I've spent most of my working life looking into a void — staring into the gap where I would expect to find a well-researched biography of an interesting woman. Over and over again, I have come across a woman who has played a large part in a historical event and asked the question "Oh! Who's this?" to be met with a resounding silence. The history of her father or brother or husband or son is usually there, sometimes in rich detail with vainglorious claims to greatness. The woman — absent.
Women are "hidden from history" for a number of different reasons, but the Grey family — the martyr Lady Jane Grey and her sisters, the subjects of my latest novel — are concealed in plain sight in three completely different ways.
Lady Jane Grey usurped the throne of England on the death of her cousin, the son of Henry VIII. Half of England was Protestant and feared a Roman Catholic monarch, and so Lady Jane's supporters named her as queen in preference to the rightful Roman Catholic heir, Mary I.
The uprising collapsed within nine days. Mary marched on London to an ecstatic welcome, and Jane was imprisoned in the tower and disappeared from history into myth. This interesting, argumentative, loud-mouthed heretical teenager took the courageous choice to die for her faith — just as much a martyr as Sir Thomas More — and within days of her death, she was transformed from the real young woman she was into a Protestant icon.
Saint-making went into overdrive, as the very few references to her childhood were exaggerated or imagined into the hagiography of a saint. The process was crowned by a work by French painter Paul Delaroche, whose acclaimed portrait of Lady Jane Grey has set an image of her in our minds, an image far from reality. Here is Jane Grey, not in the black Tudor gown trimmed with black jet that we knew she wore, but in the silvery white robe of the virgin sacrifice. Beside her is the lieutenant of the tower Sir John Brydges, guiding her toward the block. Behind her, collapsing as if to signify what women usually do under stress, are her useless ladies in waiting, and before her, posed so that all eyes are drawn to his codpiece, emphasized by a dagger, is the executioner. The tiny block where she is to die contrasts with the huge ax that will behead her. The girl herself is blindfolded and her imploring hands outstretched — she is both blind and lost.