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The Raven’s Widow by Adrienne Dillard (2017)

February 13, 2018

“The river was as calm as I had ever seen it. Ordinarily the tide would have been wild by this time of year,” is Jane Boleyn’s first distracted thought as she’s escorted to the Tower of London after her arrest in November 1541. It’s an apt image, as it turns out. The story that subsequently unfolds is one of a woman who both by aptitude and training is tremendously averse to making waves, and who realizes too late that this won’t perpetually protect her against the waves made by other people. As Thomas More could have told her, ultimately there are no survivors, just some people who die today and the others who die tomorrow.

The story unfolds in zigzag fashion, alternating between scenes from Jane’s last few months, as she alternately swings between hope for forgiveness and despair that “the king believed I had betrayed him yet again, and I would not escape with my life this time.” It’s a medley of horror, boredom, and the soft shrilling of her increasing, entirely understandable mental instability. These scenes all cover very short, intense periods of time, and are intercut with much broader, softer chapters in which she remembers the beginning of her time at court and how she came to be a Boleyn in the first place. She is, in the classic manner, trying to figure out how she got where she is, but to the attentive reader it’s clear that the answer lies in the beginning of her life, before she’d ever met anyone named Boleyn.

Jane’s journey into the past begins when she’s on the verge of turning fifteen years old and her life at home with her brother, sister, kindly but distant mother and determinedly apolitical classics-translating father is drawing to an end. Said father, Lord Morley, is the ultimate reed, his policy always to bend as much as possible before the storm and do what he’s told, no matter what his personal opinion may be. Later on, Jane will remember how furious her father was at Thomas More’s imprisonment — “yet he fully supported the Parliamentary act that had put him there. My father would always do as his king told him. It was little wonder that I found myself as biddable as he.”

Her last months at home are enlivened when her brother Harry brings a friend home to visit — Hugh Wynter, upon whom she develops a hopeless, unsuitable crush. Hugh keeps her gracefully at arm’s length for the duration of his visit, and she knows it’s impossible (his background is vague and he also has no wish to have children for reasons as yet unspecified) but nonetheless she holds on to both the memory of him and a cloak he lent her early on. Before long, Jane is headed off into the wider world as an attendant at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where she rooms with the friendly, lively Mary Boleyn, who in a few years will introduce Jane to her even livelier sister Anne.

After the summit is over, Jane is summoned by the queen and told that since her service has been so exemplary, she is now invited to remain with the court and be one of Catherine’s maids of honour, and the young Jane, wearing a dress of “rose-coloured silk” joyfully accepts. This acceptance is remembered somewhat bitterly by the older Jane, now in the Tower and, as she always is now, dressed in black. This Jane, like the one she’s remembering, is unmarried — but now there’s no galaxy of potential husbands at court to look forward to, only one years-dead, executed husband buried in the nearby chapel, and whose grave she she both longs and dreads to visit. The older Jane, watching some Tower ravens outside her window, remembers that not long before she left home her mother had happened to tell her that a flock of ravens was called an unkindness. Looking back, it seems appropriate that she learned this not long before going to court, where she would join the fluttering ravens there and “learn of my own capacity for unkindness.”

One year after her arrival at court, Jane, like any young woman suddenly sent off to be an adult elsewhere, has become worldly-wise to a hilariously overdone degree, talking casually of how Mary should “just give in” to the king in order to get his pursuit of her over with. Mary is doubtful; as great as the advantages would be, she’s hesitant to upset her new husband — she only gets to see him intermittently, since being a favored attendant who sleeps in the king’s chamber at night also means being short on time to spend with your new wife. Separation will become a recurring theme — later on, once Jane is married, between diplomatic journeys and demands for attendance, she’ll spend as much time apart from her husband as she does with him.

While Mary is being thus aggressively courted, Anne is enjoying both bossing her new friend Jane around and a romance and ultimately a secret betrothal with Henry Percy, only to have it ultimately broken up by Wolsey for reasons Jane is never privy to but which leave Anne, as usual, furious. Less usually, she’s recovered within six months, and now that Mary has delivered a baby girl of ambiguous paternity, the king has lost interest in her and decided to zero in on Anne instead. Anne has no interest in or time for him, and when she leaves court to head for the countryside, she’s genuinely shocked that the king begins writing to her there and keeping up his pursuit. When has he ever done that before?

