Book Review: The Lady of Misrule by Suzannah Dunn

By Johanna Strong

“A good Catholic girl was what they’d said they needed” (page 5). So begins Suzannah Dunn’s The Lady of Misrule, a novel of Lady Jane Grey’s last days in the Tower of London before her execution in February 1554. As seen through the eyes of the “catch-all Catholic girl” (5) Elizabeth Tilney, the woman who had “come to supervise [Jane] in her detention” (11), Dunn’s work simultaneously approaches the question of confessional divide in mid-Tudor England and provides a more human view of the imprisonment and execution of England’s ‘Nine Day Queen’. Dunn also implicitly engages with historians’ largest quandary: source bias. While the plot is dominated more by interpersonal relationships between the characters than by any twists and turns of actions and events, Dunn’s novel is nevertheless engaging and provides a unique viewpoint to mid-Tudor England.

In addressing the religious tensions of Edwardian and Marian England, primarily Protestant reforms under Edward VI and the subsequent return to Catholicism under Mary I, Dunn notes the reality in Elizabeth Tilney’s family’s approach to religion; they “certainly weren’t reformists, […] weren’t anything much else either: [they] just were; [they] were what [they]’d always been, doing pretty much as [they]’d always done, if – admittedly – a little more cautiously” (25). For most subjects in Tudor England, personal belief was largely just that: personal. Outward religious practice and performance varied according to the monarch’s religion, and most were able to conform outwardly without significant changes to their personal beliefs.

For some, such as Lady Jane Grey, however, the religious changes back to Catholicism were intolerable and her life became a mission to maintain English Protestantism. Jane spends much of her time, in Dunn’s novel, at her books, which Jane reveals to Elizabeth is because of the former’s concern for the policies which Mary will introduce to England as Queen. Jane is therefore fervently making copies of her books and writing religious reflections to ensure that the Protestant religious perspective does not disappear entirely under Mary. The religious aspect of Mary’s queenship is further highlighted in the characters’ discussion of Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain and the extent of religious persecution perceived in early modern Spain. Even Elizabeth and Jane’s relationship is at first strained because of the underlying religious assumptions, on Jane’s part that Elizabeth’s Catholicism will prove a barrier to any niceties and on Elizabeth’s that Jane will prove to be a dour, over-intelligent Protestant woman who has time only for her scholarship.

As the novel progresses, however, there is a distinct lessening of religious tension between Elizabeth and Jane, with each acknowledging the humanity and individuality of the other, though the two women nevertheless struggle to see eye-to-eye in religious discussions. By the time Jane faces her execution, Elizabeth sees her not as a religious fanatic but as a sort of friend and Elizabeth is physically unable to handle the emotion, disgust, and grief which overwhelms her at Jane’s execution. Though it is Elizabeth who is meant to prepare Jane’s body for burial, she finds herself unable to do so and it is one of the other Tower staff who takes this role, alluding to the closeness which Jane and Elizabeth found, despite their relative inability to understand each other on a religious level.

Ostensibly a work about the personal relationship between these two women held at the Tower, Dunn’s work emerges as a personification of the religious tensions in Marian England and of the day-to-day reality for the average person of setting aside significant Christian theological difference in order to co-exist and survive. The Lady of Misrule also serves to highlight the religious aspect of the politics of queenship, focusing as it does on the complex religious makeup of England which first Jane then Mary must oversee as monarch.

Further, Dunn’s work suggests the complexities inherent in the field of queenship studies which come with acknowledging the perspective of primary sources. While the novel is written from Elizabeth’s point of view, the narration is nonetheless influenced by Elizabeth’s environment. Given her isolation from the world outside the Tower, she is left to rely on hearsay and third-hand accounts of events such as Mary’s entry to London, her coronation, and Wyatt’s Rebellion and Mary’s response to it. When Elizabeth does gather first-hand information, Jane’s strong opinions quickly colour the narrative with her staunchly Protestant understanding of the world and of Mary’s queenship and rule. As such, Dunn’s novel implicitly engages with the age-old struggle for all historians: separating the individual’s experience and environment from the pure facts of a given situation (or at least as close to the pure facts as one can get). Despite their proximity to the events in question, Elizabeth’s own experience is tempered by her context, at once rendering the narrative more personal but also alluding to the difficulties of ever truly knowing a historical figure intimately. Despite the largely abstract academic musings which the novel suggests, the subjectivity of The Lady of Misrule’s perspective serves to humanise Lady Jane Grey’s story and makes Dunn’s character more alive to the reader.

Dunn’s The Lady of Misrule is thus a personal rendering of Lady Jane Grey and her time in the Tower of London before her execution. The novel not only highlights the difficulty of interpreting historical events but clearly demonstrates the political and religious tensions inherent in monarchical rule, particularly when the monarch in question is a queen. The Lady of Misrule personalises one of England’s most infamous historical moments while simultaneously implicitly engaging the reader in significant historical discussions surrounding queenship and religion.

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