Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen
The story of Jane Seymour’s rise to the throne (and her subsequent death after bringing forth Henry VIII’s only male heir) has been well chronicled by many. Was she pushed by her ambitious family? Was she truly the docile angel she was later enshrined as? Alison Weir – well known writer of biographical fiction and straight historical biography, and who in fact has written multiple historical biographies about Jane – tries to answer these questions through the medium of fiction, writing about the young queen’s life from the day she leaves an attempt at an ecclesiastical life to the day she dies in her royal bed. The result – Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen – is a bit heavy on history, a bit light on the juicy melodrama, with some very old-fashioned storytelling tropes – in short, a solid novel although not a perfect one.
Jane – ripped from a nunnery in hope of advancing the prospects of the Seymour family in the growing wake of the legal and ecumenical unrest resulting from the destabilization of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage – feels alone and ungainly as she sits unasked-for within the walls of the family keep. Her happiest moments are the ones she shares with her boisterous, troubled, ambitious family. To hush up a family scandal, Jane is sent to court, hoping to smooth royal feathers and seek out a proper husband for herself, and hopefully, for her sister Margery as well.
Court life immediately embroils the awkward Jane in intrigues she isn’t prepared to cope with – many of them started by her brothers’ unwise political scheming. Thrown in at the deep end, she applies a system of silence, modesty, reason, fairness and virtue to keep from becoming enmeshed in the various social and geopolitical disasters forming around her. Playing witness as Henry divorces himself from Rome and the Pope and creates the Church of England so he may divorce Catherine and install Anne Boleyn beside him as queen, Jane is furious on behalf of her mistress and leaves the court, staying loyal to Catherine and to the religion that bolsters her, until her father orders her to Anne’s side.
Anne, unlike the reserved, religious, and faithful Catherine, is a tempest of emotion, rapacious and protective of her daughter Elizabeth – just as wrathful as the murderous, selfish Henry. Perhaps they’re too alike – when she miscarries two sons and the brewing whirlwind of conflict with Spain rears its ugly head, it’s enough to make Henry worry that he’ll die without producing a male heir. So he turns to Jane and begins wooing her. Jane is conflicted – adultery is a sin and she has seen the damage it does to human life, but her family pressures her into colluding with the king so that she might assist the Princess Mary and her former queen.
Soon her own feelings for Henry take deep root, and she finds herself transcending the moral barriers she once so staunchly held between them. Falling in love with the king, she watches Anne’s self-implosion with distaste and sympathy. When the hated queen is beheaded and a pregnant Jane rises to take her place, she is soon beset by both status-seeking courtiers and nightmares and apparitions of the late Anne. Is she being haunted by the late queen? Or are other fates at work, governing her life?
The Haunted Queen does several things well, including managing to combine a sense of drama with a sense of deep history, telling us new things about Jane that grow her beyond the innocent naïf the history books have cast her as. Yet while the historian in Weir often enlightens the author’s fiction, it sometimes sinks the book in overly-ornate detail. This is only an occasional flaw; mostly she gets it right and the book’s large page-count doesn’t feel like an enormous strain. It sweeps the reader back in time, and does give us a credible peek into Jane’s head.
The most heartrending scene in the novel features Jane’s sister in law, Catherine, who is forced into a nunnery thanks to the revelation in her father’s will that only minor provision shall be made for her living expenses by him due to the fact of her extramarital affair… with Jane’s father. Jane’s cool-headed help paves the way for her survival through the court’s politics, her tenderness as Catherine loses her lucidity in isolation, and her own moral quandary over adultery when Henry enters her life. Weir is excellent at weaving stories together that way, and each little bit of foreshadowing slips through the narrative and adds to the tragedy of Jane’s future.
The book is plenty romantic – well, if you like Henry the VIII’s ornate pleading and begging, followed by his hot-headed childishness and threatening rages. Jane is a good heroine to follow, and is interesting and not too sweet and soppy in this telling. Indeed, the shade of superstitious melodrama and tough practicality that Weir gives manages to differentiate her Jane from all of the other Janes that have existed in Henry-related biographical fiction. All of the dramas, disasters and religious calamity that took place at that time are carefully and accurately depicted. Young Mary Tudor is given an appealingly sympathetic betrayal, and even Anne Boleyn, for all of her flaws, comes forth in the narrative as a sympathetic creature.
If you like Tudor-era fiction, Weir is always a solid bet. Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen is no exception to the rule, and if you have a fascination with Tudor England it’s a wonderful way to read yourself through a dull May day.