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A Year with the Tudors II: “You Are My Grace”

By (January 1, 2017) No Comment

Jane the Quene
By Janet Wertman

The Tudors captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and in honor of Open Letters Monthly’s 10th year of publication, Steve Donoghue revisits one of the journal’s most popular features by embarking on A Year with the Tudors: The Second – looking at the year’s crop of new books telling the gaudy, fascinating stories of the Tudor dynasty.

Jane Seymour, the woman who would go on to become the third wife of England’s King Henry VIII, was born circa 1508 at an address with a now-famous name: Wolf Hall. That old Wiltshire residence was the home-base of the capable and ambitious Seymour clan, who’d raised themselves in only one generation from middling back-country gentry to power-jackals haunting the hallways of power – a family ambition memorably captured by Hilary Mantel in her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

In those books, Mantel portrays Jane Seymour as a wan and watchful figure, a bloodless vampire whose affected innocence is a thin mask over a deep recess of contempt, a thing Mantel’s main character, the ruthless lawyer Thomas Cromwell, sees clearly. It’s a somewhat desperate gambit on Mantel’s part, finding some drama in Jane Seymour by turning her into a corseted version of Daenerys Targaryen. Historical novelists have tried this and just about everything else in order to bring this resolutely enigmatic character to life: in her novel The Favored Queen, historian Carolly Erickson gives readers a Jane who’s practically a bystander to her own life; in Diane Haeger’s I, Jane the title character feels frustratingly one step removed from the story; even so skilled a writer as Suzannah Dunn, in her novel The May Bride, manages to create a Jane who’s only vaguely and generally resentful (although in fairness, Dunn’s attention is mostly focused elsewhere). The title of Laurien Gardner’s novel Plain Jane speaks for itself.

It’s a trouble even her contemporaries had, although that’s precious little consolation for the fiction reader. One of the most powerfully insightful of Tudor functionaries called her the fairest of all Henry’s wives but may have had her heart rather than her features in mind; a Venetian ambassador, baffled by her rise at Court, reported that she seemed both indifferent and sickly; a visiting Italian humanist used the general term “charming” and was certain his dispatches were being read by Cromwell’s creatures before they were sent on their way. Unlike all of Henry’s other wives, there’s an evanescent quality about Jane Seymour; she’s overshadowed by the men in her family, by the King, and even by the precious male heir she gave Henry. She died before her 30th birthday, but unlike the other two of Henry’s wives who died young, she didn’t die on his orders. She’s the ghost among his women: a courtship without conniving, a consortship without contest, and a mother who didn’t live to see her son one month old.

In her remarkable debut novel, Janet Wertman comes as close to capturing this elusive figure as any novelist has yet done. Jane the Quene is the first volume in a projected trilogy about the Seymour family, and even from its sharply telling opening scene, it keeps its eyes firmly on the embedded contradictions of its subject. The year is 1525, and an eighteen-year-old Jane is entering the Presence Chamber of Henry’s wife and only rightful queen, Catherine of Aragon. Grouped around Catherine’s raised chair are her ladies in waiting, the chattering, influence-wielding distaff privy council of the Court. Young Jane nervously takes in the scene and thinks That will be me soon – and the reader knows she’s thinking only of achieving the social respectability of being a married woman in service to the Crown but can’t help also savoring the shiver of knowledge Jane doesn’t possess: soon enough, yes, that will be me … not just marriage, but, unthinkably, queenship.

As the novel first unfolds, such a transformation seems decidedly unlikely, and not only because the King is marries Anne Boleyn after years of fighting with the Church to sanctify his divorce from Queen Catherine. There’s also the problem of Jane herself: “She knew what everyone else said,” Jane sadly reflects at one point, “’Jane is too pale, too plain, too shy.’” And if they didn’t think she was listening, they added a whispered, “’And too simple.’” Her brainy brother Edward, the main schemer of the family, considers her time at Court a failure – nobody notices her, nobody asks about her, no new family alliances form around her. The family wants to bring her younger sister Dorothy to Court, in hopes she’ll attract the kind of attention Jane never seems to get. But whereas the Jane Seymour of any earlier novelist would have accepted such criticism with nunlike resignation, Wertman’s Jane simmers with a very human irritation:

“Mistress Jane,” Carew stepped in. “This is the King. Any woman he takes an interest in will find herself admired and desired. Your sister would be lucky if that happened.”

“As was Mary Boleyn?” Jane snapped.

“She asked for nothing,” Edward answered quickly.

“And she received it,” Jane retorted. “In abundance.”

This pulse of living blood is the very thing that’s been missing from earlier fictional renditions of Jane, this feeling that she shared not only Edward’s caustic intellect but also something of the emotional passions of her other brother, Thomas. Edward’s caustic intellect and Thomas’s emotional passions would bring each of them to the executioner’s block, and any account of Jane’s life and times, fiction or nonfiction, should preserve something of the threat these traits posed for her as well.

