I have always been fascinated by the story of Lady Jane Grey from quite a young age, so much so that I wrote a short story based on her imprisonment for an A-level assignment many moons ago. Also, when I was at university in Leicester, and my parents decided to leave me the car while they went off to Tunisia for a couple of weeks of well-deserved rest and relaxation, I visited Bradgate Park, a little way outside of Leicester in Anstey, and previously the grounds of Lady Jane Grey’s family seat. I had a great few hours there, deer spotting, the city life being a bit constraining on the free spirit of the Welsh country girl so finding some natural wild space was much needed.
I wouldn’t say that I had a connection with her but her story has stayed with me through the years. As often happens as you get older, the details of things that you once knew well fades and when I saw Rinaldi’s book, I thought that it might be quite interesting to refresh my memory on poor Lady Jane Grey. My youngest is always quizzing me on my historical knowledge especially British history so gaps need to be filled if I am going to pass on the nuggets of what I’ve learnt.
And Rinaldi’s book, I think, is a fair representation of Jane’s life. Born into an aristocratic family with ambition, Jane’s childhood takes place at the time when Henry VIII is on to his final wife and the one who survives him, Katharine Parr and his health is declining, his vitality sapped by whatever disease is killing him. It is referenced by Rinaldi by an open sore on his leg and whilst no-one conclusively knows what killed the King, the inference is syphilis.
Jane’s family are far from loving and it is with some relief that she is brought to court, invited by Katharine who keeps her there to serve her. Jane has a fondness for her cousin, Edward, Henry’s son with Jane Seymour and the heir apparent, and this is reciprocated by Edward. Through this trip to court, we are also introduced to Elizabeth and Mary, Jane’s other cousins. Both female figures would be queens but it would be Elizabeth who would become one of the most significant figures in British history as good Queen Bess, Elizabeth I.
Jane also meets Thomas Seymour – handsome, gallant, charming – who had previously been linked to Katharine before she attracted the eye of the King and is Edward’s uncle and an important political player at the time and he becomes a very important person to Jane, indeed her salvation for a time.
When the King dies, Jane is returned to her family and the misery that this proposes but during her time at court, Thomas Seymour promised that he would have her at his home with Katharine when he could, that she would not have to suffer for long, Jane having intimated to him that her parents slapped her. And he is true to his word. Elizabeth is also there, having no mother to take care of her and her being of political importance due to her royal blood.
I think that this is telling of the time, that children in positions of aristocracy were used as pawns in power plays as how else would a parent willingly send their young daughter away from them to a unfamiliar place into the care of people who are ostensibly strangers? It seems weird to contemplate this in our life and times but it would appear to have been commonplace then. Having the favour of the ruling powers could only be advantageous and if your children could give you an avenue into that world and contribute to a feeling of well-being towards you, then wealth and power could be the prize.
And so Jane has some happy days in the care of Katharine and Thomas, the most stable ones of her short life. Here, however, she witnesses the rather inappropriate relationship between the young Elizabeth and Thomas, where he visits her every day to “tickle” her, whilst still in his nightshirt. Katharine is heavily pregnant and Jane feels compelled to report it to her but in doing so, sours her relationship with Thomas, a man who she dearly loves.
With Henry having passed, the Kingship is now Edward’s and he is being guided in this by his other uncle, Edward. It would appear that Edward seems to have been a popular name.
King Edward is prone to ill health and when he dies, a power vacuum forms.
Henry VIII had named the order of succession to the throne in his will: Edward, Mary, Elizabeth. But Edward, on his death had named Jane as his heir. In the meantime, Jane has been betrothed and so she finds herself the unwilling pawn in a move fuelled by her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, Jane having been forced to marry his son, Guildford by parental arrangement. Jane will become Queen of England for nine days.
Unfortunately, Mary raises an army, has the popular support from the people and refutes Jane’s succession. Jane has met Mary who is considerably older but is, after all, a cousin and remains optimistic, despite her imprisonment in the Tower of London, that Mary will forgive her and she will keep her life.
Jane is beheaded, the order for her to be executed signed by Mary.
It is truly a sad tale. Sixteen years old was the age Jane had reached when she was executed. And Rinaldi does a good job of bringing this world to life in a way that would be entertaining for a Young Adult audience. She is able to show the machinations of the court and how powerless Jane is in the face of the ambitions that the people around her harbour. Jane is our narrator and so we see things from her perspective. She is portrayed as an innocent and unwilling as she is with the paths that are being laid for her, Rinaldi shows that she does not have the capability to stop any of it.
She is bullied by her parents, physically slapped for her opinions and not valued for herself at all except by Edward.
If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Jane’s emotional response to all that is happening lacks a little depth. She had to be terrified, regardless of her familial connection to Queen Mary; to believe that she would receive a reprieve is naïve. Maybe that was what Rinaldi was going for in this book: that Jane was a true innocent, easily manipulated because she didn’t really see the badness and ruthlessness of the people around her, even her own parents. If that is the case, then Rinaldi has achieved this as Jane is gullible and suffers as a result.
However, part of me feels that Jane would have been more cognisant of exactly how in peril she was at all times and how helpless she is to stop it all and this sense of tension at her position and how, with each turn of the wheel, like a prisoner on a torture rack, her ability to free herself and escape death are gradually being tightened – well, for me, it’s not really there. Neither is the misery, the anger, the despair. It’s not superficial but I do feel that it could have been darker in its telling and more developed.
However, in terms of providing an easy-to-access representation of a significant historical event in fiction form, then this book is a winner.