In an interview, the author said – maybe in jest, maybe not – that her biggest challenge in writing it was staying awake.)
Dunn knows what she’s doing, though. Her character-centered story is full of sharp yet subtle observations that keep readers alert to the shifting relationships among her characters – even when her young, innocent heroine doesn’t notice them herself.
As the eldest daughter among the eight living children of Sir John and Margery Seymour of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, Jane is a sensible, introverted teenager who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. The Seymours are of the gentry, with servants to help them out, but everyone gets involved in keeping the estate running. Jane’s days are spent in domestic pursuits: embroidery, laundry, mending her brothers’ torn clothes, gathering fruit for jam, making pastry in the kitchen. One highlight for the Seymours is their twice-yearly trek to the fair at Great Bedwyn.
The novel offers many scenes showing these aspects of country life, and the details are fascinating. In fact, you’ll find it easy to forget all about Jane’s illustrious marriage, still years in the future, because it seems so unlikely.
Although everything is seen through Jane’s eyes, the plot’s focus is actually Katherine Filliol, her older brother Edward’s golden bride, a local heiress who makes her entrance while “fresh as a daisy in her buttercup silk.” Katherine’s cheery, casually lighthearted ways enchant her in-laws, Jane in particular, and they become good friends at first. As time passes, it becomes clear that Edward and his wife are horribly mismatched. His accusation, several years into their union, that she was unfaithful to him with his father shocks them all.
This is the same incident that runs through the background of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, of course, but here it’s explored in depth. In imagining the lead-up to this rumored episode, The May Bride tells an affecting story about the sidelining of women and a family torn apart in the aftermath of a dreadful mistake. And finally, although the final segments set at court feel a bit muddled with their multiple time-shifts, it provides a believable context for Jane Seymour’s unanticipated rise in status.
The May Bride was published in November by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 308pp). The UK publisher is Little, Brown. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.