Richard Stocker is an unusual protagonist in this historical novel. At the heart of it Lady Jane Grey of Tudor lineage, married for a brief time to a bully from a powerful family and forced to claim the throne after the death of King Edward, only son of the union of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. After a few days’ reign, Jane is forced off the throne to eventually meet the same fate as the unfortunate queens of Henry VIII - an appointment with the executioner.
But this nightmare is still a few years away in 1551 when the story begins. Visiting one of his properties, Lord Henry Grey, his wife, and three daughters - Jane, Catherine and Mary - make the acquaintance of a young man with an eye for the prettiest of the sisters, Catherine. That he saves the girls from drowning works in no small measure to his advantage when the family asks him to join their household.
As second Master of the Horse on the family’s primary estate, Richard becomes friends with all three, but most poignant is his relationship with Lady Jane Grey, fourteen when first they meet to Richard’s seventeen. Stocker cannot know the troubled path ahead, the treachery and intrigue of the Tudor court after the death of Henry VIII and the reign of Edward VI.
The narrative from a male perspective, Richard’s views are perhaps more practical, although there are intrinsic problems in casting a male among all these females. Whatever his romantic imaginings, Richard is doomed to failure. Even if Catherine reciprocates his feelings, class prohibits a union, a fact of which Richard is all too painfully aware.
But history intervenes, thrusting Richard onto a far larger stage as a plan unfolds to place Jane on the throne after Edward’s death, an ingenious, devious plot that succeeds for a short time but spells doom for Lady Jane Grey: “The crown is not mine by right, and pleaseth me not!” Her short rule marked by a small rebellion against husband and family (married to the odious Guilford Dudley), Jane retires to enforced imprisonment awaiting a pardon by Mary Tudor, clinging to her trust in Mary and her Reformist faith, Richard at her side. A final family betrayal renders Jane another pawn of history, Richard witness to her innocence: “What men do to others in their greed.”
My biggest problem with this novel is a serious time warp, for lack of a batter way to address it, a problem most notable in six-year-old Mary. Her language is extraordinary for a child of few years, using words like ostentatious and chaos, speaking sentences far beyond the range of her experience.
Equally disconcerting, Catherine Grey exhibits a sexual understanding belied by her eleven years. Granted, a young woman of noble birth might marry early, but Catherine’s awareness borders on the disturbing. At seventeen, Richard appears much too old for the sexual fantasies he entertains about Catherine. Such distractions dilute the storyline, which is about Richard’s friendship with the sisters, notably the doomed Jane, who is nothing more than a pawn of her parents’ ambitions.
Essentially a passionless retelling of a tragic story, the protagonist fails to inject the novel with the real spirit of the times; perhaps the fated Jane - attended by Richard, her faithful shadow - is only a footnote to history. This is Mary Tudor’s moment, young Jane but grist for the political mill and her family’s treachery.