Hugh Wynter still turns up at court occasionally and the resulting encounters with Jane are usually extremely awkward, but everything else is exciting and lively enough for any teenage girl. She dances in masques (including, of course, the famous Chateau Vert where she’s paired up with a somewhat cranky but resigned William Carey). She meets, among many others, George Boleyn, and her annoyance when her father informs her that they’re going to be married is due not to anachronistic demands for a love match but because she finds him irritatingly perfect.

Over the last year, I noticed that everything the young man did was so considered, so measured, so perfect, that the mere sight of him inspired a slow-burning fury within me. He was accomplished at everything he tried. I could find no fault in his flawless dancing, his articulate speech, or his masterful diplomacy. His perfection moved the other maids to simpering affection, and they happily trotted after him in a besotted daze. However, it did nothing but remind me of my own imperfections, causing me to despise him.

As a result, he’s picked up a reputation as a skirt-chaser (“They all receive his attentions!” she snaps at her father when he asks if George hasn’t been honouring her with his attentions recently). But Jane, like her father, is by birth and nature a pleaser — although she certainly doesn’t mind the delay in the dowry negotiations (Henry VIII actually intervened and paid a portion of the money himself), she won’t really object to this marriage, or to anything else that life throws at her. She may grumble, she may cry, but she’ll obey.

George, in the best modern-pleasing fashion, asks for Jane’s consent before getting started on their wedding night — in a nod to the future, he tells her that while he doesn’t know what rumors she’s heard, he’s not in the habit of forcing himself on women. (George is saved from potential anachronism when Jane later discovers his copy of Jehan Lefevre’s The Book Of Gladness, in which among other things, the author “denounced physical and sexual violence against women” and decides he must have taken the words to heart). She’s still a bit resentful of him for being so hypercompetent, especially after she miscarries for the first time, but although they have spats and have to separate frequently for reasons of duty, she finds that being married to George is a pleasanter prospect than she had imagined at first.

At least, it’s pleasant on one level. For the reader (and Jane herself) the memories of her early years with George are saved from too much sweetness or sentimentality by the fact that, with the regularity of a bell tolling, the story returns to Jane as she was in the last months of her life; visiting George at his unmarked grave, being interrogated by Wriothesley, feverishly wondering what Katherine Howard’s maids have been saying about her, wondering if anyone will accept her explanation that her only motive was to do what she always had — whatever the queen told her to do. The mental jumps between the late 1520s and late 1541 are brutal both for Jane and for us; George Boleyn reassures Jane over and over that he knows what he’s doing when she discovers he’s smuggling in Tyndale’s books, that he’ll be fine and will always look after her — but we’ve already seen asking to visit the unmarked grave he was dumped into after a decade of assuming he could negotiate his way out of anything. Jane’s mother and various friends reassure her after her first and second miscarriages, telling her that healthy children will come in time; we’ve already seen that they haven’t, and won’t.

Last, and in some ways most cutting, George will end up urging a panicking Jane not to hide Anne’s remark about Henry’s bedroom problems from Cromwell when he interrogates her, even if it’s embarrassing — pointing out, quite rightly, that withholding that information would make her look dishonest if it were to come out some other way. The truth, he says, will set them free. Of course, we already know just how free George is now — and we’ve already seen the older Jane, telling herself once more that the truth will set her free when she’s interrogated by Cromwell’s successor. It’s hard not to wonder if she really has much faith in that dictum any more, or if she’s only saying it because she knows it’s what George would have said. Her relationship with George has become, at least in retrospect, a full-blown love affair on her part (and on his as well, at least she’s pretty sure). Her dislike of his over-perfect presentation has receded both in the face of having lived together and of his having caught the sweat alongside Anne in the summer of 1528; Jane feels on a much more equal footing with him after having nursed him back to health. His frequent diplomatic travels have gone from a relief to something she’d rather not have to have him do, but she realizes he wouldn’t be happy without them; he is, she thinks, like a raven both in his dark appearance and his need to fly (not to mention his love of acquiring shiny objects; George is very, very unhappy when he’s briefly demoted after Wolsey’s Eltham Ordinances).

