Ok, so as far as my reviews go, there is little to no cohesion in subject matter. I read anything from horror to science fiction, but my field of expertise has got to be history books. My background though long and varied, is primarily in History. Both my BA and MA degrees were in this subject, and though I might not have stayed in the field much as I would have liked professionally, it has always remained one of the subjects that I love and which never ceases to fascinate me.
For this reason last week I read Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir. The book focuses on the life of Lady Jane Grey, niece to King Henry VIII. The Tudors in general are one of my favourite historical Dynasties, predictable as that may be, and in fact my MA Dissertation was titled The Portraiture of Elizabeth I so I like to think of myself as well informed on the period.
I had never read a fictional book by Weir before, only several of her more standard historical books which are extremely well researched and thorough, as she is most definitely an authority on the period. Innocent Traitor was one of her early attempts in the field of historical fiction and it shows. The book is meticulously researched and I suspect she could write it in her sleep with all her expertise on the period as it does not fail in the slightest in transferring you to 16th century England with its beautiful and detailed descriptions of people, surroundings, events and attire. In one scene where Jane is threatened with a corset I could virtually feel myself suffocated, so successful was her detailed account of Tudor fashion and the unavoidable discomfort it caused to the wearer. Added to that, whenever she could she used a more archaic style of writing, especially where dialogue was concerned which further cemented your journey to the era, without however being indecipherable or presumptuous. She strikes the perfect balance of old English and new without tiring the reader, which really helps with period placement and suspension of disbelief without ever making you think that it is overdone.
Where I believe she fails in this book however, is in that she couldn’t shift her historical style in favour of a more fictional style. The book is very linear and it is told in the words of most of its characters in a journal writing form. From Jane herself, to her mother Frances, to Mary Tudor (later Queen Mary) and so on, unfolding the story through their thoughts and experiences. I’m sure that Weir used as many letters and testimonials as she could find for reference in order to write as they would, she never-the-less fails in this, as in the end they all seem to write in the same exact manner. There were times, where I would forget who was speaking and catch myself going back to check as her characters lacked development and dimensionality (much as they do in a history book as opposed to a novel). The book starts with the birth a lady Jane, and her early years are narrated by her mother and later her nurse, bringing us Jane’s own words when she is four years old. Despite the disciplined upbringing the Jane was rumoured to have had, and then emphasis placed on education by her parents I find it very difficult to identify with the narrative of a four year old girl who comes across as a full grown woman if only considering that developmentally she would have been incapable of expressing herself in this manner.
Also at times the development of the story is too simple as Jane happens to be in the right place at the right time in order to witness some major events that have to find their way in the book. In one such case, where Jane accidentally discovers the warrant that pertains to the arrest of Katherine Parr, Weir goes on to explain in her conclusion that this actually did happen and the warrant was found by one of her ladies in waiting for which she substituted Jane for the purposes of the narrative. I understand how this helps the story but the other times she does it, it feels a little farfetched and an over simplistic way of weaving Jane into the events. If the book needed to be padded in places, it was not in this instance.
In closing this book was no doubt engrossing, informative and entertaining but it failed to cross the threshold of true historical fiction in my opinion. An excellent read never-the-less in the high standard of Alison Weir.