Book Review: The Colour of Treason by S. M. Harrison
A Studied Look at the Kingmaker
‘They have but two rulers in England:
Monsieur de Warwick and another whose
name I have forgotten.’
The Governor of Abbeville, Letter
written March 1464 to King Louis XI, King of France
For those familiar with the major players within the Wars of the Roses, the epigraph for S.M. Harrison’s The Colour of Treason will be rather telling. Fought during the 15th century, this series of dynastic wars set Yorkists against Lancastrians in an ongoing bid for the throne of England. At the time of which Harrison writes, Henry VI (Lancaster) has been succeeded by Edward, a charismatic leader who inherited his father’s claim to the throne following the latter’s death at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. The novel opens eight years after Edward has realized what his father, Richard, Duke of York, died pursuing.
The younger Plantagenet, now Edward IV, by this point has spent most of his reign defending his throne. Henry’s queen, Marguerite d’Anjou, bitterly opposes the king and obsessively chases after the crown, which she believes to be the birthright of her young son, Edouard. Owing to her husband’s bouts with insanity, she had at times ruled in the king’s place, and also led Lancastrian factions when waging war to keep or reclaim her family’s position. Now, however, she sits in exile, a status reflected by her appearance only later in the book.
King Edward’s position is not as secure as one would hope, in part thanks to Marguerite’s relentless aim to unseat him. He has had, though, a strong alliance with his cousin Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who would be known later in history as “Warwick the Kingmaker.” Warwick, the most powerful nobleman and military commander of his time, and second only to the king in wealth, attempted to negotiate a treaty with the French to secure a bride for Edward, only to learn the king had secretly married a widow, Elizabeth Wydville. This duplicity, as well as the rank nepotism that now pervades the court, incites Warwick’s great ire, leading to a split between the cousins as well as events that color the lives and fates of Elizabeth Hardacre and her York-supporting family.
Awakened in the night by clattering horse hooves chased by the roar of thunder, Elizabeth spies a mysterious visitor, none other than a Warwick messenger who has her mother, Lady Catherine, on edge. As Sir John de Laverton explains her family’s now-precarious position, linked to letters authored by her father Sir Robert, Elizabeth experiences conflicting emotions for the knight and is bewildered by her mother’s ill treatment of the midnight visitor. Mysterious words of past events from her nurse as well as her mother intrigue Elizabeth, though she learns nothing save that her father is now suspected of treason. Without explanation, Elizabeth is sent to live with her cousin, Matthew, realizing later that she is essentially hostage to Warwick’s endeavors to route out her father’s intentions. Warwick’s actions result from his attempt to ensure Sir Robert Hardacre maintains co-operation for the safety of his daughter.
Elizabeth, initially believing she will be wed to her cousin, conflicts with him, his lack of fortitude and Laverton, who appears to play the role of her jailer, albeit a familiar one. Disgusted by his drunken and lascivious habits, the girl attempts to expel her simultaneous attraction to him, determining she will escape in order to seek out her father, imprisoned by the Earl of Warwick. In so doing she carries out a semi-premeditated crime, commencing life on the run as a felon.
In only one other work of fiction has this reviewer read of a woman making her way through the crime-infested nighttime roads and forests of 16th century England. While it surely must have occurred, portraying it presents a challenge in that predictable outcomes stand a high chance of falling victim to the stereotypical, whilst the opposite might smack of the fantastical. Harrison wisely chooses the middle way in allowing Elizabeth to be captured, though she must learn to be comfortable with deception as a travel mate.
Just then he noticed her. She was well camouflaged in her dark green cloak against the bark of the trees. She looked almost like a young sapling, at one with the forest. Her hair was the colour of autumn and it fell in waves about her shoulders.
Shortly before Thomas Conyers catches up to Elizabeth, he wonders if she might be a witch, so deftly does she unify with the forest and escape him. Given what we know of this era, it is a reasonable contemplation to assign to a character, but Harrison declines to rely on this typecast, instead portraying Elizabeth as a liar by necessity. She has, after all, had time in life to develop a colorful imagination, and her time on the lam surely has been used wisely by coming up with a cover story.
As events move on Elizabeth, becoming more and more entangled with people and places, manages to make contact with Warwick, though not in the way she might have anticipated. Rather than perceiving him as enemy to herself and her family, she both acts out her own will—questioning all that she knew and believed before—and is submerged into events that color what and how she sees, as “a shudder ripple[s] through her. . . like a wave lapping at the shore, a tide demanding to be turned by the moon.” Questioning herself, she wonders:
Were they not similar, Warwick and her? They both had secrets they could not divulge. . .his eyes held a light within them all of their own, like moonlight reflected on a dark lake[.]
Throughout the novel Harrison utilizes color to itself color how moments and events are perceived and even foretold. At one point Warwick caresses “a mutinous autumn-coloured curl from her cheek”; later he remembers how Edward the ungrateful king has ignored and embarrassed him, and that his chronic lack of gratitude causes him to forget Warwick and all he has accomplished.
He saw the green of the grass turn to black and the twilight turn to darkness and he wondered how his discord with Edward had come to this. How had the youth who had relied on him after the death of his father come to despise him so much? How could he have forgotten that it was Warwick who had saved his life after the route at Ludford by whisking him away to safety at his fortress of Calais?. . . [He let] the white rose fall from his hand. As he did so he noticed that it had pricked him; a single drop of red blood bubbled on his thumb.
Indeed the novel very much promotes Warwick as a sympathetic character, a portrait that elicits mixed feelings: the earl fails to recognize or appreciate his power in terms of its influence and responsibility he must bear as the holder of authority; instead he deflects a great deal of that responsibility and his selfish actions hurt many of those around him, including his little daughter Anne. As Clarence also is portrayed as rather bumbling—sometimes almost comically so within miniature tragedies—Warwick is prone to collect on the moment and seems to sometimes enjoy his son-in-law’s failures. Having said that, it is easy to admire Harrison’s adroit management of Warwick’s emotions, conceits, hurts, anger, shortcomings and desires. She presents aspects of the Kingmaker, more individual and emotive sides often lost beneath tales of ambition as well as the clatter and anonymity of Barnet weaponry and chaos. The repulsion and attraction Elizabeth feels for him remembers that for Jack de Laverton and her own confusion and guilt.
In the end, much of what so many characters predicted comes to pass and Elizabeth accedes to their judgments. Too much tragedy has occurred within Elizabeth’s own sphere, and she has witnessed the corruption of power. Like so much else, including her emotions, what colors treason and other acts of men engages a heartbreaking duality in which beauty and monstrosity both reside. It brings her to a place in which she must make a devastating choice, and the favor of one shall destroy the other.
The Colour of Treason, winner of the indieBRAG medallion, is followed by a sequel, A Rose of England, which continues Elizabeth’s narrative and answers some of the questions raised hitherto, including that of what her mother knew and what secrets motivate Higgins. As enrapturing as this novel is, and how successfully Harrison brings readers to examine Warwick on a deeper level, it is very likely they will not want to miss the rest of his complex story.