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Queen Jane Seymour: Bound To Obey And Serve (Part 2)

February 26, 2014

Before I begin, I wanted to officially acknowledge what has probably become all too obvious of late, which is that I currently am not able to keep up the pace of two posts a week. It’s not for lack of material, God knows; I have more material than I know what to do with and still want to write about all of it. But as things are, I don’t have the time to write two full-length, reasonable-quality posts a week, though I hope to get that time back in the future. For now, though, I’ll be posting every Wednesday — usually book overviews, though I’ll keep up with the occasional essay as well.

And now, if you want to learn more about Jane Seymour’s grim posthumous career, read on!

Before starting, I should clarify that in this post I’m talking only about novels in which Anne is the major player. There are a number of novels in which Jane has the leading role and Anne is a side character, but since the focus of this blog is on Anne Boleyn-centered fiction, I wanted to look primarily at how Jane is handled when the primary sympathy — or at least primary focus — is on her predecessor. Not surprisingly, Jane occupies an uncomfortable position in fictional works starring Anne Boleyn — as Anne’s maid-of-honour and successor, she would seem like the natural antagonist, but since the antagonist slot is already taken by up to three other women (Catherine of Aragon, Princess Mary, and Lady Rochford, in descending order of audience appeal) Jane herself often seems to be out of place, wedged hastily into the story in order to establish that she exists and that she’s bad news. Often she’s lucky to get even a full scene to herself — there are quite a few books, especially among the ones from the early days, in which she’s never seen at all. Some of this must be religious delicacy — for example, Vertue Betray’d (1682) is rabidly pro-Protestant, and since Jane was the mother of the unimpeachably Protestant Edward VI, it would have been somewhat jarring for her to appear opposite Anne as the villain. This is how Elizabeth Blount made her first and — as best as I can tell — only appearance in the role of chief femme fatale, and “fair Seymour” never actually appeared on stage. The only reason we know of her existence is a couple of lines by Henry VIII going over his reasons for wanting to get rid of Anne. In Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) Jane is offstage again, though she’s described in a suitably sympathetic manner as having pleaded for the lives of the Carthusians. Anne appears to hold no grudge against her.

Jane Seymour, like a sister I did deem thee;
But what of that? Thou’rt heav’n-ordained to visit
Her sins upon the head of her that dared
To love, to wed another’s lord. May’st thou
Ne’er know the racking anguish of this hour,
The desolation of this heart!

This mixture of resignation and pity for her successor also appears in Elizabeth Tollet’s and William Whitehead’s eighteenth-century monologues. In Tollet’s Anne Boleyn To King Henry VIII (before 1754) Anne tells Henry:

Nor shall I then, to your Delight a Bar,
Retard the influence of a fairer Star …
She too may Fall, whose now too potent Eyes
Enthral your Heart, herself your Sacrifice.
Unhappy she, whoe’re like me must prove
The dire Disaster of superior Love!

Whitehead’s Ann Boleyn to Henry VIII (1743) likewise has Anne speaking of the “misguided Maid” more in sorrow than in anger.

Alas! She knows not the sad Time will come,
When Henry’s Eyes to other Nymphs shall roam:
When she shall vainly sigh, plead, tremble, rave,
And drop, perhaps, a Tear on Anna’s Grave.

Although Jane never did outlive her husband’s regard for her, the sentiments are understandable enough. But there’s no implication that Jane is anything other than the overwhelmed object of Henry’s passion, although a vague reference in Anna Boleyn Relates The History of Her Life (1743) does, without naming Jane, speculate that it may possibly have been “Arts of hers” which led Henry to abandon Anne.

