The Lady of Misrule | Suzannah Dunn | 2015 | Little, Brown | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
Lady Jane Grey is Queen of England no longer. Now she must move from throne room to prison, all within the thick and fearsome stone walls of the Tower of London. Her jailers want a ‘good Catholic girl’ to be companion to this Protestant usurper. The role is given to Elizabeth Tilney, a girl of good family who, perhaps surprisingly, volunteered for this dreary post. Both girls are very young, scarcely women, but there seems little other than age, gender and locked chambers to bind these two very different figures together. Jane is contemplative, earnest, studious, almost withdrawn from the pleasures of life and youth, whereas Elizabeth has grasped those joys in both hands and knows as much about affairs of the heart as Jane knows her books. Yet, as time passes and the realisation grows that Jane may never again be free, when hopes finally fade and each girl sees the other at her most vulnerable, the bond between Jane and Elizabeth grows stronger.
Jane and Elizabeth are captive in the Tower for months, confined to a small cottage within the walls, watched closely yet well treated. Nevertheless, they have no alternative but to rely upon each other for almost every need, emotional as well as practical. This isn’t easy with such different temperaments. Matters aren’t helped by the knowledge that there are other prisoners in the Tower, including Jane’s husband Guildford Dudley, a pawn in the hands of his once powerful father, the Duke of Northumberland, just as Jane was. Guildford is likewise young but he shows the fear that Jane can suppress. Elizabeth, who knows about life outside the walls, knows she has a future, is drawn to him as Jane isn’t.
Elizabeth is our witness to Jane’s captivity during the month’s following her fall in the summer of 1553. The Lady of Misrule is told in Elizabeth’s own words. And she is an interesting narrator, not completely reliable, rather unsure, very opinionated, and with something to hide. Although this is ostensibly the story of Lady Jane Grey as told by her maid and companion, it is just as much about Elizabeth. As time goes by, it is as if Elizabeth thinks to trust us, just as the coldness between herself and Jane begins to thaw, and she starts to reveal more about her own life and the events that brought her to the Tower, albeit voluntarily, unlike poor Jane.
Through Elizabeth we also learn about events taking place outside the Tower as the new Queen Mary establishes herself on the throne. There is talk of rebellion, of the rise and fall of those who used Jane for their own ends, and of the precipice at the very edge of which the lives of Jane and Guildford teeter. Elizabeth is an emotional narrator and it is impossible not to read this and feel the anger mount at the callousness with which Jane has been treated by those who should have kept her safe.
Jane, by contrast, keeps us all at a distance. She is never less than regal and dignified, no matter the situation. Jane is hard to like but as time goes on she becomes far easier to pity and our warmth to her does build as Elizabeth is permitted closer. As with Suzannah Dunn’s previous novel, The May Bride, there is a sense that we’re skirting around history, that we’re not at the heart of it, due to the focus of the narrator on something else (in that case it was Jane Seymour telling us about her sister in law Katherine Filliol, whereas here our narrator’s attention is often on herself). However, I think this is far more satisfactorily accomplished in The Lady of Misrule. Elizabeth is an intriguing narrator and her own story is a mystery we want to solve. We also need her to picture Lady Jane Grey, who remains elusive and unknowable without her.
The Lady of Misrule is a beautifully written novel and, perhaps surprisingly, its heart can be found in Elizabeth’s concerns for young Guildford Dudley. Guildford’s character is wonderfully drawn, a portrait of tragic loss of love and hope. I cared for him deeply. We know the history of this ill-matched bridal pair. We know what’s coming. And while Jane keeps us at an arm’s length, Guildford is open and in need of friendship. It is extremely poignant and sensitively drawn.
Suzannah Dunn has produced a marvellous novel with a very strong feel of historical authenticity about it. We’re confined to the Tower throughout but we learn what’s going on outside, giving us glimpses of politics, daily life and court intrigue and splendour, as well as a taste of what Tudor life was like in Elizabeth’s own family home. Queen Mary remains in the wings, almost highlighting how insignificant Jane has become, something to be squashed should politics demand. The end of The Lady of Misrule is as shattering as you’d expect. Jane by then has grown sweet in Elizabeth’s eyes. But by then, of course, it’s too late.
Without doubt, this will be one of my most loved reads of 2015.
The May Bride