Monday, September 13, 2010

Innocent Traitor

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey
© 2006 Alison Weir
402 pages

I just found Alison Weir this year and have thus far enjoyed her work in history and historical fiction. Innocent Traitor marked her introduction to historical fiction, and since The Lady Elizabeth and Captive Queen were so enjoyable, I looked forward to reading the work that presaged them. Innocent Traitor is set during the same period as The Lady Elizabeth: Henry VIII, the aging Tudor monarch, has  failed despite six wives to generate a brood of sons. All of England's hopes for avoiding a bloody war of succession -- bloodier still now with the Protestant Reformation gaining in strength and promising to make such a war one of religion to boot -- are pinned on the health of Henry's only male offspring, Edward. Meanwhile, charismatic and wily characters compete for power and influence: court intrigue abounds, and our titular character is thrust into it by her ambitious parents.

The Lord and Lady Dorset are mightily displeased at their daughter Jane for having been born a girl, but the timing of her birth -- close to that of Prince Edward's -- and her Tudor blood make her a viable candidate for marriage  to Edward when he reaches his majority. From the moment Edward's birth is announced, Jane's parents scheme to insert her into English politics.  Jane lacks the imperious will of her friend Elizabeth: she has no interest in ruling, or in most affairs of aristocracy. She prefers studying theology and the simple pleasures of reading and conversation to noble sports like hunting, gossip, and conspiracy. Still, the examples of Elizabeth and others put enough steel in her backbone to give those who wish to casually use her pause.

Although Jane is the primary character of Innocent Traitor, hers is not the only voice. Weir relies on a half-dozen voices to tell the story: Queen Katherine (Parr); Frances, Jane's cold and oppressive mother;  Ellen, her governess;  the future Queen Mary, and John Dudley. Weir uses the first-person voice for all of them, which required some getting used to: Dudley's inclusion seemed especially odd at first, although he is instrumental in dragging poor Jane into court in an attempt to prevent the Catholic Mary's succession and the return of England to the "yoke of Rome". Unfortunately for him and Jane, Mary is a force to be reckoned with.

Innocent Traitor is not as tightly focused as The Lady Elizabeth, but it's still a good read: Jane is as sympathetic a character as I've ever read, and Weir's training and work as a historian are put to good use, portraying the flamboyant, dangerous, and miserable world of Tudor-era England in rich colors. The final fifty pages are particularly poignant. Dialogue has a historical flair, but is not overly stilted -- though Jane's childhood narrative chapters have an adult formality to them. (This was also present in The Lady Elizabeth).

All in all, an enjoyable novel, and yet one bettered by Weirs' succeeding works.

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