29 October, 2007

Innocent Traitor, by Alison Weir. Book review

Edition reviewed: Arrow, 2007, ISBN 978-0-09-949379-2

Alison Weir is best known for her historical biographies, and Innocent Traitor is her first historical novel. It tells the story of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Day Queen’, from her birth to her death. All the main characters are historical.

Tudor England was a turbulent place for those who lived near to the throne, and Lady Jane Grey was nearer than most. Her mother, Frances, was the daughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor, and as Jane was the eldest of Lady Frances’ three daughters, she had a claim to the throne of England. Henry VIII’s will stipulated that the throne should go to his only son, Edward VI, and if Edward died without an heir it should then go to Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, in that order. Alas, Henry’s marital entanglements provided ample scope for arguments over the succession, as both Mary and Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate when Henry had been trying to get rid of their respective mothers. When Edward died childless in July 1553, a group of powerful noblemen led by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, decided to proclaim Jane Queen of England. The success of the scheme depended on imprisoning Mary, but Mary was warned of the plot, raised an army and marched on London. Jane was now caught between two factions. Other people’s schemes had brought her into peril of her life.

The tagline on the cover says, “If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.” Lady Jane Grey’s tragedy is so cruel that the straight facts have a fair chance of bringing a tear to the eye, and Innocent Traitor takes the facts and mildly dramatises them.

Innocent Traitor uses an unusual narrative device, telling Jane’s story through multiple first-person narrators. This has the advantage that the reader gets a more rounded view than would be possible with a single narrator, and occasional amusing sidelines as various characters show what they really think of each other. On the downside, I found that most of the narrators had a tendency to sound the same, possibly because almost all of them are aristocratic women. (This might also account for the rather frequent descriptions of clothes etc). I had to keep backtracking to the chapter headings to remind myself who was talking.

Another quirk of the writing style is the use of present tense for almost the entire novel. This had a distancing effect for me, as if the characters weren’t living through their experiences at all but were telling someone about them. Somehow, having a woman enduring a three-day fatal childbirth narrating in fully grammatical complete sentences didn't convey her agony very effectively to me. This sense of distance was compounded by the astonishing self-awareness displayed by every narrator. No confused human emotions here; everyone seems to know exactly what they did and why they did it, as if they are giving some sort of statement to the Recording Angel. The use of present tense may also contribute to the even pace of the novel, which seems to amble along at much the same tempo in the crowded days of Jane’s short reign as it did when describing her upbringing and education.

Innocent Traitor does an excellent job of conveying the sense of Jane as a political pawn. Literally from the moment of her birth, somebody is scheming to use her for their own advancement. If it isn’t her parents, it’s Thomas Seymour or the Duke of Northumberland. Jane makes some of her own choices (such as her refusal to convert to Catholicism in prison), but the choices she is given are of other people’s making.

Jane is the central character and one of the main narrators, and the novel makes an attempt to develop her as a character without falling into the trap of making her a saint. Jane’s courage is admirable, but her refusal to compromise even on small things is irritating. She makes a moral issue out of everything, for example insisting on wearing black when her mother and Princess Mary want her to wear bright colours. From a very early age she displays not only a precocious intellect but also a prudish distaste for anything to do with sex and childbirth, and seems to have few interests outside her studies. No wonder people found her difficult to deal with! Her mother treats Jane with excessive harshness, but one can understand to some extent how frustrating it might have been for her trying to train Jane up to be someone’s wife, mother and mistress of a great estate. The author comments on this in the Author’s Note, observing that Jane is “a very modern heroine”. She certainly seems out of her time, though it seems to me a great pity that Jane could not have become one of the formidable scholar-abbesses familiar from previous centuries, a role which might have fitted her admirably.

In her religious dogmatism, Jane is in many ways the mirror image of Mary. This raises the intriguing question of what sort of a Queen Jane would have made if history had worked out differently. With her uncompromising views and conviction that she was always right, would she have ruled harshly and been remembered as unfavourably as Mary has been? Certainly Jane as portrayed here does not seem to have the flexibility or political cunning that would have been needed to make her an effective ruler. Like Mary she won’t bend, she can only break.

The novel is closely focussed on female characters. The only male narrator is John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, who is a cold-hearted villain with apparently no scruples and not much in the way of redeeming features. It would have been interesting to hear from some of the other men in the story, such as Jane’s father (whose rebellion sealed her fate) and her unwanted husband Guilford Dudley (whose portrayal is so one-sided as to make me wonder about his side of the story). In particular, I would have liked to see and hear more from Dr Feckenham, the Roman Catholic priest and scholar who tries and fails to persuade Jane to change her religious views and save her own life (Though since Jane’s death was the price of Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, one has to wonder if a reprieve could really have been possible). He seems to have genuine warmth and humanity, commenting to Jane that “an old man such as I has learned to question his convictions”. I wonder what he thought of the whole unfolding tragedy.

