History, Myth – Fact, Fiction – Several Points Of View: A Review Of Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
Reviews often begin by warning of spoilers. Neither excuse nor warning here for saying that Alison Weir’s book, Innocent Traitor, recounts the public and political life of Lady Jane Grey. She was sixteen years old and married by agreement when, in 1554, she was beheaded upon the order of Queen Mary of England, after being convicted of treason. Mary, you see, was a Roman Catholic and Lady Jane Grey was a Protestant. The young lady had been elevated to the throne by interested parties and had herself been Queen of England for just nine days after the death of the juvenile, and himself manipulated, Edward The Sixth. Jane Grey’s elevation to the throne had been nothing more than a blatant plot to hold on to power by a group led by the dead King’s Proetctor, if that be the word to use. The plot, which had not involved Lady Jane herself, was a ploy to maintain the Protestant identity of the English crown. Mary, Henry The Eighth’s daughter by Spanish Catholic Katherine of Aragon perhaps had the greater claim to the throne. She was the old king’s daughter, but she had been born of an annulled marriage to a queen who had also formerly been married to Henry’s brother, a fact that in some eyes rendered the marriage to Henry illegal from the start. Opinion was determined by which side of the religious divide was asked. But, as ever, pragmatism surfaced and interests ruled. But no-one can hold on to usurped power without support. And when what you have ebbs away, you get it in the neck. Here endeth the spoilers.
Innocent Traitor is an historical novel. It sticks to the facts, embroidering them only when records are scant. This is not Hollywood, and so reality cannot be edited. And we all know the facts, so it is neither cliché nor spoiler to re-state that “she dies in the end”. What is crucial to Alison Weir’s scheme, however, is how things happen, how motives and allegiances shift and coalesce to create what eventually feels like an inevitable fate for Lady Jane, who became the only remaining and unwilling pawn in a vast power play. And, in describing these events, motives, allegiances and deceits, Alison Weir creates a rich tapestry of fact, embroidered with minimal invention, depicting how fate unfolds to take the life of Lady Jane. If you did not already understand the history, then by the end of Innocent Traitor, you will. If you did already have a grasp on events, then by the end of the book you will see them clearer.
The story is told through the eyes and thoughts of several characters. Lady Jane Grey herself is to the fore, but her scheming and unloving parents, Frances Brandon and Henry Grey make crucial contributions. We also meet several queens, Jane Seymour, Katherine Howard, Katherine Parr and Mary. We meet Elizabeth almost in passing, but her tricks spice the tale throughout. The book appears to concentrate on the women, which is interesting in itself, but then males appear, such as the inevitable John Dudley and the flighty Henry Fitzalan. All of these characters – and more! – relate their tales in the first person and the present tense.
Now here is the great shortcoming of Innocent Traitor, since each of these people ought to have a different perspective, a different point of view and might even use different types of language. They would certainly have brought different assumptions into focus, given their disparate backgrounds. Innocent Traitor, however, requires them to deliver facts to the reader, and they all do this efficiently, and in rather similar style. And yet we, the readers, are taken into the first person, present tense thoughts of a woman in childbirth, a person being executed, a maid dressing her mistress, and then, almost in the next breath, we are plotting potential treason, intrigue, or merely justifying religious difference. As such, these characters rather lose their identities and emerge as mere vehicles for delivering the plot of historical events.
But despite the required and rather lengthy suspension of disbelief that is required by the novel’s form, the complexity and jaw-sagging duplicity, recalcitrance and utter selfishness of these people make Innocent Traitor an absolutely riveting read. By the end, one wonders why it is that these people, and probably others like them, who populated the centres of power throughout history are not today described simply as the two-faced, lying murderers they were.
And by the end we are also left with a certain emptiness of the stomach when we realise that all this scheming was all prompted by these people’s adherence or not to merely different versions of obvious myth. If we have to suspend belief to accommodate unlikely points of view, then we might also want to admit defeat in order to appreciate the fact that these people, and many thousands of others, were persecuted, executed or merely fell in war as a result of an argument about a largely mythical man who defied gravity and rose bodily into the skies, and an institution that maintains bread changes into flesh and wine into blood – and does it daily!
Innocent Traitor, despite faults generated by its form, is a highly successful book. It captures the motives very accurately and leads the reader into complete sympathy with the plight of Lady Jane Grey who, at just sixteen years of age when the axe severed her neck, just wanted to be left alone with her books. These, it seems, were the wrong books.