Title: The May Bride
Author: Suzannah Dunn
No. of Pages: 352
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Pegasus Books
Release Date: 15 October 2014
Bottom Line: Interesting but not outstanding
“Jane Seymour is a shy, dutiful fifteen-year-old when her eldest brother, Edward, brings his bride home to Wolf Hall. Katherine Filliol is the perfect match for Edward, as well as being a breath of fresh air for the Seymour family, and Jane is captivated by the older girl.
Only two years later, however, the family is torn apart by a dreadful allegation—that Katherine has had an affair with the Seymour patriarch. The repercussions for all the Seymours are incalculable, not least for Katherine herself. When Jane is sent away to serve Katharine of Aragon, she is forced to witness another wife being put aside, with terrible consequences.
Changed forever by what happened to Katherine Filliol, Jane comes to understand that, in a world where power is held entirely by men, there is a way in which she can still hold true to herself.”
Thoughts: Out of all of King Henry’s wives, Jane Seymour appears to be the least flashy. She didn’t have to fight for her marriage like Catherine of Aragon did. Her rise and fall was not spectacularly public and quick. She was not quickly set aside and made a “sister”. She was not executed. She was not accused of adultery, bigamy, witchcraft, or anything else. She married the king, bore him a son, the only one to survive infancy, and died two weeks later. While she is the only one to be buried next to the king and the only wife of his who received a queen’s funeral, for all the success of her marriage to the volatile king, her strict decorum and plainness makes her the least impressionable of all of his wives. However, Suzannah Dunn’s The May Bride attempts to change that by placing Jane in the spotlight.
Unfortunately, even in her own story, someone else steals the story. The May Bride is not so much about Jane as it is about Jane’s sister-in-law, Katherine Filliol, and Jane’s varied reactions to her as she settles into the family nest. Jane herself is very loyal, very quiet, and disdainful of scandal. However, Katherine proves to be just the opposite and constantly shocks Jane with her less controlled behavior and unorthodox approach to life. Jane becomes obsessed with Katherine’s unconventionality, simultaneously admiring her and judging her for it. The impression readers will get is that the family scandal around Katherine and Edward provided the framework by which she judged Anne Boleyn and modeled her own royal marriage.
However, as is often the case with relatively obscure historical figures, no one knows just how much of The May Bride is true, especially when it comes to the scandal that tears apart the family and sets Jane directly on her path to becoming the queen consort. A quick Internet search will show readers just how much of the story is pure speculation on the part of Ms. Dunn, and high percent of fiction in this historical fiction novel may cause some readers to pause. The accusations made in the book are damning without adequate proof, potentially causing readers further concern for the liberties taken in an effort to tell a good story. In that aspect, The May Bride bears comparison against Philippa Gregory’s Tudor canon. Both seem to have a fondness for sacrificing history for a more interesting storyline.
Thankfully, that is where the similarities end. Of the two, Ms. Dunn is a much better storyteller, and her depiction of life in Wolf Hall is vividly mundane and definitely more realistic. She shows the sheer volume of work involved with running a manor, and the list of Jane’s daily chores is daunting. More importantly, Ms. Dunn does not attempt to beautify anything. There is frank talk of fleas in bedding, dogs and their messes left around the property, chamber pots, and other functions not typically discussed in novels. It is a refreshing bit of honesty in a story that is a bit too eager to scandalize readers based on loose interpretations of what little facts exist.
For all its faults, The May Bride is still an entertaining novel. The descriptions of life at Wolf Hall alone are worth the read because they are among the relative few to detail the tedium of life on the land and the amount of work that goes into that life. Jane is naive, young, and self-righteous, but one finds this plays well into her future roles as lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon and queen consort after Anne’s demise. The amount of time Jane spends obsessing about her sister-in-law and the damage to the family may be tedious but still provides the background for getting to know this quiet, plain future queen consort.