Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Bit Player in Her Own Tale

As I promised to do earlier in the week, I finished Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, just a half-hour ago. (I still think An Innocent Traitor would've been a better title, but whatever). This book is a novel of Lady Jane Grey, the "nine days' queen" who ruled very briefly between Edward VI (son of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour) and Mary I (daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon).

If you're already feeling as though you need a chart to keep all of this shit straight, don't worry. Weir has thoughtfully provided one, along with a map. There are many, many minor players in the story, though, and their relationships to one another and to the main royal line are a little more difficult to keep straight.

The story is a tragic and dramatic tale of ambition, ego and religious intolerance. Jane Grey was the (protestant) niece of Henry VIII, and all ambitions and scheming came to center on her as the young king sickened and lingered near death. The plot required the imprisonment of Mary I (a Catholic) and Elizabeth I (who hadn't really declared a religion), and for Jane's mother to renounce her claim to the throne. Well, it worked for nine days, at any rate. Yet Jane herself remained disinterested in all scheming: all she wanted was to pray and to read. She was but 15 when she came to the throne. She was executed shortly after her 16th birthday, when her father rashly attempted one last power grab in her name, but really on his own behalf.

This is Weir's first attempt at a novel. Most readers will probably recognize her name: she's written ten other books on the Tudor period. I'm interested to read more and to learn where the line between conjecture and fact lies in this novel. The tale of Lady Jane Grey is a riveting one, and is no less riveting for being somewhat poorly told here. Weir breaks the rule drummed into every creative writing student: show, don't tell. We don't see Lady Jane Grey's mother being cruel to her nearly as often as we hear Lady Jane Grey say "My mother is cruel to me." We don't see as many examples of the kindness of Katherine Parr (the last wife of Henry VIII) as we hear how kind she is. Although the story is told in the first person from a variety of points of view (Lady Jane Grey, her nursemaid Mrs. Ellen, her mother Frances Brandon, Katherine Parr, the Duke of Northumberland, etc.), they all sound the same. We have only the blanket pronouncements of others to judge how different they are from one another.

I never did finish my colonial reading thing this summer, but one bit of information I'd already gleaned from it is the fundamental change in values and beliefs going on during that time. The colonial lifestyle represented freedom in the truest sense, freedom from absolute rule by God and by King, and by the wishes of your family. No longer did you have to wait for your father to die to inherit a scrap of land, to go into whatever trade your father chose and your rank dictated, to marry some woman you may have never met before and wouldn't have slept with on a dare just because both of your families deemed it advantageous. You didn't have to worry about being executed for believing that the body and blood of Christ at a mass remained mere wine and bread (as happened to a woman in Innocent Traitor) or even for saying "I think the King may be dying." This book was set during the "before" part of that transformation, and I would've liked to see a real attempt at getting into that mindset. Lady Jane, and most of the rest of the characters, attempted to defy their fates. But there must've been enough compliant people to perpetuate the system. Where are they, in literature or in history? Or did they never exist, do they just look compliant from our long view? Innocent Traitor leaves the reader with these questions, and it will stoke a desire to learn more about this period. Not bad for a not-very-good novel.

1 comment:

prepossessing said...

I am reading this book right now and I am really enjoying it. The concepts of blooding a child during the hunt and the ulcer on Henry's leg have me on the internet finding out more information. I am only on page 100 and haven't really gotten to know much about Lady Jane. I am sure that several other topics will get me sidetracked as well. Weir's research for her non-fiction books is coming in very handy in writing this one. I can't wait to finish.