Plain Jane by Laurien Gardner
Published: June 27th 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction
With a face better suited to a nun’s habit than a wedding dress, Jane Seymour has no suitors and few hopes. Then, her prospects brighten when she is granted a position at court as maid of honour to Queen Catherine. There, Jane watches as King Henry VIII ignores his ageing wife, showering favour on the beautiful Anne Boleyn, the woman he would make his new queen.
But soon he tires of Anne and his wandering eye falls on Jane. Though she has feelings of affection for Henry, she cannot let herself be swept away by his attentions if she is to win not only his heart, but also the greatest prize of all?
Only recently have I reviewed another of Laurien Gardner’s books in the Tudor Women series; The Spanish Bride. I really relished reading Gardner’s books about Catherine of Aragon and ‘The Lady Raised High‘ which was about Anne Boleyn, so to complete the collection I had to read ‘Plain Jane‘ by the same author.
‘Plain Jane‘ is a novel about Henry VIII’s third wife; Jane Seymour. Throughout history, Jane is known for being Henry’s ‘True Love‘ and gave him the son and heir that he had desired for nearly two decades, but neither his first or second wife was able to accomplish this. That’s not to say that his first two wives didn’t give Henry any sons, but sadly his sons and many daughters died prematurely or were stillborn. Other than the fact that Jane gave Henry his long-awaited son and that she replaced Anne Boleyn as queen, there is not much known about Jane.
Jane is a relatively mysterious figure in history, which is actually very surprising given the fact that she was his perfect wife and he deeply grieved for her when she died. However, even though I knew this book was a historical novel about Jane so most elements would be dramatised or changed to suit the purposes of the story but I thought that since I do not have many books on Jane, that this could give me the ability to imagine Jane and her life, her life at court and her relationship with Henry. This book has done exactly that!
The book follows Jane’s story from her childhood, living in her family’s estate of Wulf (or Wolf) Hall to her and her family’s rise to power as she becomes Henry’s third wife and queen. At an early age Jane has always been told that she is a ‘plain girl‘ and has always been compared to her younger, more pleasing looking sisters. One moment in particular was heartbreaking, it involves Jane overhearing her mother and father talking about her, explaining that they would never find a good husband for Jane as she was too plain looking and that she would be more better suited in a convent, where beauty and looks were not a requirement.
Jane ends up building up a relationship with a family neighbour, William Dormer, who understands how Jane is feeling, being the odd one out in their families and feeling that no-one understands them. It was sweet seeing the relationship between the two characters grow, but sadly as what happens in most historical fiction novels and in most love matches during those times, nothing could come about of the relationship as William’s family felt that their son could find a bride who had better connections and better looks than Jane. Whilst reading those chapters and scenes where Jane was told that she cannot marry William and the reasons why, I had to stop and think about how that would have felt for Jane, knowing that you were not able to marry the person that you cared about, due to the fact that his parents thought that you weren’t good enough!
The most interesting chapters and scenes for me, were when Jane was at court. Jane was a lady-in-waiting for both Henry’s first and second wives; Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. I have always found it so interesting that Jane had been a court for a while serving both his wives before his eyes even directed themselves at her. With Jane being the main character, it was going to be inevitable that Anne Boleyn was going to be rude, arrogant and horrible to Jane when they had scenes together. Even though it has been documented that Anne had become paranoid and saw Jane as a threat towards the end of her reign, it doesn’t help to portray Anne with all the characteristics that will show her in a wholly negative way.
Even though I love Anne Boleyn, and I do enjoy reading and researching about all Henry’s wives, Jane has never been one of my favourites. This book has helped to change my thinking and idea of Jane. Henry’s interactions with Jane were quite sweet as Henry saw her as innocent, kind and caring, which was a different view to the one that he saw of his current wife, Anne Boleyn. One scene left me completely baffled and I personally just did not like it. The scene in question was after Anne Boleyn had been executed, Henry and Jane had just become betrothed, William Dormer (Jane’s former lover) came to congratulate the couple of their engagement, and both he and Jane begin to dance. This is where I dislike the scene, as when Jane first sees William, she begins to think about whether or not he still remembers her (which I warrant, is a normal reaction and don’t mind that), but once Jane and William begin to dance, Jane then asks him about their little secret hideaway in the hedge from when they were younger. Whilst reading that, all I was thinking was ‘Why on earth would you ask that?!‘ Yes, she loved him when she was younger, but she is now betrothed to the king and will become Queen of England, it is not an appropriate question to ask!
There are so many occasions throughout the end of the book, that I did feel really sorry for Jane. Especially when she confronts her parents about calling her plain from when she was younger, they flat out deny as the woman they see before them, isn’t going to a knight’s wife, but a Queen of England and would never reveal that they had indeed called her plain. She was Henry’s third wife and she must have been panicking thinking about what Henry would have done to her if she failed him in producing a son, and by the track record of how he treated his wives, it wasn’t going to be a good outcome. However, for me, the saddest part is as Jane lays dying, she has done her duty to her king and country by giving him a healthy son; Edward, but all of that doesn’t matter as she succumbs to her illness and dies. She would never see her son grow but she would be remembered by Henry as his ‘entirely beloved wife.’