Friday, January 7, 2011

Visiting Lady Jane Grey and the Tudor period

While the calendar was moving another year ahead, I headed the other direction, visiting the past through a collection of historical fiction and non-fiction, in both book and film

I spent two or three weeks in Tudor England, with Lady Jane Grey and her family. Her most famous relatives were the Tudor Kings and Queens and her life ended violently like so many royal Tudor women.

Jane’s story is tragic. At only 15 she was manoeuvred onto the English throne to replace her recently deceased cousin Edward. She was quickly deposed by Mary, Edward’s older sister, and was eventually executed.

Viewing her story through various formats has shown me how difficult it must be to get an accurate understanding of history. There are many variables caused by gaps in evidence. If we want our history to be more than lists of facts and dates, we’ll have to recognise how much imagination and speculation play in its recording and reporting.

All of my books about Jane Grey presented more or less the same basic outline, but diverged slightly depending on the author’s own point of interest. For example Faith Cook’s book Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen (non fiction) focused on Jane’s faith and how her protestant beliefs contributed to her death.

Alison Plowden in Lady Jane Grey and the House of Suffolk took a broader view and placed Jane within the context of her family, where they came from and the tragedies that continued after Jane’s death due to their proximity to the throne and the potential threat they could play to the reigning monarch. While Jane suffered at the hands of Mary, her surviving sisters suffered at the hands of Mary’s successor, Elizabeth, probably because they were next in line to the throne when Elizabeth had no children of her own.

Alison Weir’s book Innocent Traitor was fiction, but Weir is a respected historian and I found her story didn’t stray from what I learned from the other “factual” accounts. Her familiarity with Tudor times helped to flesh out Jane Grey’s world, giving depth to her cultural and physical environments. This is the only kind of historical fiction I’m interested in reading – where the known facts are not discarded, and nothing blatantly wrong is added merely for the sake of the story.

The 1980s film Lady Jane is a clear example of the latter. While half of the film does stay with the basic historical record, the other half is a sentimentalised romance where Jane becomes an impulsive, giggling girl far different from every other account of her story. The change comes after her forced marriage to Guilford Dudley, by all historical accounts not a happy relationship and one that rarely saw them together. Yet the film turns them into doting and inseparable partners who even manage to share a cell in the Tower of London after their arrest by Mary.

Another work of historical fictional that I read was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a winner of the Mann Booker Prize. While I enjoyed the book, which encouraged me to read further in the period depicted (I’m currently reading a biography of William Tyndale), it also made me wonder about the judging standards of one the most prestigious literary prizes. What made this book stand above others? Personally I found some of the writing was clumsy – often I didn’t know who was being written about. The main character Thomas Cromwell was mostly referred to as “he”, which was often confusing when the “he” in a sentence could also be one of the other characters. Mantel seemed to realise this herself in parts of the book and she made it clear by saying “he, Cromwell...” but that clarification was sporadic and inconsistent.

Also at times I felt that Mantel used inappropriately modern language – one example I recall was a reference to something being “stuffed up” when it was done wrong. Maybe that quibble is merely a sign of my own ignorance of Tudor idioms; perhaps the term does date back that far.

A graphic understanding of the period came through a miniseries Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth. This film is not recommended for the squeamish, holding little back from its portrayal of beheadings and other executions, including drawing and quartering.

If nothing else, all of these accounts of the Tudor period show how tenuous the lives of those close to royalty could be. How easy it was to fall from favour and fall victim to the headsman’s axe (or worse).

I have a few more books about Lady Jane and Tudor times to read, so I'm sure I'll be returning to this subject beofre long.

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