Jane gets some actual characterization and even some dialogue in Anne Boleyn: An Historical Romance (1842) which, true to the old image of Jane as a beneficent Protestant mother, describes her as being a sweet, innocent sixteen-year-old in 1533; not surprisingly, Henry manages to overpower the “fair flower’s” resistance eventually, with the author expressing relief that Jane departed this world before she had had a chance to become truly contaminated by association with him. However, Jane acquired the beginning of a sharper edge the following year in Windsor Castle (1843). Still beautiful — she is “tall, exquisitely proportioned, with a complexion of the utmost brilliancy and delicacy, large liquid blue eyes, bright chestnut tresses, and lovely features” — she isn’t above throwing out some “allurements to ensnare the king.” She acquires a locket with his portrait and she and Anne have a spat in which Jane shows a thorough acquaintance with Anne’s past history and uses it as a weapon. “Catherine will be avenged by means of this woman,” says Anne to herself. Even so, this Jane — dating from just about the same time as Agnes Strickland’s scathing assessment of her was published — is more justified in her actions than later ones are, since in this novel, Anne is portrayed as flirting inappropriately with Norris just as Jane flirts with the king, something which Jane uses to justify her own behavior.

Whether George Boker read Agnes Strickland or not, I don’t know, but the Jane in his Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1850) fully lives down to Strickland’s description. She’s the earliest Jane I’ve encountered who is the ice-cold, intelligent, sometimes terrifying politician who doesn’t get written nearly enough, to be honest. This Jane is quite intelligent enough to see what’s going on from the first — Anne must be gotten rid of, and Henry is using every feeble supposition and dubious accusation he can get to cobble together a case of some sort. “Sweet hypocrite!” Jane calls him in an aside to the audience, but shortly afterwards is half-fainting at the stories of Anne’s adulteries. “Pray, come away, for I am sick at heart / Hearing such horrors,” she begs Henry, and by the end of the play she has either persuaded herself that they’re true or has put such a tight lid on her own thoughts that she won’t even let the audience know what they are.

This intelligently and terrifyingly calculating Jane would find, unfortunately, all too few successors in the following centuries. Instead, she ended up either continuing her course as a barely-seen shade — “Quiet, watchful Jane Seymour, who loved no one, but slipped among them like a shadow when she could, to sit alone and tell her beads” as in Anne Boleyn (1932) — or else devolving into someone who was seen long enough to establish that she was an unappealing, nasty nonentity. In fact, she’s often so unpleasant that the real mystery of these books is not so much why Anne fell as why Henry chose the world’s least appealing woman to replace her. “Sly and simpering” Jane of The Last Heiress (2005) isn’t too far in spirit from the “sly piece of mock-maidenhood” who turns up in Anne Boleyn (1875). She simpers in The Heir of Allington (1974), The Last Boleyn (1983) and The Other Boleyn Girl (2001). “Stone-stupid,” is the verdict of To Die For (2011) and “a dim spinster” is that of The Queen Of Subtleties (2004). In At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) Jane is setting her cap for the king as early as 1534, going so far as so work on embroidering a gown for her wedding night. Since she’s described as stupid, nasty, unappealing and hateful, you have to admire her optimism at least.

Her appearance takes its share of slings and arrows as well. She’s “whey-faced” in The Witch-Girl (1979) and The Queen’s Promise (2012) and several others, though she varies things slightly by being “curd-faced” instead in The Queen’s Confession (1947). She’s a sheep in Incredible Fierce Desire (1988) as well as Anne Boleyn and Me (2004) — a take possibly inspired by Anne Of The Thousand Days (1948) in which Anne says that Jane “has the face of a sheep. And the manners. But not the morals.” (It’s not a bad line, but I find myself wondering about the last bit. Was she saying that sheep were more upstanding citizens than Jane, or that sheep wouldn’t hold out for marriage? Either way, it’s confusing).

