Staff Publication: Hugh and Bess

Written by Susan Higginbotham
Review by Heather Domin

Susan Higginbotham’s debut novel The Traitor’s Wife told the story of Eleanor, wife of Hugh le Despenser, intimate of King Edward II and casualty of Queen Isabella. Now the Despenser story continues in Susan’s second novel, Hugh and Bess. This book tells the story of Eleanor and Hugh’s son, the younger Hugh, and his marriage to Elizabeth “Bess” de Montacute—a love story almost thwarted by a vast age difference, ghosts from the past, and the harsh reality of life in the 14th century.

When 13-year-old Bess is informed of her betrothal to the 32-year-old Hugh, she is less than thrilled. Bess has no wish to marry someone from such a tainted family, to be shipped off to live in disgrace in “a horrid place full of dead Despensers.” Hugh himself is not keen on wedding a child, not to mention giving up the woman he loves to do so. Both submit to the wishes of their families and their king, but the odds are stacked against them—as time passes, however, a true and lasting love grows between this unlikely pair, a love that endures past disgraces, present betrayals, and future tragedies.

At the close of The Traitor’s Wife, Eleanor advises her son to marry, and here we see that counsel come to fruition as Hugh finds love and redemption after an unspeakably cruel youth. Yet this story is also that of Bess, a young woman coming of age, experiencing her first love, and finding her place in the world. Like Eleanor, Bess flowers from a side note of history to a real woman with her own flaws and virtues.

Susan admits to a bit of “second novel syndrome” while writing Hugh and Bess: “I had a hard time settling on a topic to write about, and once I did, I found it harder to avoid things that distracted me.” Writing new characters also presented new challenges: “With Bess, all I knew was the bare genealogical data and the lands that she held. That gave me a lot of freedom in creating her character.”

Will there be future stories from the Despenser family tree? “I’m intrigued by the 13th-century Hugh le Despenser who served as justiciar to Simon de Montfort’s government,” Susan says. “I might well revisit the Despenser family.” No matter what the topic, her readers are sure to be pleased.