However, there are several developing sources of strain — first, George’s habit of sneaking in forbidden books and lecturing Jane about religious reform (true to her compliant personality, she can’t understand why he would want to upend things), and more immediately, their continued inability to have a living child. Poor Jane endures late miscarriage after late miscarriage, wondering what she’s done wrong, getting shot down when she suggests taking a pilgrimage to the shrine at Walsingham to pray for a baby, and of course being extravagantly pitied by friends and relatives who all seem to be producing babies at a steady clip. It’s overprotectiveness, in fact, which leads to Jane being left out of the loop on a rather important development.

Anne has long since returned to court, and from the extravagant gifts she’s receiving, Jane assumes she’s become the king’s mistress — only to be corrected by George. “Anne is not the king’s mistress,” he tells her. “She’s going to be his wife.” He doesn’t exactly go into detail about what will be involved; his major interest is in making it clear that Jane, despite whatever her family of origin might think, will need to back Anne to the hilt. “Catherine will not go quietly. His Grace is in for a fight he may not win. He thinks it will be easy, that it is just a simple matter of Biblical law. But Catherine is proud, and she comes from a very powerful family who will not look kindly on her mistreatment.” We’ll never know whose idea the annulment was or when it came up — it all happened offstage, and offstage it will stay. Jane, already distressed because of her fondness for the queen, can’t help seeing an obvious parallel to their own situation. Will George leave her if she can’t have any living children? George waves that off — they’re young, it’s completely different — but “Queen Catherine was being sent away because of his sister. Was I so wrong to worry that I could be as easily expendable?”

From here on out, we’ll see both how expendable the older, imprisoned Jane has become both to Wriothesley and the king (she reflects bitterly that even her fellow maids weren’t much company — they were all too young and thoughtless, bad companions for a perpetually black-clad widow in her thirties) even as her younger self moves — or rather, is carried — towards the center of the court in the late 1520s. George has persuaded her to try reading an English Bible (she finds comfort, albeit not enough, in the childless women of the Old Testament) and Anne, growing more anxious and sharp by the day, is nonetheless confident that eventually she’ll win out — from the lively young woman with a bossy streak who badgered Jane into practicing her lute every day no matter how bad she was at it, Anne has become a woman sincerely convinced that she’s destined by God to be Henry’s wife, and capable of being as high-handed as necessary with her closest relatives. Jane and Mary Boleyn will both be frozen out (albeit temporarily on Jane’s part) before the end when Anne feels that they’ve overstepped.

Anne and Henry’s betrothal at Dover in November of 1532 (followed by a wedding in January 1533 when it becomes clear that “the prince” is in the offing) marks the real beginning of the king’s reforming fever, and while George and Anne are all in on that — George is deeply disturbed by the sight of executions but insists that they were necessary to prevent chaos — Jane is never really seized by it. In fact, after she’s temporarily banished from court for trying to get one of Henry’s mistresses in trouble, for the first and last time in their married life she directly disobeys George and makes the pilgrimage to Walsingham that she had wanted for a long time; he never finds out, and while she confides in Anne later on, Anne’s only response is to tell her that that was foolish, and George had better not find out. (The older Jane, close to the end of her own life, will also disobey George in exactly one way — she prays for his soul in Purgatory, which she knows he would not have wanted but which she can’t resist.) The unfolding disasters of 1535 and early 1536 (Henry wears yellow after Catherine’s death) are unpleasant but not particularly foreboding; Anne is getting increasingly frayed about the edges as she miscarries again — and she had trouble getting pregnant, as she confides in Jane, because the king was having problems in bed — but there’s no sense that this was her final chance.

The first end begins in late April of 1536, when Jane’s sister-in-law Grace Parker tips her off, very carefully, that Thomas Cromwell has been asking rather searching questions about Anne and the men she may have been associating with. It’s this which gives Jane time to consult with George, and to prepare for the onslaught — but however careful she is not to lie, she ends up giving Cromwell what he needs nonetheless; the information that Anne became pregnant after complaining about the king’s lack of potency, and the information that she and George spent a lot of time together. However much Jane protests that he’s twisting her words, it’s obviously hopeless. Anne, George, and the other men roped in are soon gone — and gone as well is Jane’s last pregnancy, which she miscarries after the trials are over.

