I must say that adored The Raven’s Widow, both as a historian and as an avid reader.
The book is a narrative of the life of Jane Parker Boleyn, widow of George Boleyn and a woman who has been used as a malignant foil for many fictional writers based on unsubstantiated historical rumors and not much else. Needless to say, Dillard’s work is much more sympathetic to Lady Rochford.
Jane Parker never dreamed that her marriage into the Boleyn family would raise her star to such dizzying heights. Before long, she finds herself as trusted servant and confidante to her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn; King Henry VIII’s second queen. On a gorgeous spring day, that golden era is cut short by the swing of a sword. Jane is unmoored by the tragic death of her husband, George, and her loss sets her on a reckless path that leads to her own imprisonment in the Tower of London. Surrounded by the remnants of her former life, Jane must come to terms with her actions. In the Tower, she will face up to who she really is and how everything went so wrong.
One of the things I liked most about this novel is that the author grasps the difference between fiction and historical evidence. I’ve read sufficient Tudor research, including Julia Fox’s excellent biography of Jane Boleyn, to have an idea of what is actually known about Lady Rochford and what has been presumed. While the facts of Jane Boleyn’s life are sparce, Dillard takes these facts and uses them to support her fictional tale in much the same way a trellis supports climbing roses; the end result is beautiful and as sturdy as human ingenuity can make it. There are things that Dillard has to invent, but they are plausible and they fit the historical record.
I am certainly not adverse to suspending disbelief for a good read, much in the way a physicist has to relinquish reality to enjoy Star Trek or Star Wars, but my favorite books are the ones that are both well written and as accurate as possible. If a book has good word-smithing then I will ignore yet another depiction of George Boleyn as a homosexual murderer or rapist, even if my eyes do roll back into my head occasionally with the exasperation. Thankfully, while reading The Raven’s Widow, my eyes didn’t roll back even once. Rather, they teared up at some of the more moving passages, and I was filled with a desperate pain thinking of the agony of seeing a beloved husband judicially murdered for a crime you knew he didn’t commit.
I also enjoyed the lack of traditional “bad guys” in this novel. I’ve noticed that writers frequently make Anne Boleyn a monster to support Catherine of Aragon (or vice versa), but this work avoided that oversimplified trap. Instead of paper-thin depictions of manipulative devils, the major characters were drawn with an appealing complexity that made them fully human, with all the good and evil being human entails. This included the central protagonist. Jane Boleyn was not perfect and her mistakes were not all neatly explained away by saint-like altruism, but was instead a person capable of both wisdom and folly, cruelty and kindness. She was fleshed out in an incredibly believable way that didn’t sacrifice the readers ability to empathize with her.
Finally (and unusually!), I loved the author’s notes at the finish of the novel. Dillard explains the paucity of facts she was working with, and is forthright about the fact she wanted to give Lady Rochford her humanity back after centuries of being depicted as a plotting, devious, bawd. Most off all, Dillard proclaimed that, “the most important thing I want you, Dear Reader, to remember is that this a work of fiction. … [I] have made as many assumptions about Jane’s life as any other historian, but the choices I’ve made in my poetic license of telling her story are with the benefit of the doubt. I’ve interpreted the evidence available in the best possible light.” As for the actions that Jane has been so soundly condemned for, such as her presumed testimony against her husband and sister-in-law and her actually testimony against Queen Katheryn Howard, Dillard points out that her “reasons for her behavior died with her so I could only guess as to her motivations.” Dillard also cites several books, all of which I personally approve of as a historian, as her source materials. I cannot tell you how refreshing I find this honesty and commitment to the history underlying the narrative process.
Seriously, all the stars for this book.