Mildly dramatised biography of the tragic Lady Jane Grey.

Has anyone else read it?


Anonymous said...

Yes, my daughter Cathy, who is now studying history for A level and is interested in this period. She recently read Alison Weir's (nonfiction) book The Princes in the Tower.
I'll send her a link to your review of Innocent Traitor.

Kathryn Warner said...

I quite enjoyed this, though I wasn't too keen on the multiple first person narrators. There are nine of them, as far as I remember, and they all sounded exactly the same to me. One of them, the Earl of Arundel I think, only narrated one very short section of a few lines, and we never heard from him again. I think third person would have been a better choice. Having said that, I thought the novel brought Jane to life very well, and I learnt a lot about her. I think it's definitely worth a read.

Carla said...

Maxine - I'll be interested to hear what Cathy thought of the novel. It struck me as a pleasant way to learn about Jane, and that it might work out very well to start with the novel and then go to a historical biography and/or history books to find out more.

Alianore - I agree, I think third person would have been a better choice. I forgot all about Arundel because he only has about a page and a half! Some of the very short snippet narrators are quite effective, like the executioner, but others don't seem to add much, like Arundel. A third person narrative could have 'sat in' on a council meeting and shown the conspirators unravelling in a single vivid scene - rats leaving the sinking ship and all that. I think Arundel's narrative is doing the same sort of thing, but it doesn't seem as effective to me. Jane is probably the best developed character, along with her mother who's also quite interesting. The others tend to blur. It doesn't help that they all sound the same. It's a difficult job, getting multiple narrators to have their own distinct voices, so Alison Weir set herself a hard task when she chose it! Colleen McCullough does it well in Song of Troy, but I can't think of many others. It's a pleasant way to learn about Jane's story, but I couldn't help feeling it was more like reading a biography than a novel. It didn't take me inside their world, somehow.

Kathryn Warner said...

I do really enjoy multi first person, when it's done well and the 'voices' are differentiated. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is a great example. There are 5 first person narrators, and after a few chapters, I didn't even need to check the name at the top of each section - it was clear who was narrating that particular bit.

in Innocent Traitor, sticking Arundel in as a narrator for one tiny part, just to see the council meeting, seemed rather awkward. I did like the executioner's narrative, though.

Daphne said...

I enjoyed reading Innocent Traitor. I also liked the executioner's short chapter. I thought it gave an interesting perspective. How awful it must have been for the real person who had to do this.

Carla said...

Alianore - yes, I thought the executioner's narrative was effective. There aren't many options for the narrator of that scene, and using him worked well. Thanks for the mention of the Barbara Kingsolver novel, I shall look that one up.

Daphne - It must have been a beastly job, mustn't it? I suppose they must have got used to it, but you can still imagine that even a hard-bitten professional might balk at having to do a sixteen-year-old girl. Horrible.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Maybe I'll read it one day, but it's not the period I'm most interested in, and I have so many books on my TBR pile. ;)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

An excellent balanced review as always Carla, thank you.
I have to say this one isn't for me. I read Tudor novels until they came out of my ears in my teens and early twenties and I probably burned out. I won't say I'll never read it, but it's not top of my TBR.

Constance Brewer said...

Hmm, a thing like multiple first person narrators would probably scare me away from even picking it up. But I confuse easily. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - so many books, so little time! I know the feeling well :-)

Elizabeth - thank you. I read a lot of Tudor novels in my teens as well, mostly because there were more of them around than anything else (plus ca change), but luckily it didn't seem to be enough of an overdose to have lasting effects! I get bored if I read too many too close together, but that applies to any period - though in most other periods the chance would be a fine thing :-)

Constance - the multiple narrators are okay as long as you remember to check who's talking at the start of each chapter. If I missed that I found I got confused and had to backtrack.

david santos said...


Send an email to the Brazil embassj your country and repor the injustice that the brazilian courts are making with this girl
Release on Flavia’s accident and status of the process.

The resignation is to stop the evolution. (David Santos in times without end)

Thank you

elena maria vidal said...

Great review, Carla, thank you! When it comes to Lady Jane, I start crying in the beginning of the story. Poor girl!

Carla said...

Elena - yes, you really do have to have a heart of stone not to cry over Lady Jane's story, don't you?