Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 4, 2007
By Alison Weir
Ballantine. 402 pp. $24.95
After publishing 10 works of history about the kings and queens of England, Alison Weir has come over to the dark side and written a novel. The process, she says, "filled me with a heady sense of freedom," but clearly that appraisal is based on the Historian's Heady Sense of Freedom Index, which runs from 1 (using colored note cards) to 10 (hiding in the library after hours). Innocent Traitor is an enormously entertaining novel to read, but writing it was obviously a process of painstaking research, the same sort of hard work that resulted in Weir's bestselling history The Six Wives of Henry VIII. What's different this time is her decision to write about Queen Jane -- England's briefest monarch -- in the voices of the participants. The result is an engrossing story that's suspenseful even though we know poor Jane will end up on the chopping block at 16, one of the first of Bloody Mary's many victims.
The novel rotates through a small collection of narrators, starting with Jane's bitter mother on the day in 1537 when she goes into labor. Jane doesn't emerge from the womb reading Latin, but almost. She quickly grows into an exceptionally, even weirdly, brilliant girl, who struggles to be obedient while remaining true to herself. Any parent might be thrown by a 4-year-old who says, "I must above all remember that each meal is like the Last Supper, so I must eat with as goodly manners as if I were in the company of Our Blessed Lord Himself." But the mean treatment Jane endures from her parents shocks even the family's servants and friends. Jane's mother, as the niece of Henry VIII, is in a position to build a powerful house, but she needs a son, and her failure to produce one makes her impatient and cruel.
The importance of male heirs was, of course, a foundation of this patriarchal society. The disappointment that Jane's parents feel is just a small version of the king-sized anxiety that Henry VIII feels in the boudoir. An intimate scene of the bloated, ulcerated monarch making one last flaccid attempt with his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, will put most readers out of the mood for weeks. But Katherine emerges as one of the novel's most fascinating narrators. She comes into the story when Jane's parents send her to live with the royal family in a craven effort to boost their standing. Long deprived of maternal affection, Jane adores the queen, who secretly encourages the girl's radical Protestant ideas and gives her a crash course in surviving the ecclesiastical tensions tearing England part. Who better to teach her than a queen married to a serial wife-killer? Katherine knows the importance of quick denials and heartfelt pleas, but, sadly, this is one lesson Jane will never learn.
Even before the king is dead, Jane's parents and the maniacal duke of Northumberland scheme to subvert the law of succession and drag Jane to the throne as queen. Alternately beating her and appealing to her religious idealism, they succeed -- but only for nine precarious days before Henry VIII's Catholic daughter, Mary, revives her own claim to the throne and begins wrenching England back toward Rome.
This complicated history sweeps along in a remarkably accessible way -- always exciting, always engaging. And the use of multiple voices -- each clearly named and dated -- keeps us at the center of every new outrageous plot twist. You'll be tempted to guffaw at these events, but Weir anticipates that skepticism in a witty author's note: "Some parts of the book may seem far-fetched," she writes. "They are the parts most likely to be based on fact."
What ultimately seems far-fetched, though, is not the ax-wielding murderer who bursts through a wall or the use of arsenic to prolong young King Edward's gruesome death; it's each character's complete self-knowledge and candor. Weir has given these people a strong dose of truth serum and set them down in front of a bright light. No matter how conniving, proud, foolish or deluded they may be with each other, they speak to us without a hint of dramatic irony, clearly and honestly explaining their actions and motives. What's gained in historical clarity comes at the cost of psychological depth, as though, after spending decades laying out the complexities of British history, Weir were unwilling to create characters who would consciously or unconsciously mislead us or who might not fully realize why they behave as they do.
But ambiguity may be too much to ask for from such an enthralling story. You can't resist Jane -- so young, so brilliant, so cruelly used and sacrificed. In the nine days' queen, Weir has found a fascinating and deeply sympathetic figure through which to examine one of the strangest crises of British history. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.