Jane herself will have no trial — as she discovers, the king has had legislation passed which enables her to be condemned without one, even if she’s not of sound mind, which she increasingly is not. Her sole preoccupation now is with the past; with visiting George’s grave (“You’ll be with your husband soon,” her maid tells her) imagining him as one of the Tower ravens (“dark and beautiful, brilliant and wise, yet … far too concerned with the shimmer of gold”) and — in an earthly bit of unfinished business — returning the cloak she borrowed from Hugh Wynter several decades ago; she saw him when she arrived at the Tower and wants to show her friendship to someone who isn’t either dead or about to die. However, this is her last real gesture to the living world; when she spies Hugh in the crowd on the morning of her execution, the cloak around his shoulders, she’s not thinking about him, only of finally rejoining George.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex with a side helping of religious struggle; George favors reform and slips English Bibles into court, while Jane was happy with the religion she was raised in and sees no reason for such drastic changes — she’s horrified at George’s charges of monks and priests behavingly lewdly and false miracles at shrines, and hits back as best she can by saying that they surely can’t all be that bad, and that the shrines and offerings help nonetheless. When it becomes clear that having a child won’t be easy for them, she suggests going to Walsingham, which George declines on the grounds that it won’t do any good. She ends up making a secret journey there when she’s temporarily banished from court — George never finds out, but Jane tells Anne, whose only words on the subject are not to tell George. As for politics, they are very, very lightly sketched in — it’s excusable to some degree in that while Jane doesn’t mind benefiting from these developments, she’s not especially happy about their side effects; better to leave it all to George, who has more of a taste for it. Still, though, I found it hard to believe that she would know as little as she sometimes seems to here.

WHEN BORN? Early spring of 1505, exact date not specified. Her sister Margaret is four years younger, brother Harry slightly older. The Boleyn siblings have Mary as the oldest and George as the youngest; George is a year older than Jane and Anne and Mary a few years older than both of them.

THE EARLY LOVE Fourteen-year-old Jane has an embryonic crush on her brother’s friend Hugh Wynter, who manages to put her off gracefully and remain friends — lifelong friends, as it turns out, though they have long stretches of not seeing each other. Jane holds on to one of his cloaks until just before the end, when fortuitous circumstance allows her to give it back to him. It’s not a romance — Hugh has no interest in her both because he’s not wellborn enough for her father to consider him, and he also fears fathering children due to his own status as the illegitimate child of monk — but it’s Jane’s first step towards adult love. Hugh will go on to marry a woman who’s past childbearing age and, like many an imaginary hero before him, go on to become a Bible-runner smuggling the English copies into London from Antwerp. Jane is considerably more perturbed by the second development than the first, as George is one of his contacts and this puts both of them in considerable danger.

Anne’s early love is of course Henry Percy, who of course reciprocates her affection and proposes marriage — that is, until Wolsey, for reasons which Jane never quite discovers, pulls Percy aside for a good scolding and then summons his father to get him married off to his erstwhile fiancee Mary Talbot forthwith. “Rather than giving in to sorrow, as her sister had, Anne became enraged. She unleashed her fury in a torrent of curses on Percy, calling him weak and spineless. Displeased as she was, there was nothing to be done about it …. Anne would be fortunate if the incident didn’t besmirch her marriage prospects.”

It doesn’t, and unusually for fictional Annes, she bounces back in a normal period of time, and a few months later, as Percy gradually vanishes from court altogether, she’s wrapped up in her sister Mary’s impending baby. James Butler, whom Anne might have married to resolve the family dispute about the Ormonde title, is never seen and only mentioned in passing when Anne comments that a betrothal is a long way from a marriage. Thomas Wyatt does a little exploratory sniffing around, but Anne dismisses the idea of becoming his mistress outright — she isn’t going to settle. Years later, after Anne is already deeply involved with the king, Jane and Mary Boleyn will both spy her at a feast, looking mournfully at the now very ill Henry Percy, and that’s the last that we see of him.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Margery Horsman exists, and has something of a crush on George Boleyn for a while, so much so that Anne jokes that she’s jealous of Jane. However, Anne likes Margery and says she reminds her of herself. Grace Parker (Jane’s sister-in-law) Elizabeth Dannet, and Margaret Wyatt also appear, as does Thomas Wyatt — although we see him less with Anne than hanging out and composing songs with George Boleyn. Jane Seymour is present, although she barely speaks, just looks pale and friendly but also a little sly for some reason. Joan Ashley appears as the “very handsome young lady” whom Henry was squiring around in 1534 and who ended up being the inadvertent cause of Jane’s rustication. Anne and Jane nickname her “Mistress Marchpane” because she’s always getting into the sweets. Madge Shelton makes an appearance too, as Mistress Marchpane’s replacement — when Jane hesitantly suggests that at least she’s a better option than the former, Anne makes it clear that she doesn’t think it’s much of an upgrade.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Jane’s maid Lucy, whose brief disappearance (after Katherine Tylney implicates her) sends Jane into a panic for two reasons; first, because she’s terrified that Lucy may be punished for something she never did, and second, Jane is barely able to dress herself without her maid’s help. “Ladies and their maids shared an intimacy that often surpassed that of husband and wife out of sheer necessity. I would have been helpless without her, and I was thankful that she was with me now. It was a great courtesy, and mercy, that the king allowed her to accompany to my prison. When my sister-in-law was here, she was surrounded by women who hated her. It was little wonder that she succumbed to fits of hysteria; there was no one there to console her.” Lucy is given the credit for suggestion Jane’s secret pilgrimate to Walsingham. Her replacement is Helena, who isn’t needed for long as Lucy’s spell in jail is brief.

