Keeping Up with the Tudors: We Seymours
The May Bride
By Suzannah Dunn
Pegasus Books, 2014
History attaches one quick bit of gossipy marginalia to the figure of Katherine Filliol, the first wife of Edward Seymour, the man who rose to Lord Protector of England: repudiata quia pater ejus post nuptias eam cognovit. It’s a jotting in Vincent’s Baronage made long after the fact, dryly stating that Katherine was repudiated by her husband because he suspected her of having an affair with his father, Wiltshire squire and retired Tudor courtier John Seymour. And the whole matter is taken up and borne forward by history not because of courtiers or Lords Protector but because of the yet still greater height attained by the Seymour clan: around 1535, Edward’s quiet, mousy little sister Jane caught the eye of King Henry VIII. She became his third wife – the only one of his wives to give him a living male heir, the only one of his queens to be granted a royal funeral, and, very likely, the only woman he ever actually loved.
The American subtitle of Suzannah Dunn’s latest novel The May Bride is “A Novel of Tudor England,” but really it’s a book about Katherine Filliol and the teenage Jane Seymour. A tightly-focused cast of secondary characters attend these two – Katherine’s reserved, cerebral new husband Edward, Edward’s brash, hot-headed younger brother Thomas, brother Harry, their father, quiet, distant John Seymour, their bustling mother, and the clutch of Seymour children, Anthony, Margie, Dottie, and Elizabeth, plus various rude mechanicals – but from the novel’s first page until its last, the central dynamic is between headstrong, emotional Katherine and repressed, outwardly placid Jane.
Edward brings his new bride home to what is now one of the most famous addresses in English history: the Seymour family manor called Wolf Hall. In the famous Hilary Mantel novel by that name, the Seymours are little better than a lurking brood of nosferatu, with Jane herself the palest and most deadly of the bunch. But Dunn, whose previous novels all center on the women of the Tudor world (from Anne Boleyn to Katherine Howard to, most winningly, Katherine Parr), has always been a far more emotional writer than Mantel. Wolf Hall is a brilliant, sustained mental fencing match between all its various characters, a book of fast imaginations and dark dreams of intrigue. The May Bride, by contrast, thrums with the languor and urgency of baser passions; it stamps out illusions as soon as they appear, and as Jane herself narrates, it’s no more accommodating for dreams:
We Seymours didn’t have dreams. Well, Thomas did, that was obvious, but despite no one in our household saying as much, I knew it was seen as his failing; impetuous and embarrassing. We Seymours didn’t acknowledge dreams; we were practical people. Plans, yes, plans were acceptable, or even laudable: Edward had plans; plans were calculated and achievable, or certainly Edward’s were. Dreams, though, were somehow improper, we didn’t lavish dreams on ourselves.
Despite such protestations, it isn’t long before Jane is confiding in her new sister-in-law about the most common and least possible dream of them all:
‘I used to dream of being queen.’
Katherine laughed a little at that, enjoying the absurdity of it – ‘Well, that job’s taken’ – and I was flustered to have been taken at my word, even in jest, because of course I didn’t dream of replacing our actual queen, so I clarified, ‘Just a queen,’ which was no clarification at all, really. Which other queen could I possibly be?
It’s one of many scenes in Katherine’s first few months at Wolf Hall. She’s tall and pretty, an exotic stranger mostly left on the family’s hands while her husband Edward is away making a name for himself at Court, and she bonds first and most strongly with young Jane (“I was easy company,” Jane says, a touch bitterly). The two share stolen moments from the household work, a furtive – and surprisingly sensuous – nighttime excursion to a nearby brook, and Katherine’s increasingly complicated reactions to being a bride, especially with such a cold and cerebral husband as Edward Seymour.
