‘In the very first instance, I was won over, and of course I was: I was fifteen and had been nowhere and done nothing, whereas Katherine was twenty-one and yellow-silk-clad and just married to the golden boy.’
A few years back I read Suzannah Dunn’s The Confessions of Katherine Howard and could remember enjoying it, so when I found out she had written a novel about Jane Seymour I was pretty intrigued. Whilst I seem to have read loads of books about such scandalous figures as Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, Jane Seymour is the wife of Henry VIII who I have read least about, and as she was supposedly his favourite, I was interested to know more.
However, once I started reading The May Bride it quickly became clear that Jane Seymour’s unlikely rise in court was not the main focus of the novel. Instead it was the Seymour family scandal that took place a few years prior, in which Jane’s brother Edward Seymour accused his wife Katherine Filliol of having had an affair with his own father, John Seymour. It is Katherine who is the ‘May Bride’ of the title, and the novel is largely about her time at Wolf Hall, and her friendship with Jane.
The friendship at the heart of the novel is an unlikely one, as Jane and Katherine are complete opposites: Jane is fifteen years old, sensible, dutiful and essentially dull, whilst Katherine is twenty-one, newly married, beautiful, vivacious and daring. Their friendship was actually pretty similar to that of Cat and Katherine Howard in The Confessions of Katherine Howard, so I did feel it was a little samey, and I’m not really a fan of the sensible character/ bold character friendship trope to be honest.
Also, for all her charisma I didn’t find Katherine particularly likable, as her mood swings soon became tiresome, and I just ended up thinking she was a bit of a brat! Her actions also don’t help her when the accusations start to fly, and you can kind of see as you read on how things will start to fall apart for her.
Jane however, was annoying in a different way. Where Katherine is daring and demanding, Jane is meek and mild, and let’s her sister-in-law call the shots from the very beginning of their relationship, managing to get herself well and truly mixed up in the mess Katherine creates. For the most part, she seems pretty naïve, and her initial superficial regard for the worldly Katherine causes her to blindly ignore her glaring faults.
The rest of the Seymour family were, for the most part, similarly unlikable and often at odds with one another. The two eldest Seymour brothers for example, Edward and Thomas, are just as different as Jane and Katherine, and the tension between them causes a lot of friction and drama in the family throughout the novel.
However, I did actually quite like the character development of Edward throughout the novel, even though I didn’t really like him. At the start he is seen through Jane’s eyes as the ‘golden boy’ who is admired by everyone, yet as the story goes on his flaws become more apparent, and you realise he isn’t quite what he seems, and ironically it is Katherine who knew all along.
And as for the younger Seymour siblings, I felt they injected some much-needed life into the family, particularly Anthony, with his habit of asking incessant and often bizarre questions. Although they were quite minor characters, I found that they were the only ones I actually liked.
Plot-wise I found this book to be quite slow going. Despite Katherine’s lively entrance at the start of the novel, not much actually happened until right near the end, and when it did, it was nowhere near as exciting and scandalous as I had expected! The novel is mainly concerned with the ups and downs of Jane and Katherine’s friendship, and whilst at first this was interesting, it soon got old, and I just wanted something significant to happen beyond Jane’s fretting about Katherine’s mood swings.
I also would have liked to know more about Jane’s time at court and how she became Queen. Whilst the story is told in retrospect by Jane whilst she is a queen-in-waiting (as in, waiting for Anne Boleyn to be beheaded, so that she can marry the King!), her arrival at court is very briefly skimmed over at the end, and nothing is said of how she first caught the king’s eye, or how she came to be queen.
Overall, I can’t say I massively enjoyed this novel. The plot was slow and meandering, and the characters weren’t particularly likable. Whilst the character relationships and the dynamics between them had the potential to be interesting, they rarely were, and the scandal when it finally erupts was quite anti-climatic in my opinion. Not a terrible book, but nothing special in a genre that includes such amazing books as Wolf Hall (by Hilary Mantel) and The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Phillipa Gregory).