THE PROPHECY The closest we come is in the summer of 1534, when Anne is miscarrying of what seems to be a molar (or even hysterical) pregnancy. While laboring, Anne raves that “That sorceress,” the Nun of Kent, is responsible. “She wasn’t telling prophecies; she was casting curses. She cursed me before she died. She cursed my baby.”

IT’S A GIRL! In one of the stranger omissions I’ve seen in a book, we don’t actually get this scene! It skips straight from June 1533 to June 1534, so while the sections are labeled, an incautious reader might be puzzled as to why Anne’s child is no longer moving in the womb when last she heard, Anne was still pregnant with the indubitably born-alive Elizabeth. But no, Elizabeth was born the previous September and Anne is now nearing the end of her doomed second pregnancy.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No — she retains her old skill of being very good at sewing her own clothes and looking stylish (albeit without hanging sleeves).

FAMILY AFFAIRS Jane’s father is a scholar who enjoys translating the classics; his favorite place to be is his study, and one gets the impression that although he loves his children, he finds books a lot easier to get along with. “My father ruled his heart with logic; he was indifferent to an emotional response,” says Jane. “It wasn’t that he was cold or spiteful, he just didn’t understand.” Baron Morley has minimal interest in politics and absolutely no interest in sticking his neck out for anything; while he’s inclined to favor Catherine of Aragon’s cause over Anne’s, he has no intention of participating, and lets Jane know that while he’s pleased for her new family’s success, he wishes it hadn’t come at the expense of a woman he admires. Jane gets the message: he’s happy for her sake, but if she should ever find herself in trouble, she’s on her own. She does, and she is. Jane’s mother doesn’t get much attention; she’s reserved but affectionate and comforts Jane after her miscarriages.

Her brother Harry is a second edition of her father — staid, hardworking, determined to avoid trouble, but Margaret becomes a headache in her continued and loud support for Princess Mary; she’s the one who participates in the pro-Mary demonstration which got several women into trouble (attentive Boleyn lovers will remember this one; the original MS said that “Lord Rochford” demonstrated, which was clearly impossible, then someone decided that whoever wrote it must have meant “Lady Rochford.” Now, it means her sister). Jane’s pleas to Anne to have mercy on Margaret are coldly received — only after getting her into a private room does Anne let loose on Jane, upbraiding her for addressing the issue in front of other people and putting Anne on the spot. While Margaret is let off — she has taken the oath of supremacy, after all — it’s clear that if she doesn’t behave herself she won’t be this lucky next time.

Thomas Boleyn begins as his usual self; grasping, level-headed, rather like Jane’s father except that he went into politics instead of into the library. However, we, along with Jane, also see him after two-thirds of his surviving children have been swept away by forces beyond anyone’s comprehension, and although his appearance then is brief it’s quite memorable. He’s bitter and angry — not least at Jane, whose “worthless marriage” and failure to have a surviving child has contributed to the extinction of his earldom. “The king should have paid your jointure,” he cries. “He took your husband away. That was his debt to pay.” We don’t see as much of Elizabeth Boleyn, but Mary Boleyn rises above her usual cliches while still feeling recognizable; she’s sweet and little scatty (she jokes about the bad reputation she got at the French court, while being extremely vague about whether any of it was earned) but the “olive-skinned” Mary, like any sensible woman in a family with Chapuys on its heels, knows the importance of putting family first — “We must remain united,” she tells Anne when she and George have a spat. “Any dissension between us will be exploited by those who wish to undo you . We must keep our counsel and let no one know of our frustration.”