Such dangers reached their peak when the unthinkable actually happened around 1536. Henry, frustrated by Anne Boleyn’s shrill temper and failure to provide the male heir she had long promised him, began to take notice of the daughter of his old family retainer Sir John Seymour. At this time Henry was in the fullness of his personal power, a large, magnetically domineering force of nature who had contested with kings, emperors, and popes and ruled England with a sweep of tyrannical authority not seen since the reign of Jane’s distant ancestor King Edward III. Jane herself, if we read between the lines of those diplomatic dispatches, was slight and retiring. Novelists have seldom resisted the temptation to tell a variation on the Beauty and the Beast.

Instead, Wertman takes the far more illuminating route of reminding her readers that in many ways, Henry had more in common with Jane than with either of his previous wives. Catherine of Aragon had been the daughter of the two most powerful monarchs in the Western world, a child of Spain, thinking and praying in a foreign language and aware from childhood that she had a royal destiny. Anne Boleyn had spent her formative years at a French Court that could scarcely have been more at odds with the stiff and parsimonious echoes of Henry VII – in most ways, she was no more English than Catherine. Jane represented an entirely simpler and more instinctive set of initial assumptions; to Henry, she must have felt like coming home.

Wertman sees this unfailingly. In scene after scene, her Jane shares English idiosyncrasies with Henry that neither Catherine nor Jane would have understood – and a few that would have revolted them: there’s a very well-drawn sequence at the end of a royal hunt when Jane happily joins Henry in the ceremonial – and bloody – eating of the dead buck’s heart. In the novel’s quietest and most touching moment, Henry unexpectedly joins Jane in the kitchens of Wolf Hall and the two of them set to work mixing ingredients for a poultice. The task and the setting are so mundane that both characters are lulled into simple conversation, with Henry reflecting on his early life. Since that early life included its share of tragedy, Jane eventually becomes worried, and he gently sets her at ease:

“I’ve made a terrible muddle. I am so sorry.”

“Why?” the King asked, and his confusion sounded genuine.

Jane looked up at him. “I’ve made you talk about sadder and sadder things. You were so happy when we first entered the room.”

“I still am.”

“How can that be?”

The King grabbed one of her hands and brought it to his lips. “You have shown me a place that reminds me of innocent times. I was so free in my youth, my mother was so caring. I feel free again now.”

Jane was discomfited by the gesture, the first time she had experienced it outside the ritual of court dancing. His lips were soft, dry. She felt a hint of a scratch from invisible stubble.

Jane the Quene wisely never makes too much of such moments, but the implication must almost certainly be true: the real-life counterparts of such moments must explain the mystery of Jane Seymour. And while she may not have connived to bring them about, she was by no means passive about them either. Quite apart from her cognizance of her family’s Court fortunes, in Wertman’s handling she also feels a strong, unforced sympathy for the human being at the heart of that Court. When the first damning evidence is brought to Henry of Anne Boleyn’s alleged treachery, the scene captures both this sympathy and the tinny elements of melodrama Henry could often infuse into even the most heartfelt moments. He launches into an impromptu lecture on Scripture that doesn’t quite hide his anguish:

Jane was struck by his intensity. She had become used to his general demeanor, but she had forgotten how persuasive he was. He commanded the very air in a room, and created a physical need to agree with him. He was in pain now, over a heartbreaking betrayal by the woman he had once loved and trusted. Jane’s heart flew out to him. “Your Majesty,” she said, reaching out to touch his knee.

He grabbed her hand and held it tight against his chest. “I knew she was cruel to you. And now this. I am angry, deeply angry.”

“I am so sorry you have to endure this,” Jane said.

He sniffed. That broke the spell a little – it seemed self-pitying – though goodness knew he had every right to be so.

“This is what is is to be a king,” he said. “To be forced to do what most men could not. To use your power for the good of the country.”

Wertman’s Henry is only very seldom prone to the kind of Charles Laughton manic outbursts that are his sole occupation in so many other Tudor novels (although the mention in a postscript about how future novels will deal with Henry’s “crazy years” is worrying; Charles Laughton should probably keep his pager on), and her Thomas Cromwell, while owing a good deal to jumped-up arch-schemer of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, is a more believable mixture of ambition and self-deception, a man who’s managed to convince himself that he will escape the fate he has facilitated for so many others.

And at the heart of the novel is a Jane Seymour unlike any that readers of Tudor fiction will have encountered before: more passion than pallor, a complicated mixture of humility and ambition, exactly the kind of multi-faceted personality that might well leave place-seeking courtiers confused. “You center me, Jane,” Henry tells her at one point. “You calm me and bring me to a place of purity where God blesses me … You are the gift He has given me, you are my grace.”

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. He reviews for The National, The American Conservative, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.