Two tales of a less merry olde England

Two nonfiction writers try their hands at novels about brilliant young women caught up in the turmoil of 16th-century politics

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Henry VIII is a Hollywood dream monarch: His life is larded with sex, violence, and fancy costumes, and he's even regarded in certain circles as a serial killer. Plus, if you want to wax philosophical, there's always the Reformation.

So it's not surprising that the 16th century tends to turn up in pop culture. This year, in addition to other cinematic and literary offerings, are two historical novels that delve into the political upheaval surrounding King Henry's break with the Roman Catholic Church. Both are centered on brilliant young women and written by British writers better known for nonfiction. Alas, one proves to be faux Tudor.

Historian Alison Weir wrote 10 nonfiction books before trying her hand at Innocent Traitor, a fictional look at the life of England's shortest-reigning monarch.

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With a nickname like "The Nine Days Queen," you know Lady Jane Grey isn't going to be celebrating her diamond jubilee. But her life before she is executed at 16 is so appallingly grim that a reader wants to cram Social Services in a time machine and send them to her rescue. Her parents see her as a pawn from birth and are determined to marry her to Henry's son, Edward, to advance the cause of Protestantism (and their own fortunes). Her mother, Frances Brandon, makes Cinderella's stepmother look like a caring parent. She whips Jane for faults ranging from bad table manners to refusing to marry the spoiled monster her parents have chosen. (Never has the phrase "politics makes strange bedfellows" been more horribly applied.)

Lady Jane had one brief period of happiness when she became the ward of Queen Katherine Parr, the only wife fortunate enough to survive Henry and, apparently, the only nice person in London. The queen's friendship and her books are Jane's only solaces.

After Edward VI's death from consumption (plus a little arsenic), the Protestant faction crowns Jane in an effort to keep Henry's daughter Mary, a staunch Catholic, from power. This effort fails spectacularly, resulting in Jane's condemnation to death. Despite her "Bloody Mary" nickname, Mary I offers to spare her young cousin if Jane converts to Catholicism. Instead, she becomes a martyr.

"Innocent Traitor" jumps between a dozen points of view, from Lady Jane's mother to her executioner, with varying degrees of success. Several of the characters sound the same, although Jane herself is vivid. Weir also excels when it comes to explaining the convoluted political machinations and the religious stakes that led her first to a throne she did not want and then ultimately to her death.

By contrast, Meg Giggs grew up as a pampered ward in the home of Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor to Henry VIII, who liked to boast that he only beat his children "with peacock feathers." Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman opens when the artist Hans Holbein (the Younger) arrives to paint the family's portrait and closes five year later when the Dutch portraitist returns to paint them again. Bennett is trying to wed "Girl With a Pearl Earring" to "A Man for All Seasons," with sometimes awkward results.

Meg, a skilled herbalist, is torn between the Catholic faith she was raised in and the suffering of the Protestants she treats. Her love for her adopted father, More, is tested by his growing zealousness in stamping out heresy. This is emotional stuff, but too often Bennett abandons the high-stakes tensions in favor of an invented love triangle between Meg, Holbein, and her former tutor, John Clement, that quickly becomes insipid.

More is by far the most complicated character in the novel, but unfortunately Bennett isn't up to the job of unifying the zealot with the philosopher and loving paternal figure. She is more successful at explaining the symbolism in Holbein's portraits and capturing the details of middle-class life in the 16th century. But she makes the mistake of finishing the novel before King Henry has More executed for treason, leaving it with a "happy" ending that feels completely false.

Yvonne Zipp reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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