Summary : All Jane Seymour wants is a husband; but when she catches the eye of a volatile king, she is pulled deep into the Tudor court’s realm of plot and intrigue….
England. 1535. Jane Seymour is 27 years old and increasingly desperate for the marriage that will provide her a real place in the world. She gets the perfect opportunity to shine when the court visits Wolf Hall, the Seymour ancestral manor. With new poise born from this event, it seems certain that her efficiency and diligence will shine through and finally attract a suitor.
Meanwhile, King Henry VIII is 45 and increasingly desperate for a son to secure his legacy. He left his first wife, a princess of Spain, changing his country’s religion in the process, to marry Anne Boleyn — but she too has failed to deliver the promised heir. As Henry begins to fear he is cursed, Jane Seymour’s honesty and innocence conjure redemption. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious clerk who has built a career on strategically satisfying the King’s desires, sees in Jane the perfect vehicle to calm the political unrest that threatens the country: he engineers the plot that ends with Jane becoming the King’s third wife.
Jane believes herself virtuous and her actions justified, but early miscarriages shake her confidence and hopes. How can a woman who has done nothing wrong herself deal with the guilt of how she unseated her predecessor?
The Tudors is the family in the historical fiction genre, and with good reason—Henry VIII and his many loves, Elizabeth I and her glorious victory against Spain as well as her many loves, Mary I and her fanatic obsession with religion and her husband, and the lengthy list only continues. Horrible Histories’ Tudor song sums it up best: “[The Tudors] may not have been fair, but [they] were never dull”. With so much gossip and speculation surrounding this family, it is no surprise that there is a plethora of fiction about them even centuries after their rule. And here’s another contribution to the Tudor genre that will probably not diminish in a good while.
The book here concentrates on the fall of Anne Boleyn as well as the rise of Jane Seymour until her ultimate death (no spoilers here I hope, since the device to remember the fate of all of Henry VIII’s wives is so well known) from Jane’s perspective, and to a larger extent, from the Seymour family’s and their allies’ perspective. I am fascinated by this time period and find it very interesting, as I always find the last few months of Anne Boleyn’s life to be absolutely thrilling and I have a (large) soft spot for Jane Seymour since she gets very little attention compared to her predecessor. My hopes for this book are that the usual Tudor tropes will not be rehashed again and a three dimensional portrayal of Jane Seymour. She definitely deserves one after all the attention all the other wives receive.
And I am not disappointed when it comes to becoming acquainted with a Jane Seymour who is more than the placid wife that gives birth to a son. Wertman is unafraid to give Jane a voice and highlight her domestic forte in sewing, organizing and running a household, and discretion are actually all strengths for the average Tudor noblewoman. While Jane does not have the sparkling wit or the eloquent ways of some of her counterparts, Wertman does make a convincing case in the story that Jane must have been talented enough in her own ways to hold onto her position as a one of the queen’s ladies for so many years. My favourite character development moment for Jane is at the beginning of the book, when Jane is feeling restless in her position, being still unmarried when she is much older than so many other ladies at Court that she is willing to take chances to rebuke her brother about her lack of marriage prospect. The other favourite character development moment is when Jane becomes comfortable making arrangements to ensure that Wolf Hall, her family home, is ready for the royal visit. As she captures the king’s attention and continues her spectacular rise as Queen of England, there are moments where I feel Jane is a hypocrite. Or at least she is not as convincing as she believes herself to be, as I sometimes roll my eyes at her strong conviction of how she believes the path that she is continuing down is the one blessed by God. However, I have to commend Wertman for acknowledging this by not blindly being in love with Jane and points out character flaws of Jane’s; it shows that she is a courtier after her many years at Court and it also shows that she is neither innocent or the sole instrument that caused Anne Boleyn’s downfall. As for becoming Queen Jane, it is an interesting transformation and I liked how Wertman plants the seeds that will eventually lead to the moment where Jane does defy her husband only to receive harsh words. However, some more of the more famous characterizations of Jane feels forced once she becomes queen, mostly because Wertman needs to follow what history has dictated.
The years 1535 to 1537 are like riding a rollercoaster in Henry’s Court, except one may never know if they will survive the next event. There are so many famous moments—the treason and death of Anne Boleyn, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the rise of the Seymour family—that it is hard to give them all equal attention in one book. Wertman definitely tries her best, and I appreciate how she weaves her ample research in the story without making the read seem like a textbook. Given all the important events, it is hard to see all of them solely from Jane’s perspective, so it is refreshing that Wertman also has other narrators including Thomas Cromwell. It is through his eyes that we get to see the political landscape and changes in England during the two years and how Jane Seymour fits into the grander scheme. I really enjoy his political pragmatism as well as his characterization, although I do wish that he is slightly more witty and eloquent as per Hilary’s Mantel series. Wertman actually focuses a lot of Cromwell’s characterization after Jane’s, and he is one of the male leads in this book even though he and Jane hardly cross paths. Given that he is also a firm Seymour ally in this book, it is a great read to see how his goals coincidentally align with the Seymour family while also foreshadowing the fates of the various players who have come to reap the benefits due to Jane Seymour’s elevation as queen.
This is definitely a solid Tudor read. However, this book is by no means perfect (although so few are). First of all, Wertman’s writing style is rather simplistic; one will hardly find any lavish descriptions of clothes or how the Court looks, but it flows along very nicely. For people who are trying to understand the psyche of how the historical personages you may find her writing slightly lacking since she does not spend pages trying to discuss a character’s feelings or their thinking patterns. I for one never had any problems and find her writing to be very entertaining. Another thing is the occasional anachronistic writing, where characters will use words like ‘Nah’ or describe people as ‘lust-driven teenagers’. Again, it is not the biggest problem but it can be jarring when reading something about the 16th century.
The other thing I find “off” is the characterization of Henry VIII. Due to the many biographies, history books, fiction, and other interpretations of this king it is not hard to come to the story with preconceived tropes or biases in mind. And while I am not expecting an ogre who literally eats people (although he certainly has metaphorically) there are instances where Henry seems softer than what historical evidence suggest during that period in his lifetime. Still, there is the explanation that his softer moments are viewed through Jane’s eyes and Henry VIII does seem much more like the megalomaniac and egotistical king when he is with Cromwell. However, I have problems reconciling the two very different parts of Henry’s personality and since he is not necessarily the focus of the book, I find it baffling as opposed to him being a complex and dangerous person that he is.
Still, I enjoy this book greatly and I look forward to the continuation of the saga as I wish to read more about the Seymour family—a family just as interesting as the Boleyn family but has not received as much attention from the historical community—in the near future. Also, bonus point for keeping the Tudor era still interesting because there is only so many ways the same story can be told.