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Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir -- A Book Review
For some time, I actually avoided reading this book. Familiar with Alison Weir's successful career as a non-fiction history writer, I worried her fiction might lack the imaginative flair of historical fiction writers like Phillipa Gregory. However, later I noticed that Weir kept churning out well-reviewed historical fiction, portraying characters such as Elizabeth Tudor and Eleanor of Aquitaine with bestselling success. Therefore, remembering how eminently readable her history works had always been, I decided to give Weir's fiction a try-- and I am VERY glad that I did.
Innocent Traitor follows the short life of Lady Jane Grey from her birth to her execution on Tower Green. And, in spite of this all-inclusive approach to the story, beginning many years before Jane's brief and tragic nine day reign, there is never a dull moment. Weir changes perspectives constantly throughout the chapters, providing first person accounts of events from Jane's mother Frances, her nurse Mrs. Ellen, and a host of fascinating Tudor characters including Mary I, Katherine Parr, Jane Seymour, the Duke of Northumberland, and of course, Jane herself. And yet, despite these frequent shifts in perspective, the story manages to form an intriguing, completely cohesive narrative.
Born female in an age that valued women mostly as the means for producing more men, Lady Jane is an enormous disappointment to her noble parents, especially her ambitious mother Frances, daughter of Henry VIII's youngest sister Mary Tudor, who was once Queen Consort of France. Since Jane cannot inherit family titles, land, or property in her own right, her parents hatch a greater scheme to advance her-- and the whole family-- in rank and wealth, grooming her to be the perfect Protestant bride for her cousin Edward, son of Henry VIII... whether she likes it or not. This initial plan, dangerous enough in itself, becomes the seed of even greater ambition, that would eventually lead to treason. Doomed by her parents' all-consuming ambition, Jane is intelligent and principled throughout, refusing to be merely a pliable pawn in the political schemes of others. But, in the end, her intelligence-- and her innocence-- are not enough to save her, and it is in fact her own principles that finally lead her to the gallows.
A fascinating and historically informed read, the book takes advantage of Weir's background as a historian, introducing us to a wide variety of characters and weaving together a diverse array of historical events occurring during Jane's life. Even before her family's treason, Jane is haunted by the deaths of earlier queens, heretics, and nobility, including Katherine Howard, Anne Askew, and Thomas and Edward Seymour. In addition to this, even the well-versed Tudor fanatic will learn from the meticulous historical detail of Weir's work, from nuances of architecture to the customary payment of executioners at the time. In this novel, Weir's background as a historian is not a liability, but a remarkable asset. With never a dry moment, Innocent Traitor fleshes out known facts and characters with a skilled imagination that a historian dares not fully exercise in a non-fiction work, but to a historical fiction writer is absolutely vital.