Longtime history author Alison Weir has taken on one of the more tragic tales of Tudor kings and queens in her latest work, Innocent Traitor, which takes a close look at the Nine Days Queen, Lady Jane Grey.
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The story starts with two women in childbirth. The first is a highborn lady, Frances Grey, who is desperately wishing for a son after her first two children have died. But it's a girl, and Frances has nothing but disappointment and bitterness for the child, and is more than happy to give her over to the care of a nurse, Mrs. Ellen. The other woman is none other than Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour, who finally gives birth to the King's prayed for son, Edward. But Queen Jane dies within weeks of her child's birth, and Frances notes that there might be a link between the two infant children, and she names her daughter Jane in honor of the late queen.
We first see Jane through the eyes of her mother, and Mrs. Ellen. Mrs. Ellen is devoted to her charge, and tries to make life as bearable as possible for Jane, who not only is precociously bright, but is subjected to physical abuse by her parents, and at best, indifference. Both Frances and her husband, Henry Grey, the Marquess of Dorset, are ruthlessly ambitious and see their daughter as something to use, and treat her with behavior that today would be called mental and emotional abuse. Frances in particular sees nothing wrong with slapping, pinching and whipping her daughter whenever poor Jane makes a mistake, and the only time the child has any comfort is when she travels to the King's court.
It's here that the novel starts to fall into place. Young Jane, with her Tudor colouring of red hair and grey blue eyes is a favorite of her great-uncle, the king, and his last wife, the scholarly Katherine Parr. Jane finds in the Queen a kindred spirit and a kindly woman who only wants Jane to be happy. For Jane, it is a blessed respite from the torments of her family home, and she also makes the aquaitance of the king's two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Mary is ferverently Catholic and while she treats Jane kindly, Jane is more than a little wary of her. Elizabeth is bold, clever and Jane finds that she can discuss politics and philosophy with her, but also finds that she's far more risk taking, especially when King Henry dies, and Queen Katherine starts turning her attention to a former suitor, Thomas Seymour.
Thomas Seymour is blindly jealous of his elder brother, now Lord Protector for the new King, a boy of nine years. Thomas not only tries to woo Queen Katherine, but also Mary and Elizabeth, and it seems, even young Jane. But for Jane, he has a different destiny in mind -- a possible wedding to the young king. And Jane finds herself caught up in royal politics, and in lover's secrets, and soon enough is set on a path that will make her a legend...
Despite knowing quite well how Lady Jane's story is going to turn out, I found this to be an exciting read. Alison Weir uses her extensive research into the history and private lives of England's Tudor dynasty to tell a story of family betrayal that is heartbreaking to say the very least. Each person in the story, from Jane, her mother Frances, the Lady Mary, Katherine Parr, the Dudley and Seymour families, and even Mrs. Ellen, has a voice here. Each one is distinct and has their own mannerisms, and we get to see motivations and plots spinning. Weir also focuses on just enough details to set the mood, but sometimes overuses a phrase -- courtiers, for example, are nearly always "peacock" -- but also takes care not to let the story itself get lost in the trivia.
But if the reader thinks that this is a dry read, it's not. That's what I was surprised with, and Weir keeps the story moving at a rapid pace, shifting point of view from one character to another. At times the story gets dizzying and at first the use of first-person-narrative for the voice gets hard to keep track of. It's not an easy style to use, but Weir manages to pull it off, and by the middle to the end of the story, I had hardly any trouble with it at all.
Summing up, if you want an exciting historical novel with a heroine who actually lived, I would suggest this one. While it doesn't have actual romance to it, or at least romance that isn't being motivated by polical scheming, it does have plenty of plot to chew over. Jane may come off as a little, self-righteous prig by the end of the story, but you can still feel sympathy for her right up to the very end.
Two nonfiction biographies about Lady Jane Grey and her family have been published, one by Mary M. Luke, and the other by Alison Plowden. There has also been a film, Lady Jane that takes some liberties with the relationship between Jane and Guilford Dudley, but is also very close in feel to the book.
Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey
2006; Ballantine Books
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