*This review contains spoilers, the inclusion of which were necessary for a proper analysis of the work’s plot and character development.*
As historians, we must stick to the facts. Occasionally, however, there comes a moment when every historian wonders “but what if…?”.
David Black’s Before the Reign Falls: The Lost Words of Lady Jane Grey answers precisely that question. Premised around the idea that there are no known contemporary depictions of Lady Jane Grey, Black wonders whether there is more to England’s ‘Nine-Day Queen’ than we know, a re-interpretation of women in power which is growing as the field of queenship studies gains popularity. Set in the Norfolk town of Cawston, former barrister-turned-crime-novelist John has recently purchased a “run-down Tudor mansion” and is planning to excavate, renovate, and restore it to its sixteenth-century glory. With the help of his Oxbridge-educated historian friends, they uncover a sixteenth-century book and a parcel of loose-leaf papers hidden in a crevice, which reveal a startling coincidence that sets up the big “what if?” of the novel: as Eleanor North dies of consumption (tuberculosis), a “well-educated, learned[,] and engaging” young widow (page 61) moves to the town. Who exactly is this mysterious woman who appears without a trace of her past and what is her connection to Eleanor?
Suddenly, it all comes together: it was not Jane Grey executed on that February 1554 day, but Eleanor and the reason why there isn’t a verified contemporary depiction of Jane? Mary I ordered them all destroyed in an effort to hide Jane’s continuing life. The only image allowed to survive this culling was by Levina Teerlinc and which Alice suggests is one of the unnamed miniatures in the Victoria & Albert Museum (252), an allusion to ongoing discussions of identity in the field of art history.
The premise of Black’s novel is a sort of fodder for historians’ imaginations; while it would be engaging regardless of the reader’s background, the fictional nature of this work appeals particularly to history-lovers who want to follow a counterfactual trail. Throughout the novel, Black uses the actual words of his historical characters, giving the reader a view into the real-life thoughts and feelings of Lady Jane Grey, as seen through a variety of her surviving historical letters (141-142, 144-145). He even includes contemporary accounts of Jane’s arrival into London after she is proclaimed queen (174). For a history-minded reader, however, the citations following these historical words point only to secondary sources, requiring further digging should one wish to follow up and read more of the original primary source. For most readers, however, this is certainly not a barrier to enjoyment of the novel.
Despite the novel’s subtitle being “the lost words of Lady Jane Grey” and the inclusion of a handful of primary source quotations, we see relatively little of Jane herself in the novel. Instead, the reader is presented with perspectives and stories from around Jane, with the only words from Jane being the few short diary entries and letters which are found during the excavations. Much of the dialogue and plot centres around overarching explanations of the Tudor age and the drama of Jane’s accession, brief reign, and execution. While this information is essential to the average reader who is perhaps unfamiliar with these specific years of the Tudor era, it can be quickly skimmed over by anyone with a more detailed knowledge of this period of English history.
While the counterfactual approach provides an interesting and engaging perspective which challenges historical interpretations, the lack of agency provided to the historical women in question – that is, Jane and Mary – is rather disappointing. Black must be commended for the strong feminist role which he provides to Alice, but the lack of independence among the historical women suggests that he perhaps sees female agency as only a recent innovation. Mary I is portrayed as being subservient in most matters to her council and is largely shown as being subject to the opinions of her Spanish Ambassador, Simon Renard (184-185). Even when Mary asserts her authority and forms her own opinions and acts on them, Black inserts Renard’s opinion, in one instance saying that “Renard was not amused.” (188). Despite Black’s attempts to humanise Jane by suggesting she was a “spirited girl” (160), he upholds the traditional interpretation of Mary as the ‘bloody’ and incompetent queen, Jane as the ‘martyr’ and innocent queen, and Elizabeth I as the Protestant saviour. This representation contrasts the emerging field of queenship studies, which has re-evaluated historical queens and their more traditional interpretations. At the same time, however, Black’s counterfactual plot implicitly urges readers to challenge their own perceptions of ‘established’ history.
Despite this reviewer’s misgivings about the agency given to Lady Jane Grey and Mary I, the focus on general details of the Tudor period, and the frustration of overt typographical errors missed by proof-readers, Black’s novel was an engaging read and one which begged for “just one more chapter”. The way the twenty-first-century narration was interwoven with the Tudor perspective created suspense which further drove both the plot and the reader’s desire to learn the identity of the mysterious figure at the middle of this counterfactual historical swap. More so than the content of the novel itself, it is the historical counterfactual challenge which it poses which serves as the ‘hook’ which keeps a historian-reader engaged. Black’s challenge to established history serves as a reflection of the ongoing re-interpretation of historical women which fields such as queenship studies advocate.
Eric Ives, Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011).
Leanda de Lisle, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey (New York: HarperPress, 2010).
Rab MacGibbon, “Lady Jane Grey”, The National Portrait Gallery. https://www.npg.org.uk/support/individual/face-to-face/lady-jane-grey