Edward and his brother Thomas appear in several of Dunn’s novels, stirring the action and introducing plot-tangles. But this author is mainly concerned with the women of the Tudor world, and after turns with Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, and Katherine Parr, this time she settles down below the firmament of fame and brings readers into the daily life of a big landed-gentry country house, the bustling home of a family who’re prosperous but not yet famous. Mrs. Seymour – formerly Margery Wentworth, descendant of royalty and close cousin to the powerful Howard clan – keeps a brisk and thrifty house, but she does plenty of the housework herself, and she enlists her daughters as well. It’s another testament to Dunn’s powers as a dramatist that she can make so interesting a novel that’s so much concerned with knitting and darning.
The Seymours of Wolf Hall are the central landowners for miles in all directions; in Dunn’s patient reconstruction, we see them hunkered down in all the duties their position entails. Their hosting responsibilities for their tenantry roll the whole year round, from major feast day to major feast day, and as young Jane remembers them all, Dunn gives the occasions a memorably human cast:
The first Sunday in October was the Church Ale, to raise funds for St Mary’s at Great Bedwyn, the first part of which was always hosted at Wolf Hall, and that year the weather decidedly put a dampener on it. It had to be held indoors, in Hall; no room for bowls or skittles, and, even if anyone had felt like dancing, there wouldn’t have been enough space between the various stalls. Foot-tapping was as far as it could go that year. The villagers arrived soaked from the walk or cart ride, some of their wares and handicrafts having suffered, too. The best we could do for them was greet them with hot, spiced, damson-syrup-swirled punch.
The seasons are also invoked with a detail and an empathy that’s rare in Tudor fiction, where it’s usually always temperate autumn, with perhaps one or two picturesque Christmas snowfalls. Jane dreads going out in the biting winter cold, and at a couple of points in the novel, she and everybody else are caught in the swampy miasma of summer hot spells, where a miserable Jane notices the family dogs on the lawn: “I envied them their drastic sprawling in the relative cool of the grass, but pitied them their laboured breathing, the spasms of their ribcages.”
Master of the house’s dogs is John Seymour, the head of the Seymour clan. Dunn portrays him as a distant and occasionally wry spectator at his own home life, a Mr. Bennet in silk and ermine. He’s mentally removed from his earlier courtier world, comfortably settled into country life, and Jane is always grateful just for the sight of him. “It was good to have my father there with us in the garden and to hear his warm voice among the wind-racked, hissing lilacs,” she reflects at one point, “even if only discussing the dogs” (she expects no special regard from him, realistically thinking, “sometimes, inevitably, I was just one of his children”). Mr. Seymour is still a relatively young man – as Katherine perhaps too enthusiastically points out, he’s younger than her father – but he’s sardonically resigned to being older than he is. “It comes to us all,” he says, “the time when what’s best about going away is getting back.”
When Edward is called away to war early on in The May Bride, the Seymour clan is faced with long seasons during which the bridegroom is absent but the bride is still every day with them. Katherine never visits her own family or even seems to consider it seriously, so thoroughly has she been absorbed into the rhythms of Wolf Hall. There’s household work to do, fairs to attend, long, tedious winter evenings to endure, and all of it spent wondering how Edward is doing, whether or not he’s hungry or cold or even still alive. It’s during these months of tension and tedium that Katherine first starts to avail herself of the thoughtful, soothing company of Edward’s father, and Dunn manages the amazing feat of letting us see the relationship develop through Jane’s eyes without compromising the believability of either the teenage girl of the two adults she’s watching as they come to like each other.This is true throughout the book: we see just what Jane sees, but we understand the nuances better than she does. When Katherine teases Mr. Seymour about the love poetry he wrote to woo his wife and dares him to take up his poet’s pen again, we’re simultaneously aware both of Jane’s confusion and of the undercurrent of harmless flirting between a bored young bride and a country squire perhaps feeling old before his time.
