Book Review: The Favored Queen

Keeping Up With The TudorsThe Favored Queenby Carolly EricksonSt. Martin's Press, 2011At the very beginning of historian Carolly Erickson's latest foray into Tudor fiction, The Favored Wife (about Jane Seymour, obviously, the mother of Henry's long-sought male heir), a haughty, imperious Anne Boleyn refers to the shy, quiet Lady Jane as "a stunted little nobody," and some 200 pages later, toward the end of the book, Jane herself overhears an ambassador smugly confide to a friend that "she's nothing, raised from nothing ... she was just the first womb to come along." The Favored Queen is pure 21st century Tudor fiction machine-product: crammed with anachronisms (each one must have stung, for a historian like our author), narrated by the main character, fast-paced, but it fails to ask one crucial question: what if those two assessments of Jane Seymour, however ungallant, were correct?This is the tenth Jane Seymour novel I've read in the last five years, and to be fair to Erickson, none of them ask that question. We all grant Henry VIII dynamic personhood, and he found Jane Seymour interesting enough to woo and wed; fascination-by-association takes firm hold, and historical novelists assume that a powerful, fascinating man must have a fascinating wife - it's like none of these novelists have ever been to a dinner party. Sometimes husbands (and wives) pick their spouses because they're looking for a compliant nonentity - is it really so difficult to believe Henry would do that, after the world-shattering turbulence of his entanglement with Anne Boleyn? What if the only interesting thing about Jane Seymour was, in fact, her fertile womb? "Anne is a pawn," Jane tells her brother Ned at one point, but what if Jane herself were a pawn as well, even more disposable than her predecessor?"Very astute, for a girl," Ned responds, "I could not have put it better. Mind you never say anything like that when the King can hear you" - and maybe an analogous silence should be kept on this heretical point, lest legions of Tudor novelists fall into despair. And fiction - the craft of it, the art of it - will be the saving detail in any case, since even a nonentity can be made interesting if the prose is punchy enough, energetic enough, ample enough (Scarlet O'Hara, take a bow). Jane was not a royal saint, like Henry's first wife, and she wasn't a hellion virago like his second - she had none of the slutty intrigue of Catherine Howard, nor the anomaly factor of Anne of Cleves, nor the austere three-dimensionality of Catherine Parr. But in the right novelist's hands, these things wouldn't matter - Jane herself could be captured or created, spun into an idiosyncratic believability that could carry a book.Alas, Erickson's are not those hands. This is odd, especially considering how engrossing her histories so often are, but it's certainly not a failing exclusive to her: slim novels solely centering on Jane Seymour are always failures. The elements that could inform richer fiction - her conniving family, or the elements of bloodthirstiness she must have had to survive at court as long as she did - these things are always slighted, and the fiction that could inform richer elements - that perhaps there was some private, undocumented reason why Henry seemed to love only her of all his wives - is never attempted. Instead, writers like Erickson try to make drama out of virtue, which hasn't been done successfully since the Book of Ruth. Erickson keeps wanting to do more, bless her - nearly all of her descriptive touches happen around Jane's reservations. Things get described in spite of her, as it were, like the moment when she glimpses a young lover:

He was under the eave of the brewhouse, so deep in shadow that all I could make out was the tall, lean length of him, a thin cloak covering his shoulders, his hair brushing the sides of his narrow, handsome face, his eyes bright even in the dimness.

(Hee. Sure she couldn't 'make out' more? His DNA, perhaps?) Or the inevitable glimpse of Anne Boleyn's miscarriage, which Jane likewise describes while refusing to describe:

I will not dwell on its size, or its odd shape, or the way its great round bald head lolled uncontrollably and its stunted arms and legs waggled grotesquely. I will only say that we all gasped in horror when we saw it, and that it did not live.

And sometimes Erickson essentially steps aside from Jane and simply describes things herself, like a murrain fever that devastated the royal livestock in the summer of 1534 - these bits happen throughout the novel and are always memorable.Unfortunately, the figure necessarily at the heart of all this is never more than a Charles Laughton caricature, and that's fatal. This is Erickson's Henry, in a scene where Jane consults a palm-reading fortune-teller:

The man looked down into my hand, then drew back. I could tell right away that something he saw in my palm alarmed him."You must forgive me," he said, his voice faltering. "My gift fails me on this occasion. Perhaps if we wait until nightfall, and consult the stars - ""Foolish old man!" the king reddened. "Spare us your feeble gifts!" And waving the priest away, he called for more wine and a plate of lampreys, which he proceeded to devour noisily and greedily, biting off the heads of each as if he bore a grudge against it.

A novel of Henry's wives with such a buffoon doing stand-in for Henry cannot succeed in being more than lightly fictionalized high school history - it must lack the grown-up qualities that animate such books as The Man on a Donkey or even Wolf Hall (although the Henry in that book is its one weakness) and some come off a little flat. Such is the case with Most Favored Queen, even with the bewitching Natalie Portman on the cover, even with the factual background rendered as faithfully as only a practiced Tudor historian could do it. My advice to Erickson: pick Anne of Cleves, let yourself go, and write a masterpiece. Nobody's done that yet.