Wednesday 29 April 2009

A Queen for All Seasons

Poor Jane; a woman for all seasons...and none. A plaything for her time, and a plaything for posterity. There is not really enough material to construct a proper, source-based, biography, but that has not stopped people filling the gaps with the fruits of imagination.

The story begins with Elizabethan ballads, a tale of innocence betrayed. In one Jane, in denouncing her executioner declares "For Popery I hate as death/and Christ my saviour love." Jane is now not only an innocent but a martyr to the Protestant cause, and appears as such in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. She was also idealised in another way by Roger Ascham as noble and scholarly, on no certain evidence, it has to be said. But the greatest Elizabethan tribute to her came in Thomas Chaloner's Elegy, published in 1579. Here she is peerless in her learning and beauty, comparable only with Socrates for her courage and quiet resignation in the face of death. He even suggests that she was pregnant at the time of her execution, an assertion that appears nowhere else, presumably to make Mary, the great villain of the piece, appear all the more heartless.

From martyrology and poetry, Jane finally made it on to the stage in the early Jacobean period in Lady Jane by John Webster and Thomas Dekker, where she and takes on the role of a tragic lover. This theme was taken up later in the century by Joan Banks, a Restoration playwright in his Innocent Usurper: or, the Death of Lady Jane Grey. Here Jane is only persuaded to accept the crown after her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley, threatens to commit suicide if she does not. And if you believe that you will believe anything! First performed after the Glorious Revolution, there is also a strong anti-Catholic dimension to Bank's play, which must have appealed to the audiences of the day.

More plays and poems followed in the eighteenth century, when a small Janeite industry began to take shape. In the early Hanoverian period she takes on the role of political heroine as well as martyr, scholar and tragic lover, putting down her Plato and taking up the crown only to save English Protestantism. Her popularity as a subject for tragic romance increased even further in the nineteenth century, an age of mass printing, where her story appears in a variety of media, including popular magazines and children's books.

Jane's growing reputation, it's worth stressing, was not just a popular phenomenon. Gilbert Burnet, Whig historian and self-publicist, described Jane, with considerable exaggeration, as 'the wonder of the age' in his History of the Reformation, a phrase subsequently taken up by Oliver Goldsmith his History of England, published in 1771. Even the sober and unromantic David Hume was seduced by the tragedy of Jane and Dudley. It was not until the early nineteenth century that John Lingard, a Catholic historian, ventured a word or two of counter-adulation, saying that she 'liked dresses overmuch', and reminding her promoters that she was only sixteen.

She was recast time and again to suit the inclinations of her audience. After the French Revolution the new evangelist movement alighted on her as a symbol, marked not for her romance but for her piety. In 1828 The Lady's Monitor declared that she inherited "every great, every good, every admirable quality, whether of mind, disposition, or person." Remarkably the radical thinker and philosopher William Godwin wrote his own hagiography of Jane under a pseudonym, though this owed less to his admiration for her virtues and more to his need for ready cash! For Godwin ( or, rather, for Theopilius Marcliffe!) she was "the most perfect young creature of the female sex to be found in history." Enter Mrs Godwin stage right!

And so it went on, right into the twentieth century, when Jane finally made it on to the screen in Tudor Rose directed by Robert Stevenson, which appeared in the States as Nine Days a Queen. Once again Mary is the cold-blooded fanatic, while Jane and Dudley are the tragic lovers. More recently the nine-day-queen appeared as Lady Jane, staring Helena Bonham Carter and directed by Trevor Nunn, a romance set against the political intrigues of the day.

Jane is now beyond history. She belongs to legend, the stuff of which dreams are made on.

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