A couple of months ago, I did the following guest post on the lovely Sharon Kay Penman’s blog as part of my blog tour for Her Highness, the Traitor. Although I’ve come across a couple of blog posts and books that have reassured me that the following rules are being followed faithfully, it’s still important to be vigilant. So here is a reprise of my Rules for Writing About Lady Jane Grey. As you can never have too many rules in writing historical fiction, I’ve added several. They work perfectly fine for writing nonfiction too, incidentally, especially if you leave out those distractions known as citations.
1. Frances Grey, Jane’s mother, must always be portrayed as grossly obese. The fact that the portrait that this depiction is based upon is not actually of Frances is entirely immaterial. Helpful Hint: Have Frances gnaw on a big turkey leg to underscore your point.
2. Jane Grey must be whipped by her parents at least twice in your novel: once before her wedding day and once before that as a warm-up whipping. The truly dedicated novelist will even allow the Greys to whip their daughter after she becomes queen, just to remind the reader who’s boss. (Be sure to dwell in loving detail on the welts caused by the lashing.)
3. Guildford Dudley can be either effeminate or brutish, depending on your preference. (The experienced novelist can make him both effeminate and brutish, but this isn’t recommended for beginners.) Whether you’ve made him effeminate or brutish, however, Guildford must behave like a sniveling weakling on his way to the scaffold. Bonus: If you ever write about the Wars of the Roses, Guildford’s character can be recycled for use as Edward of Lancaster’s. All you need to do is change the names and costumes.
4. Mary, Jane’s supposedly dwarfish sister, must be hidden away by her parents, who will refer to her at every convenient occasion in the novel as a freak or a monster, preferably to Mary’s face. Ignore the temptation to Google, which will bring you to records showing that Mary Grey accompanied her family on social visits, including one to Princess Mary. Google is your enemy here.
5. Adrian Stokes, Frances Grey’s second husband, must be half Frances’s age. The fact that there is a source showing his precise date of birth, making him only two years younger than Frances, must be studiously ignored. Don’t worry: ignoring the records about Mary Grey will have given you ample practice in doing this. Susan’s Special Tip: Have Frances sleep with Adrian during her marriage to Henry Grey, as well as with the odd stable boy or two. Susan’s Even More Special Tip: Have Henry Grey sleep with Adrian as well, as well as with the odd stable boy or two.
6. Speaking of Frances Grey, it is well known that Frances was the only person in Tudor England, or indeed in England before the twentieth century, to hunt for sport. If Frances isn’t committing Bambi-cide within ten pages of the opening of your novel, while Jane and the local chapter of PETA look on in horror, you need to do a rewrite.
7. While it is important to make Jane’s parents uncaring, brutal, and stupid, the novelist should not go overboard and make them downright evil, because true evilness must be held in reserve for the Duke of Northumberland. If the reader doesn’t come away thinking that “evil Northumberland” is a tautology, you have failed utterly as a writer and need to beg to have your day job back.
8. Edward VI must be sickly from birth; however, he must not die a natural death, but must be poisoned at the hands of Northumberland (who must be, remember, evil). Don’t forget to have Northumberland switch the king’s body with that of a murdered nobody; omitting this detail is the sort of carelessness that can trip up an unwary novelist.
9. Jane must be meek, mild, and terrified of her elders. Ignore the letter written by Jane to Thomas Harding in which she denounces the poor man as the “deformed imp of the devil” and the “stinking and filthy kennel of Satan.” Jane was probably just having a bad day.
10. Jane’s dreadful parents must be bitterly resentful of her scholarship and must attempt to drag her away from her books at every possible juncture. Disregard the fact that Jane’s father was a patron of scholars, and by all means don’t complicate things by making the reader wonder why, if Jane’s parents hated their daughter’s learning so much, they simply didn’t dismiss her tutors and confiscate her books and prevent her from corresponding with and receiving visits from scholars. Historical fiction should not be complicated.
11. The only happy period in Jane Grey’s life must be when she is living with Katherine Parr, who must also be made to single-handedly imbue Jane with a love for learning. (If you can make Thomas Seymour take a break from molesting the Lady Elizabeth long enough to have him menace Jane, the more the merrier–but don’t overdo it. Even Jane gets one happy period in her life, remember.)
12. Mary I can be allowed some strength of character just long enough to fight the (evil, don’t forget) Northumberland for her throne. Immediately afterward, however, she must turn into a pathetic, lovesick drip, who sends Jane to her death solely to guarantee her marriage to Philip of Spain. (Who can be evil too. But not as evil as Northumberland.)
13. Mrs. Ellen must be Jane’s childhood nurse, devoted to her charge through thick and thin. You say that no contemporary source actually describes Mrs. Ellen as Jane’s childhood nurse? Shut your mouth or Frances will come from her grave to give you some nips and bobs.
14. Jane must be portrayed as frail and delicate, not only because nice girls are frail and delicate, but because it gives Mrs. Ellen the opportunity to nurse her. See? I told you she was Jane’s old nurse.
15. Finally, the “P” words—“puppet” and “pawn”—are vital when writing about Jane Grey. Using just one is the mark of the amateur; the astute novelist will use them both. If you can use them both in the same sentence, why are you reading this list?