Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Interview with Janet Wertman on Jane Seymour

By Nancy Bilyeau

Janet Wertman brings the third wife of Henry VIII to life in her new novel, Jane the Quene. It's a thoughtful depiction of Jane Seymour and a moving story of her romance with the king and tragically brief married life. Admirers of Anne Boleyn have sometimes expressed bafflement over how the pale young woman who nobody wanted to marry could capture the love of King Henry VIII when he was still married to one of the most exciting and charismatic women in English history. This novel, without sugarcoating, gives readers a compelling story.

Janet Wertman, a fellow history lover, kindly took time to give an interview on her wonderful novel.

Janet Wertman

What drew you to the Tudor period and to the Seymour family in particular?

I fell in love with the period when I was eight years old and my parents let me stay up late to watch The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R. From then on I was hooked – I tore through every book on the Tudors I could find, fiction and non-fiction, I read all of Wyatt’s poetry, anything about the era. Throughout it all, I have to say that those two series still to me seem to have come extraordinarily close to absolute accuracy – Keith Michell and Glenda Jackson really captured both monarchs from youth to old age, and the other characters were like portraits come to life!

Was Jane Seymour always your favorite of the wives?

I was Team Anne for decades – but the book I wanted to write (her secret diary found and read by Elizabeth) had already been written, so I needed something else. Jane was a convenient stand-in (in art as in life, it seems!) but I came to really appreciate her experience and story.  Now she is certainly my favorite, and the whole Seymour saga (pun intended!) captivates me.

You depict Jane as desperate to marry and resentful of her siblings. How did you come to this conclusion on her character?

It was actually a confluence of facts – the fact that marriage was seen as a woman’s duty; the fact that most women in the Tudor age were married by 17 while Jane was still single at 27 (and without real prospects); the fact that she had seen two younger sisters marry before her; the fact that Chapuys described her as a “woman of little beauty;” and the fact (well, rumors) that Edward was an authoritarian cold fish and her father was a narcissistic lunatic. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to believe that Jane was generally undervalued, even by her own family (especially by her own family) and desperate to escape.

One of my favorite aspects of your Queen Jane is her skill at household managing, her "homemaker" abilities. How much of a factor was that in Henry's choosing her?

I believe Henry’s attraction began when the court visited Wolf Hall, and that made me think that Jane’s household management skills were a big factor – not because Henry would have been looking for that specifically, but rather because it was something that Jane was good at and knew she was good at. There is something character-building and confidence-inducing about talent, even if you’re insecure in other ways, and that would have influenced how Henry saw her.

I also believe that this skill meshed with Henry’s interests – he was fascinated by cures and plants (in later years, he was known to grind pearls to mix his own salves). That was also part of their building a real bond.

Finally, it was yet another way in which Jane was the total opposite of Anne Boleyn…

You make a case for Henry VIII becoming attracted to her and valuing her. How do you think she felt deep down about her husband?

He was her savior, I think she adored him. And why wouldn’t she? He was still the “handsomest prince in Christendom,” courtly, witty. You want to talk about Prince Charming, this was King Charming!

That said, I could imagine some fear deep down and well-hidden…especially after he threatened her for pleading for the Pilgrimage of Grace rebels (though interceding for mercy was fully part of the medieval model of queenship). Even so I think she saw him as fundamentally good – she let Cromwell see him as fundamentally evil.

Jane is glad that Anne Boleyn miscarried and she marries the king days after Anne's death. Those are difficult things to handle in a protagonist. Did you struggle with it?

You hit on the central issue of the book – how Jane could have done the things she did. So much of that explanation resides in the mores of the time, and I really tried to show them so that readers could understand and even support Jane through her choices.

First and most important, I absolutely believe that Jane saw herself as an instrument of divine justice and let herself be swept along the path by the symmetry inherent in her situation. Jane was Anne’s opposite, not only on the physical and temperamental levels but in her actions as well. Anne had led England away from the papal fold and Jane hoped to return it to orthodoxy (using the same playbook that Anne herself had written). Anne had tried to hurt Mary, Jane would save her. It was hard not to be a little smug when Anne was universally hated within and outside England and Jane was viewed as a savior by just about everyone.

Even so, marrying Henry right after Anne’s execution was hard to justify. I think Jane probably initially believed the charges to be true – though they didn’t have to be, since anyone who displeased the King was de facto guilty of treason and could and would be executed on that basis alone. By the time her doubts emerged, Jane would have been too worried that the King would be seduced by any one of the other women of the court who were going out feasting with him on his barge every night while Anne was in the Tower.   Even the French Ambassador was trying to push a bride on Henry (he formally offered him the hand of the Princess Madeline the day after Anne’s execution). Henry was the King, he would take a new wife, and nothing else mattered.

Do you think Jane deserves to be Henry's favorite wife, as he seems to have wanted the world to believe?

I honestly don’t believe that Henry would have looked for a fourth wife (or fifth, or sixth) if Jane had lived. He had his contingency plans in place after all (the Act of Succession gave him the right to select his heir if Jane had no sons). Oh, he would have had mistresses, but I don’t think he would have sunk so deeply into madness.

That said, the dynastic aspect to his favoritism overshadows everything. Of course Jane was his favorite wife - she gave him a son. Henry VIII was haunted by the need to fulfill his kingly duty: to give the country a successor to avoid the dynastic wars that would inevitably follow if he didn’t. Jane Seymour was the only one who came through for him. 


For more information on Janet and her book Jane the Quene, go to her excellent website, where she blogs on Tudor history.

Order Jane the Quene here.