At least, she knows it up to a point. When she elopes with William Stafford, it’s treated not as a great romantic adventure, but as a betrayal both of Anne and the family she now (functionally) heads. By heading off on her own with a man whom George suspects of being a fortune-hunter (we never have a chance to see if he’s right) she’s weakened the Boleyn family by both depriving it of an asset and introducing potential complications from the outside in the form of a non-approved husband. Anne’s anger, though partially stemming from the fact that Mary is healthily pregnant whereas Anne is anything but, feels very real, and very understandable. “You are my only sister now,” Anne tells Jane later on. Like many other Marys, this one lives up to her title at the Masque of the Chateau Vert — Kindness. When Anne is calculating various potential matches for a discontented Margery Horsman, Mary is the one who tells her not to do it just to make Margery obliged to her. “Don’t lose your capacity for compassion. The power you have here in this world will mean nothing when death comes for you.” And when Mary’s affair with the king (possibly) results in her pregnancy, she cries not only because she feels that she’s let her husband down, but because she’s allowed herself to become attached to Henry.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No — at least in Anne’s case, she’s completely innocent of all charges. In Jane’s case, she is guilty to a degree; that is, she was sure that Katherine Howard and Culpeper were sleeping together and didn’t turn them in, because, true to her upbringing and her experience, she thought that absolute obedience to would save her. She is not, however, guilty of having deliberately brought them together. But despite her hopes for mercy after telling the truth, she eventually discovers what her father never had — that obedience will only buy you so much time. Furthermore, as she admits to herself towards the end, she hadn’t objected too much to the fact that Katherine was committing — and getting away with — the same crimes against the king that Anne had been killed for.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The dialogue can get pretty choppy on occasion (“Mary is having a baby, paternity yet to be determined” says a breezy, very modern-sounding Anne, and George mentions “the broad curve of my sister’s belly”) but it’s pretty serviceable for the most part. Some very modern terms did creep in; at one point Jane mentions someone’s “angst,” and later on when she wants to visit George’s grave, she says that she needs “closure.” While the type of fearfulness and the need to see concrete evidence of someone’s end which are embodied in those words must have existed in the sixteenth century, both words have a strong post-Freudian smack about them which yanks the reader several centuries forward, even if just for a moment. The proofreading also could have been better; several words are consistently misspelled (“publically” turns up several times, as do some odd hyphens and a moment when a character “bears her soul”).

However, there are moments when the writing shines, most particularly in the passage where Jane makes her secret pilgrimage. It’s a long, cold, road, and Jane has to walk the last mile barefoot, but when she gets there she finds the sort of consolation George has chosen to shut out.

A dense fog of incense seemed to coat the inside of the church, and the air felt imbued with a solemn divinity …. I moved wordlessly through the glittering riches strewn about, to the alter which lay beyond the flickering candlelight. I was struck by how unremarkable the statue depicting the Mother of Christ appeared. Our Lady needed none of the surrounding wealth; she held the only meaningful treasure in her lap, Christ, the Son of God. I humbled myself before the saintly mother, whispering my prayers beneath her serene gaze. I prayed for a treasure of my own; a healthy child of any sex that George and I could love and cherish. I prayed that Anne would be delivered of a prince to secure the realm. Finally, I prayed for the king; that he would show mercy and forgive me of my trespass.

ERRATA The author has a very long postscript going over her sources and where they stopped and invention began; she’s very detailed and if anything over-cautious about warning people that much of it is fiction, but I’m certainly not complaining about that. There are some factual changes (Jane apparently had two other siblings who were cut for time and to avoid confusion) but I didn’t spot any changes which the author hadn’t mentioned on her own.

WORTH A READ? Most definitely, although it’s best for someone already familiar with the story; not that it couldn’t be understood without it, but the simplification of the political situation as well as the intertwining stories which cut between the older and the younger Jane will be easier on someone who isn’t figuring it out from the ground up, especially since much of the enjoyment comes from seeing the alternative interpretations of events which have traditionally cast Jane in a bad light. Also, the time skip from June 1533 to June 1534 could be confusing — I’m not sure why it happened, but I would hate for a first-time reader to be deprived of the usually standard scene where Elizabeth shocks the world by not being a prince.

