(Cover picture courtesy of Fantastic Fiction.)
While predominantly known on both sides of the Atlantic for her outstanding works of historical non-fiction, Alison Weir has, over the last few years begun to develop a very nice little niche in fiction novels too.
Like her non-fiction works, they cover many different periods in history, starting right back in the 1100s with her novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine, “The Captive Queen” and moving through to the Tudor period. It’s in this particular era she really does excel, and her novel “Innocent Traitor” which was published in 2007 is possibly her finest work.
A very true story
The main thrust of the story centres on the life of Lady Jane Grey, England’s “Nine Day Queen”, and the tragic outcome of her life. In essence, hers was a short, brutal stay in a world which did not favour women, and that was so rich in machinations and scheming it’s a wonder anyone survived with their head still attached to their shoulders at all.
Weir creates a very sympathetic portrait of the young Jane. From the outset, the reader is fully engaged with her and the life she is born into. It’s a very vivid picture of life in Tudor court, you can very often almost feel and smell the places she describes, hear the rustling of fabric and the clatter of heeled shoes on wooden floors.
The story is told from a number of different perspectives. From that of Jane herself, the people in her household and the people who had the closest connections to the Tudor Royal line.
Jane was a mostly just a helpless pawn in the game of her parents, who seemed hell bent on advancing themselves without a care for their daughter or her happiness. Her mother, Frances Brandon, is painted here in such a strongly disagreeable light by Weir that you really start to feel such hatred for her as you read further into the novel.
In some ways, perhaps, it is a rather one dimensional characterisation which is possibly the only criticism you could level at the novel as a whole. However, as you read further into the story you realise just how she had become so hardened and brutal and it isn’t pretty reading.
Jane herself was a very pious creature; she refused to dress in flashy, bright colours and always favoured more severe and unflattering clothes as if to enhance further her religious character and inherent bent towards the spiritual. Her mother seems to be forever chiding her into wearing the fashions of the time, but Jane consistently refuses and it becomes yet another bone of contention between mother and daughter.
Weir has managed her to create a story that is both heart-wrenching and brutal. The novel opens as Jane sees herself installed in The Tower of London awaiting her fate and the reader knows from the outset that whatever is going to happen to Jane, it isn’t good.
It would be nigh on impossible to make it through to the end of the book without having cried at least once. Jane is frequently beaten and manhandled and very often on the receiving end of her parent’s vile tongues and harsh words as they scheme and plan to make their way to the top.
In modern terms her mother and father would have been top class business partners, plotting how best to get the most money from every deal they make and cannily using their wiles to compare business insurance so they never lose a penny and make the most from their wheeling and dealing. They’re the sort of people who would step on everyone on the way to the top and then expect help when they fell back down again! It is so hard not to feel sympathy towards Jane. The latter stages of the book, in which she is forced into a marriage with Lord Guildford Dudley, again for the advancement of the family, and the ultimate outcome of both the wedding and the fate that befalls her in the final chapters, are moving in the extreme.
At the heart of it all is a teenage girl who is totally helpless and has no way of escaping. Although it is a story that is centuries old, some of the themes will still resonate with teenagers today.
Who is this book aimed at?
This novel would appeal to anyone with a strong longing to know more about the Tudor period but who simply doesn’t want a long-winded, fusty non fiction tome to read. It’s the sort of story that would draw in anyone, right from young adult through to the more mature reader. Weir’s writing style is very easy to read, she doesn’t over complicate or use flowery language, she just tells the story simply and truthfully.
The fact the story centres on a young teenage girl might make it perhaps slightly less appealing to male readers, but not exclusively so, as Weir’s writing, both fiction and non-fiction does tend to have a loyal following from both genders.
This book is rated very highly: 4/5.
Lisa Jennings is a freelance writer from England who mainly writes art and literature reviews for a number of online journals, as well as dryer topics such as how to effectively compare business insurance and other areas of finance. She spent most of her twenties travelling across Asia on bumpy buses or sat atop mountains alone with her tent and just a book for company.