The September Queen
I’m sometimes reluctant to read historical fiction about real people, mostly because so few of the people worth writing about have happy endings. Such is the case of Jane Lane, the heroine of The September Queen, and Charles II, the would-be King of England. It’s a fascinating story, and one that I enjoyed reading, but the ending was bittersweet – and perhaps more bitter than sweet.
The story is set in Commonwealth England, after the execution of King Charles I during the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Jane Lane’s family is staunchly Royalist, but after a crushing loss attempting to reclaim the throne, the young Charles II must escape England to avoid the same fate that his father met. Jane is twenty-five and unmarried, but hesitant to marry a man for whom she has affection but no passion. Suddenly, she finds herself in the middle of the adventure she longed for, when she is asked to accompany Charles, disguised as her manservant, to the coast. Charles and Jane hit it off right away, and quickly fall in love and into bed with each other. There is danger at every turn, with not just their lives at stake but also the whole future of the monarchy.
Let me start with a few of the problems I had with the book, before I get to the things I liked. The story takes place over the course of nine years, which is difficult. It causes some problems with pacing and makes it difficult to keep track of time. Sometimes a year will go by in the story, covered by a half-page of conversation. By including snippets of scenes to show the single relevant event in months’ or years’ worth of time, it also tends to be a bit choppy in places. /p>
The story, though, pulled me in. Jane and Charles are both interesting characters. The story is told from Jane’s perspective, but it was Charles who compelled me. As a young man and a king in exile, the single person upon whom so many have pinned their hopes and staked their lives, he carries a heavy budren. He’s a flawed and sometimes weak man, but a sympathetic one, and was portrayed with a mix of humility and also pride that struck me as very realistic.
Jane, too, has burdens, and spends years trying to reconcile her love for Charles with recognition of the realities of their situation. Her dilemma is a heartbreaking one, and by the end of the novel the reader feels her losses keenly. This is, according to the author, the first fictionalized account of Jane’s adventure, and I’m not sure if she has just been overlooked by the Phillipa Gregorys of the world, or if something about her story that makes it harder than other historical figures to fictionalize. If it is the former, perhaps it is, as I said, the pacing of her story. Action tends to happen in short bursts, and then languishes. If she has just been overlooked, then this will be a new and interesting story for historical fiction buffs, who perhaps are a bit tired of reading about every single Tudor in that family’s long and sordid history.
The Commonwealth era is a time that I do not know much about, and I had a philosophical difficulty in understanding the ardent loyalty to the Monarchy as an institution, to the point of risking one’s life. The cause of the initial civil war that abolished the monarchy was not given in any detail, so the political situation beyond “we hate Cromwell” was a bit of a mystery, and would have added more context to the devotion exhibited by Jane, her family, and countless others.
This is a story that has stayed with me since I finished reading it, often returning to my thoughts. I have already passed it along to a friend, and I have a feeling she’ll enjoy it as much as I did.