Book Review: I, Jane
by Diane Haeger
New American Library, 2012
When last we heard from novelist Diane Haeger, she was dramatizing the sketchy life and loves of Bessie Blount, long-time mistress of King Henry VIII and mother of his royal bastard, Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond. In her new book, I, Jane, she sets her sights a bit higher on the Tudor food-chain: Jane Seymour, the wan, mousy young woman who would become Henry’s third wife and the mother of the legitimate male heir he’d craved for so long.
Haeger brings the same authorial gifts to this book as she did to her previous one: she’s an acute atmosphere-builder, and she catches the rapid-fire and often fractured back-and-forth of conversation in a way that feels entirely natural, not stilted as so much Tudor-fiction talk is (the same weaknesses are here as well, unfortunately: 21st Century idioms creep in, with Tudor-era characters ‘wrapping their minds around’ new concepts and doing things ‘in a heartbeat’ – and almost everybody in this book rolls their eyes in exasperation, even though nobody actually did that in the 16th Century). Haeger has a knack for sniffing out drama from the silences of the historical record – an essential knack for any successful historical novelist.
The book’s Robert Graves-style title is a bit misleading: aside from a brief opening and closing segment, the novel isn’t narrated by Jane directly but rather told in a relatively close third-person voice that sticks with her most of the time but feels free to wander around when there’s exposition that needs to happen. This is no doubt practical, but it’s also artistically timid: fashioning a novel entirely from Jane’s viewpoint and somehow avoiding boring your audience into a coma … now that’s a Tudor-fiction challenge nobody’s yet managed to take!
Instead, we get a Jane-centered story rather than a Jane-told one. It’s a familiar story: the aging King, worn out by the serial disappointments of the shrewish Anne Boleyn, turns his fancy toward meek and mild Jane Seymour, who’s being pushed forward by her family as more successful breeding-stock than Anne – and a darn sight more personally agreeable. As is virtually required in a novel such as this, both Anne and her sister Mary – the celebrated Boleyn sisters – are sharp-tongued and abrasive at all times. Indeed, Anne’s first contemptuous comment about poor Jane is “My, what an awkward little girl,” and things don’t get any better when Jane comes to court and has the nerve to be present when the sisters disagree:
“Do not underestimate me, Mary. I learned well by your mistakes. Bessie Blount’s and the queen’s as well,” she said coldly. “Both of you were foolish. You know not how to actually love a man like that. There is no place in the game for surrender.”
Then, as an afterthought, Anne paused and looked directly at Jane. She tightened her spine, and her small mouth lengthened into a hard line. “Who the devil are you to listen to a conversation between sisters?”
Haeger’s Jane is shy and tongue-tied in glittering company, but she has hidden depths, yearning, adventurous parts of her nature that in her youth are only satisfied by trips to her family’s library:
She might be young, but Jane craved escape with spirit and excitement. Stories of kings and queens, during knights, and beautiful princesses captured her. Granted, there was not much of that to be had in John Seymour’s musty library, but she had secretly come upon a small volume of The Canterbury Tales, which she kept like spoils beneath her mattress. Theft made the reading of the verses all the more sweet.
The real-life, historical Jane Seymour had only hidden shallows, not hidden depths (and even Haeger stops shy of showing us a Jane sitting in a window seat reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” – such things are almost beyond contemplation), and she would have lanced her own brain with a knitting-pin rather than think the telling mental ripostes Haegar regularly has her think, even in the august presence of her unpredictable dread sovereign:
“The Lord has surely led me to you, Jane. That much I know without doubt. So I trust that His plan for us is as pure and true as what I see in your eyes.”
She did not say that he already had a wife. Two daughters an a son as well in the Duke of Richmond. She did not say that he barely knew her. It seemed to Jane that God had long ago decided on a plan for King Henry’s heart, and that could not possibly include Jane. Still, Katherine was dead and Anne had miscarried a son.
Jane doesn’t miscarry: to the huge advancement of her family (and the bottomless gratitude of the king), she delivers a healthy baby boy, the future King Edward VI. I,Jane takes us through all the conflicted passions of this still-mysterious young queen and brings things in good order to October of 1537 at Hampton Court, when Jane Seymour died. She wrests back her own narrative just briefly in the book’s final pages, remembering her childhood at the family estate of Wolf Hall, and perhaps more than one reader will find themselves wishing Haeger had somehow found a way to put the whole book in Jane’s words and thoughts. No novelist has quite managed it yet – it would be a feat, although perhaps an unreadable one.