliament, and much more. These extracts sometimes replace the depiction of certain events in the novel and the book’s ‘chronicle feel’ is heightened by the chapter headings and the jumps from scene to scene, location to location.
There are some fine moments here, especially in the scenes where the Queen tries to evoke a response from her damaged husband, but for me the most memorable chapters are those dealing with the young child Margaret Beaufort, her relationship with her nurse, her bond with her husbands and her extreme predicament. She’s not necessarily likeable, just as the Queen isn’t likeable, these are women who belong very much in their time and circumstances, but it is hard not to feel something for this child.
There are issues for a modern reader in the depiction of Margaret Beaufort. Child marriage and a child giving birth are not subjects I can read with ease, especially when described with the detail that they are here. The fact that such things did happen doesn’t make them easier to read.
The narrative technique provides a fascinating overview of this historical period and England’s fall into war, not just with France but also with itself, but at times I think it is at the expense of the reader’s empathy with the characters. As the novel progresses, its narrative is shared among an increasing number of protagonists, with the tense and perspective rapidly changing. The reader is distanced due to this authoritative and overtly omniscient style. Its advantage, though, lies in enabling the reader to feel that he or she is a witness of history at one of its most extraordinary times.
The Wars of the Roses is a popular trend at the moment in historical fiction and Succession provides a very different perspective and stance to others I have read. As such it makes a fine contribution to a genre I just can’t get enough of.
My interview with Livi Michael