Jun 28, 2015

The Lady Penelope: The Lost Tale of Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth I by Sally Varlow

Giving voice to an influential lady of Elizabeth's court


The Lady Penelope: The Lost Tale of Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth I by Sally Varlow
Published April 28th 2008 by Andre Deutsch
Historical Biography
Hardcover, 296 pages
Personal copy
Burton Book Review Rating:


Penelope Devereux was the brightest star who ever shone in the court of Queen Elizabeth I in 16th-century England, and this biography challenges the usual historians' view that she was merely a footnote to famous men's lives. 
The questions explored include: What political significance did she hold with her brother, Essex, and the Queen? 
Why did Essex name her as a major player in the coup that cost him his head, and how did she walk free? What was she doing having secret meetings with the most hunted Jesuit priest in England?
 Most important of all, if Mary Boleyn was her great-grandmother, was King Henry VIII her great-grandfather?
Her life touched on every great event of the age—the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the arrival of King James, and the Gunpowder Plot. She also knew many of the celebrated artistic figures of the day, including William Shakespeare. 
She was the most beautiful woman of her generation and muse to countless poets and musicians, yet she died in disgrace—a widow, outcast from court, and stripped of all her titles. 
Set against the character of Queen Elizabeth I and the staged pageantry of her Court, this dramatic and ultimately tragic story will have immediate appeal to all lovers of historical biographies.

While reading the new release of Elizabeth Fremantle's Watch the Lady (review here) I was reminded of this book that I have owned for at least five years. The Lady Penelope serves very well as the non-fiction counterpart to Fremantle's novel, as it seems to closely run along the same thought process. Fremantle acknowledges Sally Varlow's biography of Penelope in her author's note along with a few other sources.

The Lady Penelope: The Lost Tale of Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth I by Sally Varlow reads very well and gives an excellent view of Penelope's life as it may have been. Having just read the novel featuring Penelope Devereux Rich, I could see the strong correlation of both of the works but also could see how the novel was given its own flair. This biography shifted a lot towards the general politics of the Elizabethan era and there were a few times where I wondered when the last time Penelope was mentioned as we learned more about her eccentric family members, mainly Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. It didn't go too much into Lettice Knollys, Penelope and Robert's mother, which I was a little disappointed in. I had first heard of Lettice Knollys in Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt's novel My Enemy The Queen which set off a bit of a fascination of the members of the immediate family of the Knollys/Devereux.

As mentioned, the biography goes into a lot of detail as a whole to give a taste of the unrest that was occurring later on in Elizabeth's rule. The different factions of important families were described, and all the major players that Penelope had come across such as the Bacon brothers, the Walsinghams and the Cecils. The most intriguing part for me personally was where the biography went beyond what Fremantle's novel had covered, which was Lady Penelope's later life. Her dealings with Cecil and King James were crucial for her survival amongst the court, and I found the story very well told how Penelope's star rose and fell over the period of her life.

It must be said that Penelope Devereux was not just another courtier of the era, but a very influential woman who inspired poetry and songs, and had a hand in many of the important political events of the era. Even after being named as a co-conspirator in Essex's rebellion, she was able to escape the wrath of the Queen, who normally would not be so kind to traitors among her ladies. And when King James came to the throne, she was allowed to get a divorce - unheard of in the day - and still retain her dignity. The one thing that caused her downfall was the fact she wanted to marry her one true love, Charles Blount, who was eventually given the title of Earl of Devonshire. He was the father of five of her children and she simply wanted to legitimize them by marrying her lover. And that was her mistake. Once a favorite among both Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anna, she was now banished as an adulterer and shunned by peers due to the disgrace.

The biographer goes on to show how Penelope inspired work from Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, John Ford, and artist Nicholas Hilliard for her wit, charm and beauty. She explains reasons behind some of Penelope's actions and paints her in a much more favorable light than what Robert Cecil had intended. It is believed that Cecil and the Protestant regime fully intended to delete Penelope's influence and erase her from history, but she is given the attention she deserves in Sally Varlow's well researched biography. Penelope was well ahead of her time, and she must have been a true pleasure to converse with and know.

There are genealogy tables and sources at the end of the book, along with notes, quotes and sources. I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it to anyone interested in the family, but be aware you'll get a lot on Essex and more on the wars of Elizabeth's time and her moods, but given that the work is not a tome it is an intriguing 296 pages reflecting on Penelope's life and those that she touched.

Other books of the era that I can recommend:
After Elizabeth: The Rise of James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England by Leanda De Lisle
Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey
Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman

Fictional:
Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George (About Elizabeth chiefly, but acquaints Penelope's mother, Lettice)
The Murder in the Tower by Jean Plaidy (this involves Frances Howard who was associated with Penelope's nephew, a deliciously wicked read)
My Enemy, The Queen by Victoria Holt (involved Penelope's mother, Lettice, and her desire to best Elizabeth)