Nor is Jane’s virtue always entirely unassailable, whatever she might have said when returning that purse of gold sovereigns. The “sly piece of mock-maidenhood” hinted at in the 1875 play sometimes transformed into a Jane who was either pregnant at the time of her wedding (explaining the rush — and all for naught, as she inevitably miscarries afterwards) or had at the very least been Henry’s mistress for several months beforehand. Murder Most Royal (1949) goes with this explanation for the timing of the wedding, as does Feather Light, Diamond Bright (1974) and Anne Boleyn (1985). She becomes pregnant before marriage in The Tudor Wfe (2007) as well, though that’s a somewhat different situation since Henry raped her while she was knocked out with opium. (I know, I know). Unlike the reviling of her stupidity and pale skin, though, this idea hasn’t caught on any more than Agnes Strickland’s hypothesis that Jane spent her early years in France like (or even with) Anne Boleyn. She does so in a couple of books — most notably in The Concubine (1963), and also in Incredible Fierce Desire (1988) — but unlike Simonette the governess and Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger, this was one Strickland-inspired trope which never really took off.

These grim, dull Janes make up about 95% of her portrayals in Boleyn-centered fiction. However, there are a few blazing exceptions — some good quality, some not so much, but all far more interesting than what I’ve described so far.

Benevolent, mild-mannered Janes who just happened to walk into this situation and can’t see how to get out appear in The Black Pearl (1991) and both of Lozania Prole’s Boleyn novels, The Dark-Eyed Queen (1967) and The Two Queen Annes (1971). In The Black Pearl, Jane is genuinely in love with Henry and says wryly that “I am ill cast in my present role of temptress. I would that Henry were a modest country gentleman, so that I could most gladly accept him.” On being asked if she would want to give up the chance to be queen, her reply is simply to ask if Henry’s queens have given anyone much cause for envy. In the Lozania Prole books, Jane is virtually Anne’s advocate, and even writes her reassuring letters while she’s in prison. Granted, this is about as likely as Henry VII being syphilitic or Thomas Cranmer being a pederast, which are also real things in those books, but at least it’s a change.

But by far the best depictions of Jane Seymour are — in my opinion — the ones appearing in Anne Boleyn (1957), The Concubine (1963), Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012). All three are intelligent, have developed personalities, and are in their various ways extremely skilled politicians — though, paradoxically, the Jane of Anne Boleyn (1957) frames her appeal to the Duke of Norfolk (her uncle in this one) by telling him how non-political she is. “I have no enemies as plain Jane Seymour, and I’d want none were I Queen. I only want to be Queen, Uncle, that’s all.” But as she proceeds to bargain with him for his support, it’s clear that an apolitical Queen Jane will be that way entirely from choice, not lack of talent. After Norfolk agrees to back her, he warns her “Don’t ever try to get above yourself. Don’t try to copy Madame Anne,” to which Jane’s smooth reply is “Have no fear of that. I never want to see the day when you agree to turn on me, as you now turn on her.”

The Jane of The Concubine isn’t shown enlisting supporters, but we see enough of her to know that she’s good at long-range planning nonetheless. We first meet her as she’s attending Anne during Elizabeth’s birth.

During the summer she had felt Henry’s eye upon her, assessingly, and had blushed. When he had first made some excuse to speak to her she had blushed again and confined her replies to “Yes, Your Grace,” and “No, Your Grace.” He had not withdrawn his interest, however. What notice he had taken of her in public had been of jesting, paternal nature, as when coming across her and some other ladies laughing at some joke, he had stopped and said that he hoped the joke, whatever it was, was fit for such young ears.

“Whose young ears, Your Grace?” one of them had asked, pertly vivacious.

“This child’s,” he had said and lightly touched her sleeve.

To them it had been something else to laugh about, knowing her age; but to her it had been a sign.

And now Queen Anne had borne a daughter, and was ailing. She might never fully recover, and the King’s eye had wandered. Would it be so very wrong to wish that she would die?

Brief Gaudy Hour has a modest but tough-minded Jane whom Anne likes very much at first, both for her good bedside manner when Anne is giving birth, and also for the plainness which means she’s unlikely to cause Henry any serious distractions. This Jane, far from being an idiot or a wet blanket, has no problems enjoying herself when she can — “The Lord be thanked, we do not have to attend the obsequies!” she says, on learning that they won’t have to be swathed in black after Catherine of Aragon’s death.

