Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen
by Alison Weir
Ballantine Books, 2018
Historian Alison Weir continues her series of mammoth Tudor historical novels “Six Tudor Queens” with her 500-page latest, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, which tells the brief life story of King Henry VIII's third wife (the series title is a bit misleading; the point here isn't that these six women were Tudor queens, it's that they were all wives of one Tudor king).
Jane Seymour was the daughter of a powerful and conniving Court family, and she caught Henry's wandering eye while she was a lady-in-waiting to his wife and queen, Catherine of Aragon, and she died while giving him the legitimate male heir, and yet despite the rather self-evident inferences to be drawn from all three of these facts, biographers and especially novelists have persistently portrayed Jane Seymour as a sweet, apolitical innocent, a maiden of almost otherworldly grace and delicacy, someone as far from the shrill conniving of, say, an Anne Boleyn or the wanton idiocy of a, say, Kathryn Howard as it was possible to be. One of the most startling minor notes of Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall (the title is the name of the Seymour family's ancestral seat) is the depiction of Jane Seymour as indeed otherworldly but more in the style of the Vampire Carmilla than the Virgin Mary, and because Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies were so successful, readers of Tudor fiction might have hoped that an era was dawning for more nuanced portraits of Jane.
Such hopes might be valid, but there's precious little nuance in Weir's book. Instead, readers get buckets and buckets of otherworldly grace and delicacy. Jane's brothers Thomas and Edward were as coarse and conniving a pair of climbers as were ever drawn to the flame of Court intrigue, but if we're to judge by personalities and world-views, Jane not only never talked with them, she very likely never met them. Late in the novel, when she's reflecting on her peculiar role in history, she herself makes things plain enough:
Because of her, good men had died barbarously, innocent blood had been shed and good order overturned. The English Church was in disarray and heresy was flourishing. Was it presumptuous to wonder if God had appointed her, Jane, to put an end to these ills? He had chosen a simple maiden as the mother of His Son; why should He not choose another, pure in heart, to save England and its King from damnation?
When a novel's main character and narrative focus refers to herself as “pure in heart” without the smallest trace of irony, you know you're in for a bit of a slog. Weir saves her novel from being a total quagmire largely through skills she's developed over decades of writing history: she knows how to fill a page with atmospheric historical details without ever seeming to do so, and she knows how to bring alive the passions and customs of an alien time.
And there are plenty of familiar faces along the way. Weir has been writing about most of the prominent figures in Tudor circles for a long time now in both fiction and nonfiction, and the players don't change. Henry is a mercurial monster; Catherine is grindingly earnest, Thomas and Edward are by turns scampish and scheming – there's even that old stand-by minor Tudor villainess, Lady Rochford, with her “catlike face, with its pointed chin, pouting mouth, and discontented expression.” “When [Jane's ladies-in-waiting] were sitting together, exchanging the latest gossip and telling each other risqué tales, Lady Rochford took a gleeful interest in the lewd details, which Jane found unbecoming.”
But a little Lady Rochford seasoning can only go so far when the main fare is a saint, and this now seems, very depressingly, to be the bedrock on which the entire “Six Tudor Queens” is built, since both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are portrayed in similar veins. Catherine may well have been tedious enough to qualify for sainthood, but a novelist who's willing to whitewash Anne Boleyn will certainly have no trouble draining the life out of a mere sketch of a character like Jane Seymour.
The real question now becomes: what of the future of the series? Portraying a wheeling-and-dealing Continental card-sharp such as Anne of Cleves as a saint would be almost funny, and any such attempt made on flighty, horny Kathryn Howard would be outright mockable. The technique doesn't regain any kind of purchase until Katherine Parr, the subtlest and most complex of Henry's wives and the one who would most pointedly have disdained a saint's treatment. Readers will have to wait and see.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.