Everyone who knows me personally or who reads any of my book related posts knows how much I love historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Whilst the Victorian period is a particular favourite of mine, I’m pretty much eager to read and learn as much as I can about any historical period, especially if it’s well researched and skillfully written. British history in particular is a great love of mine, as living in Wales I am often quite literally surrounding by sites of historical interest.
You can surely understand my enthusiasm then when I recently received a surprise bookish parcel in the post. I wasn’t expecting it and it completely took me by surprise when I opened the parcel to see that the book was none other than the latest novel by the historian Alison Weir: Jane Seymour; The Haunted Queen. Alison Weir is considered to be more than an expert when it comes to the Tudor monarchy, particularly in regards to her works of non-fiction. One of her latest enterprises has been the Six Tudor Queens series, in which she is working her way through each of Henry’s wives, writing an accompanying historical fiction book for each woman. Jane Seymour; The Haunted Queen, as many history lovers would assume, is the third novel to be published in this series.
The novel is very coherent in the fact that it follows a very clear chronological order throughout its entirety. This is obviously great for a time period so full of momentous political, social and religious change, as it means the author is able to take each event as it comes, fitting it in naturally to the novels own plot. I think the novel is also helped by the fact that it initially starts with Jane as a young girl growing up in her family home, written in a first person perspective. By introducing us to our main character before she becomes a part of the royal court, we are able to establish her own character free of any outside forces. The author has done a good job at giving an authentic personality to a figure who is so often remembered mainly for producing a male heir for Henry VIII. In this book Jane’s fictionalised character is given a greater depth, allowing readers to sympathise or even understand her across the different events which befall her.
I did find the first part of the novel slightly stagnant in parts. The opening chapters are placed quite firmly in Jane’s family home, and whilst there is a good level of skill in setting up the family dynamics, not much seems to happen. There is a certain level of scandal within this opening, but it is clear to see that the novel definitely starts to pick up pace as soon as Jane leaves to enter Queen Catherine’s court. This was actually one of the most interest parts of the novel for me, as I found it really fascinating to witness how the different key players of the Tudor period were initially brought into the same circles. Knowing what will happen to the current Queen with the benefit of hindsight added a very unique tension to the plot, and I couldn’t help but be fascinated to watch it all play out vividly in front of me. I also think the author has given us a very skilled series of novels in the way that they are able to overlap with each other, giving a multi-layering of narratives which often coincide from different perspectives. It reminds us that history is far from one sided and that there are always these added dimensions to take into account.
Naturally, history really is the key aspect of this novel, and I am amazed at how skillfully Weir has tackled this momentous task. Not only has she managed to get in a vast amount of characters and detail which blend well together, she has also managed to interweave a narrative which doesn’t seem to stray too unapologetically from the key historical facts. Obviously our author is a very well researched historian who knows her subject down to the most minute detail, meaning that this book feels incredibly authentic. She doesn’t take grand liberties in changing the course of history or adapting it to suit her needs. Whilst some historians may be slightly dubious of her portrayal of certain characters, it never felt falsified for sheer entertainment. The author is using a real narrative of history which she has embellished for greater effect, as opposed to fabricating the truth and deviating too wildly from history.
In many ways what I actually enjoyed far more than the surface plot of a young girl becoming a royal queen, was the vast range of contextual elements saturated throughout. In my opinion the strength of this novel lies very much in the historical backdrop it is set against. We take an intimate yet refreshingly accessible look into the politics of the Tudor court, as well as the further social, economical, religious and foreign policies of this period. I think this book is a fantastic way for anyone to get a greater grasp of Tudor history, as the author covers key topics such as the break with the Pope in Rome, the Dissolution of the monasteries and the various acts which were so groundbreaking and shocking for their time. These parts of history have quite literally established the world we live in today, and learning about them in such a relaxed and accessible manner is truly great.
I do think that in comparison to the wider historical contexts and details that the characters themselves do pale a little in comparison. At times they felt a bit simple in their actions and speech, and were more on the black and white side of things than I might typically like of my characters. Likewise, I did find certain scenes between Henry and Jane to be rather romanticised, but this is of course one of the things the author was at liberty to do to ensure that these figures of historical importance could become more relatable to a modern audience. I also think that’s its always going to be a challenge to write about figures which, although real, we still know relatively little about in their own personalities and thoughts.
I really enjoyed this novel and it has definitely rekindled my love of the Tudor period and the fascinating religious and political shifts which took place. Alison Weir has taken an age old period of history and breathed life into its very fabric, giving this central period of history a new found vibrancy. The sheer detail depicted in this novel is staggering and I am more excited than ever to read a non-fiction book by this brilliant writer of history.
Disclaimer – I was very kindly gifted this book from the publishers. I will only ever post my own honest thoughts and opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.