Hardest to understand, and in many ways the most interesting, is the Jane of Bring Up The Bodies (2012). The rational part of me says that this book probably won’t age as well as the others, but for someone living now, its Jane Seymour is a delight to read; obviously intelligent, but managing to make her intentions opaque to Cromwell — no small feat, since he’s portrayed as being closest to Godlike omniscience as anyone who ever walked the earth. In a word, she’s mistress of the art of deadpan, and we never quite know whether she’s deadpanning or serious. “I cannot claim to be twelve,” she says, quite seriously, when Henry teases her with blushing like a girl of that age, and later shows a nice sense of discretion even in her gossip. When her brother Tom asks her what the maids of honour do all day, exactly —

`We talk about who is in love with the queen. Who writes her verses.’ She drops her eyes. `I mean to say, who is in love with us all. This gentleman or that. We know all our suitors and we make inventory head to toe, they would blush if they knew. We say their acreage and how much they have a year, and then we decide if we will let them write us a sonnet. If we do not think they will keep us in fine style, we scorn their rhymes. It is cruel, I tell you.’

But on being asked who her suitors might be — “If you want to know that, you must put on a gown, and take up your needlework, and come and join us.”

She continues in this half-literal, half-incisive vein throughout the book, always leaving her conversation partner — not to mention the reader — a little off-balance, never quite sure whether or not she’s doing it deliberately. An unpredictable, interesting Jane Seymour is such an unusual commodity that I have every intention of reading Mantel’s last Cromwell book just because I want to see how this Jane’s personality unfolds once she’s become queen. I can take or leave Mantel’s Saint Cromwell, but I reverence her Jane Seymour.

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From → Essays

5 Comments
  1. Susan HIgginbotham permalink

    Enjoyed reading this! I may be one of the few people who hasn’t yet read “Bring up the Bodies”; I shall have to do so just to see an interesting Jane.

    • sonetka permalink

      Mantel’s books drive me crazy in so many ways but she can write like nothing else on earth, and when she isn’t insisting on arranging circumstances to make sure the reader remembers that Cromwell is SuperSecretary and Thomas More is Satan Incarnate, her character portraits blow me away. I wish she would ditch Cromwell and write a novel just about Jane :).

  2. What about Mistress Seymour by Frances Clark and Pour the Dark Wine by Dinah Lampitt? Or The Tudor Rose by Julia Hamilton? They all portray a Jane that is different from the ones we know. And let’s face it, most novels written from Anne’s point of view are not going to be kind, are they?

    I guess we will have to wait for the third part of Mantel’s trilogy to find out how she sees Jane in more detail. (I can just imagine Mantel’s publishers saying, “We’re on to a gold mine, here Hilly! Spin it out for as long as you possibly can and see if there’s another book there!”)

    • sonetka permalink

      Ah, there’s the problem with over-specializing — I haven’t read those yet (I’ve read the Laurien Gardner and Carrolly Erickson ones, both pretty forgettable). I’ve been trying to grab Jane novels when I come across them but since I’m trying to round up as much Anne-centric material as I can and there’s only so much reading time in the day, they get neglected. It would make an interesting spinoff blog, though, at some point. But really, what I was interested in here wasn’t so much the entire oeuvre of Jane Seymour novels as how novels about Anne treat her. The unkindness from Anne’s POV isn’t surprising, but Jane’s one-dimensionality and tendency to disappear completely is.

    • sonetka permalink

      I’ve added a few sentences just below the cut to clarify that this is about Jane as she appears in Anne-centered works, not just “Jane Seymour in fiction.” Though eventually, I would like to do that — and a “Novels Starring Jane Seymour” blog would probably only last about as long as I originally thought this one would :).

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