My Lady Jane is a sassy but lightweight Tudor-era alternate history fantasy

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Emily Bader as Lady Jane Grey in Amazon Prime’s My Lady Jane.
Emily Bader as Lady Jane Grey in Amazon Prime’s My Lady Jane. Credit: Jonathan Prime/Jonathan Prime/Prime Video

Call it the Sliding Doors effect. What if one small decision, a diversion or a pause, changed the course of history?

In the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, a remake of a Polish film, making or missing the train meant she either did or didn’t catch her philandering boyfriend in bed with another woman.

In some of the more fanciful TV shows, the stakes are much, much higher. The alternate history story has always allowed audiences to entertain the “what if?” question and the latest entry into the specialised genre is My Lady Jane.

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The series is a youth-oriented slice of Tudor history or alternate-history, as it were.

The real-life Lady Jane Grey was a tragic figure, a symbolic and actual victim of the machinations and scheming of ambitious men trying to secure their perilous proximity to the power of the throne.

Jane was a granddaughter of Henry VII and the niece of Henry VIII. When the rotund, gout-ridden and six-times married Henry VIII shuffled off the mortal coil, his throne was left to his only son, Edward VI. Edward VI was not a well child and he died when he was 15 years old.

His half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, were both seen as problematic inheritors of the crown – one was a Catholic and the other was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, who was executed.

So, men in secret rooms conspired to install Lady Jane Grey, a direct royal descendent and a Protestant. Jane was 16 or 17 years at the time and ruled England as Queen for just over a week. She is known as the Nine Days Queen.

Painting / portrait which may be a depiction of Lady Jane Grey, which hung undiscovered in a house in Streatham, London.
A painting believed to be Jane Grey, which hung undiscovered in a house in Streatham, London. Credit: Unknown/Lane Fine Art

When Mary’s supporters grew rowdy and the Privy Council switched sides, Jane was charged with high treason and executed. When you tour the Tower of London, the yeoman guide will point out the spot where she was beheaded.

The contention of My Lady Jane is what if Jane Grey didn’t have her future snuffed out as a teenager? What if she was able to live a full life? Also, what if there was magic?

It’s going for a vibe of anachronistic sassiness in the vein of The Great, Enola Holmes and Mary & George where corsets and rigid social structures don’t get in the way of shenanigans and a progressive attitude.

Emily Bader as Lady Jane Grey and Edward Bluemel as Guildford Dudley
Emily Bader as Lady Jane Grey and Edward Bluemel as Guildford Dudley. Credit: Jonathan Prime/Jonathan Prime/Prime Video

Little is known about what the historical Jane was like in personality or ambition – her life and fate has been co-opted to serve political narratives, sometimes called a Protestant martyr to the ruthless, Catholic “Bloody Mary”.

This onscreen version is a defiant teen girl who wants control of her own life. She has more agency than any historical record will give her but the show still leans closer to the lightweight The Buccaneers than the more considered and fiery tone of Dickinson and Catherine Called Birdy.

Certainly, when it comes to a historical TV series about young women who chaffed against their era, modern audiences are well-served.

And given Jane’s status as one of English history’s great tragic figures, there’s no denying the premise of her not being killed as a teenager is an intriguing one to explore — even if the show has pushed in some supernatural magic that was wholly unnecessary to the story.

Rob Brydon as Lord Dudley and Henry Ashton as Stan Dudley
Men plotting the fates of women in My Lady Jane. Credit: Jonathan Prime/Jonathan Prime/Prime Video

As a genre, the alternative history question is rich for storytellers who can use the “what if” as a jumping-off point to explore what a different fate might look like – sometimes for the worse – and what it might reflect of our present moment.

Philip Roth wrote in 2004 The Plot Against America which imagines a United States in which the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh was elected president in 1940 over Franklin D. Roosevelt, heightening America’s isolationist policies during WWII.

By the time the novel was adapted into a miniseries in 2020, the story’s warning against a celebrity demagogue had obvious parallels to the then-Trump presidency.

The Man in the High Castle, a four-season drama adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel, poses the question of what if the Axis powers of Germany and Japan won WWII instead of the Allies. For All Mankind creates a world in which the Soviets beat the US to the moon.

The Plot Against America starred John Turturro.
The Plot Against America starred John Turturro. Credit: HBO

These narratives always say more about the time we’re living through now than the era in which these fictional universes split off from the historical record.

And sometimes, there are stories we don’t want to hear at all because it’s too raw. HBO had commissioned a series from the Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss which proposed to explore a world in which the slave-owning southern Confederacy successfully ceded from the union.

It was 2017 and after the bruising 2016 election year which further exposed the divisions within the US, particularly between red and blue states, and many people didn’t want to see a violent “what if” in which black Americans were still enslaved.

The series languished in development and by 2020, had officially been canned before a single frame was filmed.

My Lady Jane, for all of its issues as a TV series, is at least indicative of our desire to see fantasies in which young women are not sacrificed for the ambitions of men. History already told that story.

My Lady Jane is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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