Having finished The Lady in the Tower as my last read, I wanted to keep on my Tudor reading kick with a bit of fiction on the subject. This wasn’t a problem as you can’t walk into a Chapters these days without tripping all over countless Tutor fictions. Quite some time ago I had picked up The Boleyn Wife, by Brandy Purdy, and this seemed like a good opportunity to finally get around to reading it. And I can’t say I enjoyed it. Telling the tale of Lady Jane Rochford (George’s wife and Anne’s sister-in-law), this work begins shortly before Jane’s marriage and ends with her death for treason.
I know that authors take great license when fictionalizing history, but Purdy’s efforts stray quite far from the truth making this a hard book to enjoy (even if I hadn’t just finished a non-fiction on the topic). I should have known trouble was coming just from the cover-art on the book. I know, I know: you’re never supposed to judge a book by its cover, but come on. The broad on the front of the book is a brunet (Jane was blond), and is clearly wearing a dress from at least a century (if not more) before the Tudor era. Even though the dress is too old-fashioned, the model is sporting nail polish. The cover of the book is rife with historical anachronisms.
Beyond the problems with the cover, once I started reading I was willing to overlook the myriad of false claims that the author was making about the history and the people she characterized, but drew the line when Purdy wrote of an affair between Jane and Cromwell. It’s true that historians don’t know what it was the pushed Jane to accuse her brother and the queen of incest, or how exactly she was recruited to the Crown’s cause, but I think the author went way to far in suggesting that Cromwell seduced her for the information and that she gladly gave it to her love. Worse still, the author excuses Jane’s absence from court between Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour’s reigns by inventing a fictional pregnancy for her. And, even worse, the baby was Cromwell’s. Blarg. It was too far-fetched and lazy. From my understanding of the situation (as described in Antonia Fraser’s study The Wives of Henry VIII), Jane was sent away from court because of her involvement in the alleged treason plot and because of a general distaste people had for a woman who turned so completely on her husband.
The real problem with this work, however, is that it is a first person narrative. Told from Jane’s point of view, there can be no plot development unless Jane sees things first hand. This is fine in the second half of the book when she (and I mean the historical figure) was assigned to be a senior lady-in-waiting to both
Cleves and Howard, but stains the bound of credulity in the first half. Prudy has Jane constantly sneaking around, and hiding in shadows or cabinets to observe the goings on of Anne, Henry, and George. This type of device can be used once, maybe twice, to great effect, but Prudy relies on it heavily throughout the work, rather than trying for a creative alternative. The story would have been better served had it been told in the third-person omniscient fashion.
Putting all the factual and plot problems aside, this just isn’t a very interesting read. The story is well known, but a good author could have made it fresh. Perhaps because of the frequency in which the story has appeared in recent years, the author felt she didn’t need to spend time on character development or setting a visual scene. The characters are (for the most part) flat – only Weston is given any real dynamism, but in the end comes across more like a caricature than a real person. Anne is left on the periphery, George had the potential for a dynamic character study that was completely ignored, and even Jane herself falls flat. As for where these events take place, Purdy spends almost no time describing settings, and only glosses over the look of the fashion (which is shocking, considering the problems with the cover-art). When a topic is so well known, the author has to bring something to the story, and the best way to do so is through description – either of the people of the places – and Purdy does neither.
I strongly recommend you skip this book. It’s flat, boring, and wrong in so many ways. If you’re looking for a good historical fiction on the topic go back to the tried and true of The Other Boleyn Girl, or The Boleyn Inheritance; both have their problems, but at least Phillipa Gregory paints a good picture of the time and her characters. I hate trashing someone else’s art like I do here, but in this situation, it couldn’t be helped.