Weir’s erudition in matters royal finds fictional expression in the story of England’s briefest reigning sovereign, Lady Jane Grey.
Lady Jane is often viewed as merely pathetic. Who better to rehabilitate her than Weir (Queen Isabella, 2005, etc.), author of numerous works of popular history, five of which concern the Tudor dynasty. In setting her first novel around Lady Jane, daughter of Henry VIII’s niece, Frances, Weir must surmount two major historical constraints; first, that Jane’s fate is known, and second, that Jane, though precocious and unusually well-schooled for a girl of the time, is a necessarily passive character. A minor throughout, Jane is subject to the whims of corrupt and ambitious adults bent on exploiting her bloodline to advance their own agenda. A Tudor Mommie Dearest, Frances hardens her heart against Jane for failing to be born male. Frances brutally punishes her on the slightest pretext, and Jane is happy to escape to the household of Queen Katherine Parr, King Henry’s sixth wife. After Katherine’s death, Jane narrowly escapes getting caught up in the doomed machinations of the Seymours, protectors of boy-king Edward VI. Frances’ plan to betroth Jane to Edward fizzles. The Seymours’ replacement, the Duke of Northumberland, seeks to circumvent Henry’s will, which provides for the succession of princesses Mary and Elizabeth. As Edward lies dying of consumption exacerbated by a little arsenic, the Duke prompts him to name Jane as his successor. Jane at first refuses the crown, but, a devout Protestant, she’s persuaded that the accession of Mary would mean the country’s reversion to Catholicism. Jane reigns for nine days, but her court evaporates when Mary musters a large army. Now Queen, Mary is loath to execute 16-year-old Jane, but succumbs to pressure from her Catholic allies. Jane has one chance to escape the headsman: Convert to Catholicism. But although Protestants don’t have saints, they have martyrs, and Jane, in the end, is determined to be one.
An affecting portrayal.