Last week, I picked up this 1986 biography of Lady Jane Grey by Mary Luke, a historical novelist who also dabbled in nonfiction. While I had been warned that this book was a heavily fictionalized account of Jane’s life, I had no idea just how fictionalized it was. In fact, it’s essentially a novel, and should have been published as one.
It’s common for biographers to speculate as to what their subjects might have felt; Luke, however, takes this a step further and tells us exactly what her historical figures were thinking, even when she has no way of knowing. This starts at the very beginning of the book, when we meet Jane’s mother, Frances, on her wedding day and are told, “If true beauty would never be hers, she’d long ago made her mind that its lack would not prevent her from obtaining whatever she wanted in life. And now, at this moment of triumph, she was elated at how well everything had worked out.”
Luke does not confine herself to divining the unrecorded thoughts of historical figures. She goes well beyond that, especially with Frances, who is the clear villain of this biography, and simply invents incidents that have no basis in recorded fact. Although the worst thing Jane ever accused her parents of doing (if the words attributed to her long after her death were recalled accurately) was giving her “pinches, nips, and bobs,” here Frances is depicted as shaking her infant children: “Baby Katherine was almost asleep . . . Her mother didn’t like any child to cry, and often, if she was around, she’d shake little Katherine to make her stop. Jane could remember her mother shaking her too, and that had been very frightening, for she hadn’t even been crying.” Not content with this, Luke goes on to invent other episodes of Frances physically abusing Jane: “Chattering on one day about a pleasant occasion with the Queen Dowager and Lord Admiral, [Jane] was shocked when, suddenly and unexpectedly, her mother silenced her with a swift blow to the side of her head.”
Years after the fact, Roger Ascham recorded Jane as praising her tutor John Aylmer: “who teacheth me so gently, so pleasantly, with such fair allurements to learning, that I think all the time nothing whiles I am with him.” Armed with this single sentence, Luke imagines at length the early encounters between pupil and master: “After several meetings with the marchioness [Frances], of observing her attitude and treatment of Lady Jane, he understood that the child’s shy and withdrawn attitude hid a basic distrust and fear of all adults, excepting those who served in the nursery. . . . Whenever she succeeded he praised her generously, and after several words were put together to make a phrase–and she repeated it in English–he was rewarded with the child’s first smile.” Isn’t this heartwarming?
But all good things must come to an end, and soon Luke is uncovering the horrors of Jane’s wedding night: “The marriage bed had proven a shock; nothing had prepared her for the assault on her senses, much less her body. Her nature, gentle to the point of timidity, was outraged at the behavior expected of her, even when Guildford told her that his conduct was no different from that of any other man with his wife or, indeed, any other man and woman. He was her husband, he told Jane, and he had his rights, which chose to exercise at will, saying she was lucky he did not beat her.”
Not surprisingly, this book contains no citations to sources, though it does include a bibliography, which includes one of Luke’s own novels.
It would take pages to list all of the historical liberties Luke takes here, in a book which she firmly declares “is not a novel, not a fictional biography.” It may not be either of these things, but it’s not a reliable work of nonfiction either. Quite simply, it’s a fraud on the reader and, frequently, an exercise in character assassination. Avoid it.