The May Bride is the story of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII and the one we know least about. Often dismissed as no more than her family’s pawn, she’s not one of the best loved of King Henry’s ladies. Despite or perhaps because of this (I love an underdog), she’s always been the wife I was most interested in. There is a relative scarcity of historical fiction which features her as an important character; most work set in the Tudor times focuses on the dramatic transition between Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Will The May Bride bring Jane back into favour by creating a lively and interesting story told from her perspective?
The short answer: not really.
The long answer is that I don’t quite know what to make of this novel. It is one of the strangest-paced books I’ve ever read. The first two thirds are a slow and painfully dragged out plotless mess, and then the last third tries to cram the entire story of Jane’s ascension to queenship (you know, the actual interesting part) into about fifty pages.
Anyway, the story (or what there is of it) focuses on a young Jane Seymour growing up at Wolf Hall with her family. Her brother James brings home his charming new bride, Katherine, to stay with the Seymours whilst he goes off to do manly things like fight wars and killing people. Jane and Katherine briefly become bestest buds, but Katherine’s vivacious behaviour provokes James to make a terrible accusation against her.
I think the project of this book was to create a portrait of the disintegration of a marriage between two incompatible people. This project was made rather difficult by the fact that the character chosen to be the point of view was…not actually either of the characters in the marriage. This meant that an awful lot of the book was made up of people telling Jane about things which happened “off-stage” and Jane theorising about the confusing behaviour of her brother and sister-in-law. I understood why Katherine’s fate had an important effect on Jane’s worldview and her later actions, but this part could easily have been compressed to about fifty pages, so that the book could instead focus on events where Jane herself took centre stage.
The May Bride does give you a tangible sense of what life would have been like for a woman like Jane during that era, and the characters are generally fleshed out and three-dimensional. Unfortunately, for me, the book could not sustain my interest because there simply wasn’t enough to make it Jane’s story.
A rather more favourable review of The May Bride can be found at the Bookbag.