When I saw the title of this novel I was both excited and irritated at the same time. Why must we call her plain, constantly? Surely, there is another word in the English language that would do! Nevertheless the excitement won out and I dove straight into a surprisingly detailed account of the life of Jane Seymour. I was surprised to find Jane a young woman, still living at home with her parents, before her life at court had begun. Though sadly, Jane’s life is plagued by worry about her plainness and that she will not be able to make a good marriage for herself or for the benefit of her family. She craves approval and understanding and just to be noticed.
Jane’s life does make a brief upswing when she meets a young man, William Dormer. He feels as awkward in life as Jane feels unwanted. The two form a close friendship based in this mutual understanding of one another and just as the two are on the verge of friendship blossoming into love and a promise of a marriage that few women of the Tudor era could hope for, a love match. Jane’s cousin, Sir Francis Bryan, tries to intercede for the pair, but Jane is bitterly disappointed when she learns that the Dormer’s have higher aspirations for their son. Her hopes of happiness and her friendship with Dormer is over as quickly as it began and again Jane is left hopeless that her plainness will forever doom her to an unhappy, unfulfilling life.
To console his cousin and raise her spirits Sir Francis secures a place at court for Jane, as maid of honor position to Queen Katherine. For the first time in her life Jane is exposed to life beyond her family home and into the larger than life Tudor court. No sooner than she arrives she finds herself in the midst of the standoff between Queen Catherine and Anne Boleyn. Jane also notices that King Henry seems weary of the constant bickering of the two factions. Jane hopes that someone gives him comfort. In truth, Jane sees a kindred spirit, a man living a life that seems to afford no comfort; forgetting that it was Henry himself that created the situation, but here for the first time the reader sees the beginnings of what would later blossom into a relationship and a marriage between Jane and her King.
The factions at the Tudor court forever trying to out maneuver one another finds Jane commanded by her brother to join the court growing around Anne. Jane, who feels she is sworn loyalty to Queen Catherine, is further disenchanted with Anne and those who surround her always looking for someone to make them feel higher and mightier. Jane isn’t the only focus of cruel mockery, as Jane Rochford would also complain of forever feeling on the outside and unwanted even there.
It is in this volatile environment that Jane’s feelings for King Henry reignite and to her surprise are returned. Gardner certainly crafts a narrative of a relationship that in time becomes a loving one for both Jane and Henry. Of course, many will argue that Henry wanted a woman who was the exact opposite of Anne and certainly he found one, but wouldn’t that also include a woman who possessed a caring, giving and understanding heart? I have always thought, and as Gardner describes, that in Jane Henry finds a woman suited for him. Not the fiery and proud Catherine or the vain and volatile Anne. In Jane Henry found someone that wanted to ease his suffering, to be a comfort and in truth to just be a wife. Therefore, I have never been surprised that after Jane delivered Prince Edward, his longed for son and heir, that she claimed a place in his heart no one would ever rival. The real tragedy is that Jane succumbed to childbed fever and took with her all the possibilities that a future life with her in it held. Many will say that God took her before she wore out her welcome and the axe claimed her, but this reader, and Gardner both believe life in England would have been a very different place had she lived. Without a doubt until his death Henry would forever recall her as his most beloved wife and it was Jane to whom he was buried beside.
I would recommend Laurien Gardener’s Plain Jane because it takes the stance that the marriage between King Henry and Jane was a loving one. Jane also takes great pains to bring both Mary and Elizabeth to court and seems to have had close relationships with both of them. Jane was successful in rehabilitating Lady Mary, at least in part, with her father. If one takes a moment to ponder all the good Jane could have done for so many; her untimely death seems one of the most tragic ends in a reign full of so many.