It doesn’t end up being harmless, of course; we never stray far from that bit of Latin marginalia. John Seymour does write poems, and Katherine keeps them tied with a ribbon at the bottom of her storage chest, but they lie there like explosives waiting to go off, and when Edward returns and offhandedly makes a comment that annoys Jane, she mentions the poems as a thoughtless retort. But the thought of them sticks in Edward’s mind. He finds them, reads them, questions Katherine about them, and quickly comes to the furious, bewildered conclusion that he’s been cuckolded by his own father – that Katherine’s firstborn son, Johhny, cannot possibly be his. The protracted scene where Edward confronts his assembled family – including a mute, stunned, furious Katherine – with his suspicions is one of the best, most unbearable things Dunn has ever written. When Edward, in agony, asks Katherine if she’d really intended to go through their entire marriage play-acting a lie, the whole family waits on her reply:
We were all listening for Katherine’s answer, all we Seymours, spellbound. She said, evenly, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ but it struck me as unconvincing; she was having to make an effort to hold steady. I wanted to believe her, but couldn’t, quite: I could see she was testing him, testing the water. The two of them started at each other for a long moment and I had the sense that he was giving her the chance to admit to something. She didn’t take him up on it, instead repeating, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
History suggests that Edward banished Katherine to a nearby nunnery, because there’s a record of Katherine’s father paying the institution forty pounds a year for the remainder of her life. In Tudor times, the collapse of such a family drama would have been swift and brutally uncompromising, since the wife had no legal standing of any kind, and Dunn pays the facts the tribute of not softening this to suit our more litigiously enlightened age. Katherine is surprised and ruinously sad (when Jane hears her crying, she thinks, “To call it despairing would be to dignify it. It was simply the kind of crying that just had to be done; it would go on and on until it was done”), initially vowing not to leave her baby boys Johnny and Edward – but her own family doesn’t want her back, and relegation engulfs her almost instantaneously. It will all feel bitterly, almost blithely anticlimactic to 21st century readers, but it’s what would have happened.
The Seymours are soon distracted from their trauma in any case: Jane is sent to Court to attend Queen Catherine of Aragon as one of her ladies in waiting, and it’s not long before she’s watching the frightening drama of Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn unfold. That familiar story is telescoped with remarkable skill; we get the battle of wills, the lonely courage of Queen Catherine, the scheming of Cardinal Wolsey, the marriage, the tinny, unlikeable new queen, and that queen’s execution, all in fast passages that are nonetheless evocative, as when Jane tries to describe the young Henry VIII of those days:
Half the height again of his companions, he was dressed in white, gold, blood red and venous purple. He himself was a palace, a living, breathing, cavorting palace; there were whole rooms of him, it seemed to me, rooms furnished with treasures and towering one upon the other from the shoes upwards, those shoes soled with Spanish leather, stitched in thread-thin gold, buckled by clustered rubies.
Through it all, Jane herself is above all the one thing we readers have known all through the book: the anti-Anne Boleyn, shy, simple, non-threatening – easy company. When Henry’s exhausted and wary affections begin to turn her way, it feels like the most natural thing in the world, probably because it was. The novel ends on the eve of Jane’s coronation, when she’s thinking of the future – and wondering about Katherine Filliol.
Dunn writes all this with the vivid, almost slangy historical-fiction argot she’s largely invented herself in order to tell these stories (sometimes, rarely, it stops being ‘almost’ – as when a character says “she had one job to do,” or when others utter the recent odious meme, “Really? Really?”), and it works perfectly to both bring the past a personal immediacy and still keep it feeling like the past. The result is her most complex and in many ways her best novel to date.
And it’s the novel with the best postscript, of course. Edward Seymour went on to marry a brittle harpy named Anne Stanhope, with whom he had a brace of children with which to found his line as Duke of Somerset (a title he bestowed upon himself). He himself got to enjoy none of it, being executed by Jane’s son King Edward VI in 1552, but the Somerset line stretched on for two centuries. When it finally failed in 1750, the Dukedom reverted to the descendants of poor wronged Katherine Filliol. When the current Duke of Somerset, John Michael Edward Seymour, looks to his lineage, he’s looking all the way back to the May bride so indelibly dramatized in Suzannah Dunn’s fantastic book. Let’s hope somebody at Pegasus Books had the presence of mind to send His Grace a copy.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.