Jane Seymour is an obedient, quiet fifteen-year-old when her elder brother Edward brings home his May Bride to Wolf Hall. Katherine Filliol is, to Jane’s mind, the very opposite of herself. While Jane is the compliant daughter of the house, the almost surrogate mother to her younger sisters, in charge of many of the household’s most tedious and manual duties, Katherine appears free, a smile and a giggle regularly playing on her lips, a delightful and beautiful challenge to the domestic monotony of the Seymour family. Jane begins to see her home and family through new eyes, her mind teased and opened, her chores lightened by sharing them with such a charming and ever so slightly rebellious companion.
Jane, though, is not the only member of the Seymour family to be affected by this breath of fresh air and therein lies the harm of Katherine Filliol. Told in Jane’s own words, and from her rather tantalising future perspective of being Henry VIII’s Queen-in-Waiting, we are presented with the scandal that almost destroyed the Seymours’ prospects at a time when they were about to outshine every other family at the Tudor court. Edward and Thomas Seymour, such contrasting and yet charismatic young men, as well as the younger siblings, the parents and the small number of servants, plus Katherine herself, are brought to life within the small confines of Jane’s world.
Jane’s life is radically transformed by the events portrayed in The May Bride. Her narrative attempts to understand them while in the final section of the novel she has to cope with the biggest change of them all. It’s interesting how she deals with it – she is almost aloof, the pawn of men, the witness of her future husband’s treatment of two queens, following on from watching her brother Edward’s treatment of his wife Katherine. The fact that we know Jane’s fate only adds to the tension. But although this period of Jane’s life might be the one most interesting to readers (well, this reader, anyway), it’s the one that gets the most rushed treatment. Personally, I would have loved to have spent more time in Queen Katherine’s court, with its diminishing visits by the king, rather than with may bride Katherine. However, my waning interest in Seymour domesticity was kept at bay by the character of Jane Seymour herself.
The May Bride is an intriguing novel. In a way it presents something that isn’t entirely expected. Jane Seymour is Henry VIII’s may bride but she gives herself very little time here, only about a quarter of the novel. The focus is very much on Jane the observer’s fascination with Edward’s may bride, Katherine, and the impact of her presence on the minutiae of domestic life in an upwardly mobile but unimportant Tudor household. It’s a meticulous portrayal of Tudor domesticity – here you’ll find details about every part of Wolf Hall, from its laundry, kitchen and stables to its bedrooms and gallery. If you’ve been pulled into this world by the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall then you may well find something to catch your eye around every corner.