While this is another fictional biography of a Tudor royal, this novel is very special because it gives real insight into the shadowy life of Jane Seymour. Her life story, particularly her relatively brief reign as queen, is often glossed over as in the shadow of the more memorable Anne Boleyn. She did the one thing that the other five wives were not able to do, give birth to a son who would survive his father, the difficult and notorious Henry VIII. She has been dismissed as plain, quiet and simple, but it is the achievement of this novel that she is given a real personality as being decisive, brave and willing to risk all for what she believed and who she was loyal to despite real danger. Her family are shown as more than dysfunctional, as her brothers and father persuade her to act to further her ambitions. She was quietly strong, but this book also shows her fears of not only human forces but also the supernatural elements that carried over from the tragedy of her predecessors. Alison Weir’s status as a historian means that this is a novel with a really solid basis in research, and her third novel in this series shows her undoubted ability to paint a story within the framework of fact.
Jane is one of the daughters of John and Margaret Seymour of Wulfhall. She is first seen as a young girl, who has already decided to enter a convent, such is her commitment to the traditional religion of the country. She is not happy with the religious house she first stays in, however, and she is soon drawn back into her family as it deals with a scandal which means the sorrowful exile of her sister in law. She is the one who strives to maintain the children’s contact with their mother, as she comes to understand the complexities of relationships. As she goes to court to serve Katherine, Henry’s first wife, she witnesses at first hand the pressures on women to ‘produce’ sons, and the misery of the discarded queen. She tries to remain loyal to Katherine, but the machinations of her family means that she is forced to join the household of Anne whose star is in the ascendant. Weir draws a touching picture of a young woman whose disbelief that the King has become interested in her is dismissed by her family, as they realise that royal favour can propel their own ambitions. While she genuinely wants a simple life with a husband of her choosing and children, she is increasingly pursed by a king. Her story is well known, but her fear of implicating Anne further and her genuine horror at the execution of so many comes through in this book. While she comes to love Henry, she is frightened of his unpredictable temper. She tries to understand his fear of rebellion, yet feels deeply the plight of Princess Mary. She feels constrained to plead for the religious houses that are being dissolved throughout the country, but her public support of them is humiliatingly dismissed.
The author’s note in this book sets out much about the writing of the novel and the research that forms its basis. Although not much is known about how Jane feels about her rapid progress to wife and mother, Weir succeeds in fleshing out the bare bones of the story from what little is known in a convincing way. I found the account of her last illness especially fascinating, given the little that is known. Weir backs up her assertions well, concerning pregnancies before Edward’s birth and the hasty execution of Anne and the men accused with her. I was not always sure how close Weir got to depicting Jane’s feelings, given the slight distance throughout the novel, but this is a solid depiction of the known facts. It is easy to read, and despite knowing the outcome, I was still drawn to this book for its fascinating narrative.
Northernvicar and I went to the Derby Book Festival yesterday evening to hear Alison Weir talk about this book. As with the evening last year when she spoke about Anne Boleyn, she showed many images of Jane Seymour while speaking about her work on this novel. It was fascinating, especially when she spoke of her research on the death of this queen. Most of her speech is reproduced as the Author’s note in this volume, and it is very interesting. If you have ever wondered about Anne’s successor, this is a very substantial book and an excellent read.