A Book to Avoid: The Nine Days Queen by Mary Luke

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.

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11 Responses to A Book to Avoid: The Nine Days Queen by Mary Luke

  1. Adelaida says:

    And why not simply write a novel?

  2. Anerje says:

    OMG! I’ve never heard of this book, thankfully! To see Luke has taken liberties is an understatement! To cite one of her own novels as a source is ridiculous! Unless her focus had been ‘the portrayal of Lady Jane Grey in historcal fiction’ :>

  3. Hannah says:

    Thanks for the warning. May I ask what you think of (if you have read it) Coronation of Glory: The Story of Lady Jane Grey by Deborah Meroff? I stopped reading it because it was far to romantic for my taste, but still wonder about its accuracy.

  4. boswellbaxter says:

    Adelaida, exactly! I actually enjoyed Mary Luke’s novel about Katherine Parr a great deal, which is one reason I found this biography such an outrage. She certainly knows the difference between fact and fiction.

    Anerje, she cites two of her other books too, but I think they’re nonfiction–or at least that they purport to be. Her nonfiction book about Elizabeth I apparently takes liberties too, from what I’ve heard.

    Hannah, I haven’t read it. One Amazon reviewer stated that the book depicts Jane as being hanged instead of beheaded, which doesn’t bode well.

  5. Philippa says:

    Unfortunately this book is not alone in peddling such nonsense under the guise of truth Susan. One good thing about online forums such as yours is that we no longer have to swallow such statements without question.

    Perhaps Frances did discipline her children with physical blows, if she did then it’s likely that so did many of her contemporaries. It doesn’t mean that she was particularly cruel or despotic, its another example of how people of her time had different attitudes to child rearing that we have now. A good author, whether writing fact or fiction, will attempt to explore and explain those different ideas.

    The only people who know what Jane and Guildford Dudley got up to on their wedding night are the young couple themselves. Any attempt to describe their thoughts or words or actions has to be a reconstruction by the author. That is perfectly acceptable in a work of fiction but not in a book purporting to be fact.

  6. Susan Higginbotham says:

    Philippa, quite true!

  7. Christine says:

    Frankly, I always had the impression from a letter Jane is said to have written, that she resented her stepmother telling Guildford to sleep no longer with his wife — IMHO this would mean that she did enjoy his embraces. This market/desire(?) for hagiographies, be they never so insipid, is quite astonishing — dozens and dozens of books telling us the same old tale of St. Jane and her incredibly wicked parents & in-laws.

  8. Kathryn says:

    Ohhhh dear. Definitely one to miss. 🙁

    • boswellbaxter says:

      That’s for sure! I have another nonfiction book of hers, which I’ve never read, and I think I’ll keep it that way.

  9. Trish Wilson says:

    I take the same view with so-called historical fact as I do with with so much historical – should that be hysterical? – fiction.

    Pass me the salt-cellar please.

  10. Pingback: It’s FICTION, Dammit! | Lit Asylum