Friday, February 6, 2009

Innocent Traitor

I don't read much straight fiction; I usually stick to mysteries, classics, and non-fiction.  Innocent Traitor isn't much of a deviation for me, though, because it's Alison Weir's first novel.  I've read and enjoyed most of her non-fiction but somehow missed Innocent Traitor until I saw her next novel, The Lady Elizabeth, in Borders.

Innocent Traitor is the story of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen who was executed for treason, and it's familiar territory for Weir who counted her as one of The Children of Henry VIII.  Weir begins with the almost simultaneous births of Lady Jane and her cousin Edward and uses multiple narrators to chronicle Jane's short life, most of which was spent as a pawn to her abusive mother's ambitions.  

Although Weir could have portrayed Jane as a "poor little rich girl" or the sweet martyr of prior historical fiction, she creates a more complex picture of an intellectual, insecure, and surprisingly dogmatic teenager.  Yes, she is a pawn, but she's also a bit of a prig, a devout Protestant who seems to equate wearing bright colors with moral turpitude.  Jane is extremely intelligent and well-educated and described by others as pretty, but convinced that she's plain and will end up a spinster because of comparisons to her pretty, frivolous younger sister.  She comes across as a real teenager, albeit one with unusual family issues.  Her one triumph as Queen is when she realizes that her mother's words no longer sting - instead of obeying the venomous Duchess of Suffolk, Jane can now issue orders to her tormentor.   

Weir wrote Innocent Traitor after four non-fiction books on the Tudor court and her ease with the era shows.  Improbable yet true events, such as Catherine Parr's discovery of the heresy charges being prepared against her, flow naturally and the secondary characters feel like real people rather than historical figures.  Princess Mary feels particularly well developed, perhaps because she's so often portrayed as a one-dimensional character.  Mary is a tragic figure.  She's plain and politically suspect but desperate for marriage and children, heir to the throne but politically tone deaf, and as devout and dogmatic as her younger cousin.  Catherine Parr also stands out - an intelligent, maternal woman who takes Jane under her wing and protects her from her mother.  Even Guilford Dudley has an unexpectedly sympathetic scene.  He's introduced as a spoiled vulgarian who preens and sneers and gets drunk at his wedding banquet, and the consummation of his and Jane's marriage devolves into a rape.  In his final meetings with Jane, however, Weir shows him to be a scared boy whose father has been executed and knows he may soon lose his head as well.   Even Jane's mother, whose only personality traits are cruelty and ambition, feels like an actual person.  Not someone you'd like to know, but a McMansion-dwelling helicopter mom you've unfortunately met.

After two novels, Alison Weir has returned to non-fiction with a biography of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.  Based on Innocent Traitor, I hope she hasn't abandoned fiction for good.  As a reader, I'd like to see her alternate between fiction and history because I find her work in both genres so enjoyable.  Perhaps she'll write a novel about Queen Mary, focusing on the years between her mother's banishment from court and her ascension to the throne.

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