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Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen


Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen

Of all of Henry VIII’s beleaguered wives, Jane Seymour is perhaps the least vivid: ironic, as she was also the only one to produce the longed-for male heir (she died shortly after giving birth to the future Edward VI). In an Author’s Note at the end of JANE SEYMOUR, THE HAUNTED QUEEN, Alison Weir --- a prolific Tudor historian as well as a novelist ---emphasizes how little is actually known of the King’s third bride. Was she a tool of her ruthless family, caught in the net of 16th-century power politics? Or was she ambitious in her own right, implicated in the fatal (and possibly dubious) adultery charges leveled at Anne Boleyn, her predecessor? Jane is like a linen fabric upon which a writer can embroider, and Weir’s needlework, informed by thorough research, is colorful but never thoughtlessly gaudy.

I’ve read a lot of novels set in the Tudor era, and nearly all writers seem to play favorites. In a book about one of Henry’s wives, usually the others are portrayed in a negative light. Thus, in a book sympathetic to Anne Boleyn, Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, might be viewed as prudish, sterile and stubborn, and Jane Seymour as a grasping minx who set out to supplant Anne. Authors who favor Katherine or Jane, on the other hand, will see Anne as a viper. Weir’s novel, happily, is more balanced than most.

Jane’s story --- courtship, marriage, childbirth, death --- is so well known that it can hardly offer much suspense. Instead, Weir lends a fateful cast to her brief life, even giving Jane premonitions of death in the form of a shadow that may or may not be Anne Boleyn’s accusing shade (hence the “haunted” in the title). And Jane’s credulity is plausible, given that Tudor society, awash with soothsayers, necromancers and the like, was not exactly ruled by science. (As for medical care at the time, it’s a wonder anyone survived it.)

"This book retells Jane’s story in a fresh way, reflecting the less prudish values that now inform historiography... If you, like me, are a Tudor junkie, you’ll inhale all 500-plus pages and still crave more."

Weir’s historical expertise is particularly evident when it comes to everyday details of the royal household (the furnishings, the food, the gardens and, above all, the clothes), as well as humbler establishments like Wulfhall, Jane’s childhood home in Wiltshire. I was surprised, for example, that Lady Seymour, Jane’s mother, though gently born, did much of her own cooking. In preparation for a royal visit, she and her mother “were up to their elbows in flour and sugar, making pastries and even a subtlety in the shape of a crown; it was as if the honor of their house rested upon their culinary skill.” The reader is reminded not only of how labor-intensive 16th-century society was, but how bound it was by the limitations of time and space. Even the King couldn’t command high-speed communication or travel; a short journey for us could take more than a week back then.

That said, I found myself unable to root for Jane with a whole heart. Commendably, Weir has created a young woman who doesn’t conform to the usual Tudor-history clichés: neither pure victim nor crafty manipulator. But the result is a peculiar and not entirely likable mix of earnest and insincere. Although she has a horror of adultery, in Weir’s telling Jane gives up her virginity to Henry while Anne is still queen and is already pregnant when they marry (hence Henry’s indecent haste in disposing of Anne). I’m afraid I didn’t buy Weir’s rendition of their sex life --- instantly orgasmic for Anne --- although I’m sure she has sound reasons for imagining reciprocal passion.

When it comes to religious convictions, Jane is even more contradictory. Weir’s version paints her as a girl so pious that she considers becoming a nun. As a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, she comes to love Henry’s first wife and her daughter, later Mary I, who embrace the old faith. She is appalled by the King’s break with Rome, his self-declaration as the spiritual leader of England, and his dissolution of the monasteries. Yet unlike Thomas More, who famously paid for his resistance with his head, Jane finds it expedient to swear an oath to Henry’s religious supremacy. While sometimes she speaks up, more often she shuts up, for fear of angering her volatile husband.

I’m not saying that Jane comes off as a complete hypocrite. Her love for the king may well have been genuine, if also fueled by a desire for wealth and glory (she seems pretty thrilled with the trappings of royalty, to the point that once she becomes queen, she abandons a friend among the ladies of the court). But in the end she is awfully “judgy,” in modern parlance, rationalizing her own choices while holding everyone else to a lofty standard of fidelity, faith and maternal feeling.

Still, the Tudor political stage was a dangerous place, where a woman --- especially one who’s caught the eye of a changeable king --- couldn’t be too careful about balancing principles and self-preservation. If there is a considerable gap between Jane’s moral ideals and her behavior, perhaps the opportunism was justified.

In any case, to me the drama of the increasingly unstable King Henry and the succession of doomed queens never gets old. Even when I know what’s coming, I’m moved by the destiny of the women he chose to marry (mostly smart and independent, for Henry liked a wife with a good mind). This book retells Jane’s story in a fresh way, reflecting the less prudish values that now inform historiography (Weir cites a pro-Boleyn Victorian biography that regards her as morally bankrupt). If you, like me, are a Tudor junkie, you’ll inhale all 500-plus pages and still crave more.

While awaiting the fourth book in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, I’ll spend my time obsessing over a more recent royal wedding. (Yes, I set my alarm clock for the play-by-play.)

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on June 1, 2018

Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen
by Alison Weir

  • Publication Date: May 7, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 1101966564
  • ISBN-13: 9781101966563