|The sister's view of the rise and fall of Essex|
Watch The Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle
Simon and Schuster, June 2015
Elizabethan Court Hist-Fic, 560 pages
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating:
I had read Elizabeth Fremantle's Queen's Gambit a few years back and was impressed with the writing skill that the author had which made yet another Katherine Parr novel turn into something inventive and intriguing. When I was offered the chance to review another of her works regarding a royal favorite, I was eager to see what the author would do with the story of Penelope Devereux. Several years ago I had read many books regarding the Elizabethan court and her favorites among the peerage along with the ladies of honor who Elizabeth vowed to keep a tight leash on. Of the women of the era, Lettice Knollys was one who captured my interest very much.The daughter of the Queen’s nemesis, Penelope Devereux, arrives at court blithely unaware of its pitfalls and finds herself in love with one man, yet married off to another. Bestowed with beauty and charm she and her brother, The Earl of Essex, are drawn quickly into the aging Queen’s favour. But Penelope is saddled with a husband who loathes her and chooses to strike out, risking her reputation to seek satisfaction elsewhere. But life at the heart of the court is not only characterised by the highs and lows of romance, there are formidable factions at work who would like to see the Devereux family brought down. It seems The Earl of Essex can do no wrong in the eyes of the Queen but as his influence grows so his enemies gather and it is Penelope who must draw on all her political savvy to prevent the unthinkable from happening.Told from the perspective of Penelope and her brother’s greatest enemy the politician Cecil, this story, wrought with love, hatred and envy, unfolds over two decades in which we see the last gasps of Elizabeth’s reign, and the deadly scramble for power in a dying dynasty.
Lettice Knollys was rumored to be close kin to Elizabeth, even bearing a resemblance to the Queen herself. The Queen enjoyed keeping Lettice far from court due to Lettice's far reaching grasp on one of Elizabeth's closest male companions, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. They had married against the Queen's wishes, and while Lettice was banished her children were among the courtiers of the palaces with their fine looks and vivacious personalities. In Watch The Lady, Robert Devereux and his elder sister Penelope are portrayed as fun loving young players among the court despite their weak hold on their wealth and respective legacies. The Queen could be generous or not so generous on a mere whim, and Penelope is portrayed as having a keen mind and knowing how to placate the Queen.
The novel opens up to a scene of intrigue involving Penelope and treasonous letters and much of the novel revolves around these letters going back and forth to the Scottish king. Elizabethan era fans will know the general story of the rise and fall of Essex, Penelope's brother, but we rarely get to hear Penelope's version. Fremantle has obliged our curiosities about the fascinating woman, filling in the gaps with a fast-paced historical romance that will satisfy any lovers of the era.
Robert Cecil is a major counterpart to Penelope's narrative, and the title embodies his own admiration of the slyly scheming Penelope. Thrust into an unwanted marriage, Penelope learns to take care of her own needs and to look after herself and her brother Essex since her husband is seemingly useless and their esteemed step-father Leicester has passed. Penelope's tale of love lost and found is a major theme of the novel, and sets a realistic tone to the spymaster intrigue that Cecil's story offers. While Cecil is always an easy person to despise with his hunched frame and web of spies, Fremantle manages to make him into a more sympathetic character with his flaws and inadequacies.
The novel spans two decades of Penelope's life, inspiring me to finally pick up my copy of the biography written by Sally Varlow. The friends of Penelope are an interesting group and I would love to know more of the facts of Penelope Devereux, the subject of amorous poetry, the woman who managed to keep her head when her brother didn't - even after he betrayed her himself. Elizabeth Fremantle gives new life to the era with her storytelling skills and Watch The Lady is now among my favorite reads of 2015.
The end of the book offered an author's note, reader's guide questions and excerpts from the author's previous two novels noted as being a part of a trilogy. The books are all stand alone and are of different time periods and I will need to go back to read Sisters of Treason as I had no idea that was even printed. The next work to expect from Elizabeth Fremantle will be books regarding the Stuart era, and I will keep my eyes for those as well, as another favorite figure of mine is Arbella Stuart (which I have read a few books on as well). Fremantle's writing should appeal to those who enjoy Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory, Victoria Holt and Margaret George as she expertly gives a voice to women whose history has tried to forget.
Stop by my interview post with Elizabeth Fremantle regarding Watch the Lady here.
Read my review of Queen's Gambit here.