In her latest novel, Susan Higginbotham gives a slightly different perspective on the events leading to the unusual nine days in 1553 when an unknown 16 year old girl became one of the most tragic – and often romanticized – figures in English history. In telling the story of Lady Jane Grey – the “Nine Day Queen” – it is common for Jane to be treated as a victim and a pawn in the ambitions and greed of the adults around her. Her parents, Henry and Frances Grey, are usually portrayed as cruel villains who beat their daughter regularly and care more about saving themselves than the fate of their oldest child. But were they?
Her Highness, the Traitor is not so much about Jane herself as it is about the political and religious conflict following the death of Henry VIII and how a young girl managed to lose her head as a result. Well written and engaging, it attempts to dispel some of the rumors and myths that have surrounded the Grey and Dudley families. Using alternating, first person narration, the story is told by Frances Grey and Jane Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland (who eventually became Jane Grey’s mother in law). Since Tudor England is a man’s world, the choice of first person narration means that much of the politics and scheming that go on outside the women’s presence have to be recounted through conversations with their respective spouses. But Higginbotham manages to pull it off pretty well and most of the time, the exchanges don’t feel like information just being dumped on the reader.
But Frances and Jane fall prey to the general human tendency to see ourselves better sometimes than we really are. They gloss over what may be their own flaws and deny any selfish reasons for their actions as well as for those they love. So much so that by the end, it’s really unclear how this whole mess even happened as apparently neither they nor their husbands had much to do with it and harbored no ambitions of their own. About the only thing Frances will admit to is slapping or pinching her daughter occasionally as a form of discipline when the girls impertinence and mouthiness become too much. As the mother of a daughter myself, I can certainly understand the need for a smack in the mouth from time to time! But like Higginbotham’s book on Margaret of Anjou, it felt a little like a white wash job and I didn’t totally buy it. As a result, the attempt to rehabilitate them falls rather flat.
One of Higginbotham’s real talents is her ability to infuse her stories with humor and I love the jokes, quips and snarky one-liners the characters aim at one another (and not always behind their backs). One of my favorites is when Frances asks Jane Dudley if her son will be kind on his wedding night to her (Frances’s) daughter. Part of Jane’s contemplation is that “…the Lady Jane would probably be telling Guildford what to do. Perhaps she had consulted a book.” As I was reading, I was often laughing out loud and I really wish I had kept track of all them!
In case the FTC asks: review copy received from the publisher