You’ve probably noticed one character who was conspicuous by his absence in my summary, and that’s Henry VIII himself. We see so little of him that I have to believe this was a deliberate choice on the author’s part; he does appear in large crowd scenes and of course we spot him with Anne quite often, but he feels more like a distant, unpredictable force of nature, one who’s interpreted for Jane by Anne and George, but whom she virtually never can engage with herself in any meaningful way. It’s extremely effective both in showing just how all-pervasive his power actually is; even though he’s almost never actually there, nobody can avoid talking about him for long. It also shows just how significant Jane’s marriage was — she had a serious financial comedown after George’s death and had to fight both for her jointure and to get her place back at court. Her world revolved around him the way the court revolved around the king. It’s not easy to make a character whose chief characteristic is her obedience into someone interesting and sympathetic enough to want to read about, but even though it’s light on the politics, the story still manages to establish Jane in her setting firmly enough to make us understand and even like her.

The romance between Jane and George was, I thought, perhaps a little too idealized — they quarrel, but always make up quickly, the religious differences between them never lead to any real, lasting division, and George is perhaps a little too well-behaved for a powerful sixteenth-century man who enjoyed the good life, but it was still enjoyable to read, and after all, their marriage has been depicted as a gruesome horror show since at least 1680, so I’d say they’ve earned a happy fictional portrayal for a change. The most disappointing part of the book was when I reached the end — I had been enjoying it so much that I had been hoping for more (where were Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves? I wanted this Jane’s perspective on them!) I can’t think of a better compliment than to say I wished it had been fifty pages longer.

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5 Comments
  1. Oh my gosh, what an amazingly detailed and wonderful review. Thank you so much! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it, but more so that you “got” what I was trying to do in dismantling Jane’s undeserved reputation. I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis and comments. I fully intend on taking them to heart and refining my dialogue. You are not the first to wonder why I left out Elizabeth’s birth and to be quite honest, looking back, I’m not entirely sure why I made that creative decision. It must have made sense to me at the time, but had I to do it over again, I would have included it. As for my Jane’s views on Jane Seymour, you definitely will see that in my next novel. This one will focus on Jane Seymour and Margery Horsman. Though it will be told from their POV, Jane Boleyn will be an ever present force. I didn’t go as far as Anne of Cleves in TRW because I had already shown Jane’s time with her in my first novel, Cor Rotto. I thought perhaps it would have been redundant to show it again, though seeing the events through Jane’s eyes, rather than Catherine Carey’s, might have given it a fresh perspective. Once again, thank you so much for your thoughtful review!

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it! Obviously it’s just one person’s perspective, and dialogue is really, really difficult when you’re trying to thread the needle of not having them sound jarringly contemporary but also not too distant at the same time. If you don’t mind a recommendation for further reading — by far the best “sounds alive but also not too modern” dialogue I’ve ever seen is in Tiina Nunnally’s translation of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Of course you’re going to write like yourself, not like Undset/Nunnally, but it’s a good jumping-off place. (When I’m working on my probably never to be finished book, I sometimes like to read a few pages of Kristin to clear my head and help get myself mentally out of the current century.)

      The birth scene is tough because it’s been done so. many. times. that it kind of feels like there’s absolutely nothing left to be said about it. My objection to its omission wasn’t so much that we don’t get to see Henry freaking out (or not) in real time but more that a reader who wasn’t paying close attention to the dates wouldn’t necessarily twig to the fact that Anne’s advanced pregnancy wasn’t the one with Elizabeth, since it follows right on the coronation scene. There’s no reason for a fullblown birth scene if you don’t feel it’s the right choice, maybe just an earlier mention of Elizabeth to make it clear that she’s already here.

      Jane Seymour and Margery Horsman are AWESOME subjects for a novel (poor Margery has really gotten short shrift in novels, and she was there for so much!) I am really looking forward to seeing those two interacting and how Jane enters into it. I haven’t read Cor Rotto yet; I saw that it was out but there are so many more Anne-centric stories which I have piled up that I didn’t get it, but I think I may just to see your Jane with Anne of Cleves. Once your third book is out, maybe you could package all three as a trilogy?

  2. Esther permalink

    I enjoyed Raven’s Widow so much that I am adding Cor Rotto to my list!

    • sonetka permalink

      As am I :). And the prospect of a novel centered around Jane Seymour and Margery Horsman fills me with glee; two under-used characters in one book!

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