A brilliant re-telling of a life that other lives conveniently forgot.
Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House)
First Published: 2007
Date Reviewed: 16th September 2010
Lady Jane Grey, the great-niece of Henry VIII, was executed on 12th February 1554. A puppet at the hands of her elders, she was abused by her parents and shown little care all her short life, being set up as queen against the rightful succession for the welfare of those very people who abused her. She “ruled” as queen for nine days having been forced to take the title by her power-driven father-in-law, before being arrested and made to suffer the pain of waiting while her second-cousin, the rightful queen, attempted to have her set free.
Weir has the story narrated by various people, those associated with Jane in some way, and of course Jane herself. Weir uses this device in order to give full details of what was happening so that you hear the story from different view points and can gather a lot of the evidence avaliable from different sources. Where Jane’s information is lacking Weir switches to her nurse, and where the nurse is stuck at home with her mistress Weir turns to the Dudleys.
There is a single point that I find cause for debate with, and it is not so much to do with the story as the author herself so I will deal with it first. Because much of Jane’s life was included in those of Katherine Parr and Elizabeth I’s, much of the narrative is very similar to that of Weir’s later book, The Lady Elizabeth (which I do not hesitate to admit that I read first), and also her non-fictional account of the heirs of Henry VIII, Children Of England. In literal terms this could not be helped and it is understandable that, being a lover of Tudor history, Weir would want to write about all three women, but the stories are too similar. So the question is, was it a good idea for Weir to produce three books that, in part, deal with the same subject? The case for the books is that the accounts are each told from different points of view, so in that way to read all three means you gain a very good understanding of events. The case against is that it reads a bit like a cut and paste job. Weir hasn’t reused the same phrases but the problem is that for the most part she may as well have because of the similarity.
It’s difficult to review objectively a book that deals with a very real and very terrible subject, so it’s just as well that Weir has produced a book that had me angry for good reason, and emotionally involved. As Weir reminds us, Mary was not disposed to kill Jane but when the Spanish ambassador said that her husband-to-be would not go to England unless she did, she relented. It’s horrifying to read, because even if the dialogue of the scene is fiction the basis is factual. It’s abhorrent to think that Mary put her husband-to-be before Jane’s life even if you can understand somewhat that she was afraid that to lose him would mean no marriage or children from her; because Mary didn’t want to lose the power to change the faith back from Protestant to Catholic. We all know that in truth Mary was an incredibly mislaid Catholic for believing Protestants needed burning, but the case of Jane versus Catholicism is just disgusting. Unfortunately it happened and there’s nothing we could have done about it. And all that for a man who was constantly unfaithful, uncaring, scheming, and evidently only Catholic in name.
And religion is something you definitely find yourself thinking about, towards the end of the book especially. The monologues regarding religion demonstrate the lack of thought both denominations had regarding the ways to God. Both sides consider themselves the true faith but did either really have a right to the claim? In essence very few truly practiced what they preached, and it wasn’t just a case of being lax in their Christian duties.
Something Weir causes you to do is re-assess Guilford Dudley. She tells you about the cruel ways in which he treated Jane, which may or may not be true but if not certainly would have mapped to other ways, and then shows his remorse. Guilford was unfortunately a product of his parents and it took the threat of death to change his actions towards Jane. In Guilford and Jane we see where a path has forked – Jane has dealt with her neglectful parents in a mature manner, whereas spoiled yet subtly neglected Guilford is a mess.
As she does later, in The Lady Elizabeth, Weir peppers the text with lots of factual bites, but you can tell in the way that it’s done, like dialogue, that Weir wants to impart as much factual knowledge as possible. This the book read more like a non-fiction so that, effectively, what you’ve got here is a factual book disguised.
Weir takes the chance, while the story is less harrowing, to inject some humour into the it to lighten the mood, but she never strays from fact which means that the laughs you will find are ones the people of the time would also have shared. For example, Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Anne of Cleves post haste because he found she smelt bad and was overall unattractive to him – but he was very upset when she agreed without pause that that was a good idea. It’s also fun to read the description of Jane Seymour by Frances Brandon, whether factual or not, who describes her as “that pale witless milksop”. In addition to these snippets you get to hear what the servants thought of their masters, and of course as they were actually normal people (for can you really say the sheep-like nobles with their disloyal ways would make preferable companions?), it’s very interesting. The servants were the satirical reporters of the day.
Children are often head strong and inclined to speaks their minds, and perhaps none more so than the young kings of old. Although King Edward VI is part of the background cast, Weir provides through him a very good source of the nature of privileged children in those times, including all the thoughts a nine-year-old boy would have given his thirty-year-old sister regarding the redemption of her soul. Of course the young king wasn’t always obeyed, and in fact had a tendency to be stroppy.
I know people speak in hushed whispers of young brides dead within a year of their wedding, or of mothers of large families cruelly taken from them.
Speaking of children, Weir doesn’t shy from providing accounts of childbirth, indeed there are at least three included in the book of varying success. Childbirth was fraud with danger in Tudor times and it makes you think how far we’ve come, yet also reminds you that many places in the world still suffer, which is crazy really because medicine has come so far.
Weir’s style of writing is compelling without being difficult to put down for a while. In my opinion her best moment is in the final pages where she moves between the point of view of Jane and her executioner. But she makes a few errors that should have been picked up on, most noticeably saying that baby Mary Grey went to bed with Katherine while they were in Oxford – after saying Mary had been left at home. This isn’t a problem however, and it’s perhaps a reason to be thankful that she made the error there where historical fact wasn’t imperative to know.
In a bad time and a bad place there lived many awful and self-righteous people who would give their daughter’s happiness for their own promotion. Lady Jane Grey’s story is an all too often but very important one and Weir has produced a work worthy of the time you may want to dedicate to her.