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Mystery, drama, oh my!

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Historical fiction and Biblical fiction, reviewing since 2008

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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)

Jun 20, 2015

Watch The Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle


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:Five Stars for Fun Tudor Fiction

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.
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.

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.

Jun 15, 2015

The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

Alienor's story continues..


The Winter Crown (Eleanor of Aquitaine Trilogy Book #2) by Elizabeth Chadwick
Sphere, 483 pages, September 2014
Purchased from Amazon
Burton Book Review Rating:4.5 Stars

It is the winter of 1154 and Eleanor, Queen of England, is biding her time. While her husband King Henry II battles for land across the channel, Eleanor fulfills her duty as acting ruler and bearer of royal children. But she wants to be more than this - if only Henry would let her. Instead, Henry belittles and excludes her, falling for a young mistress and leaving Eleanor side-lined and angry. And as her sons become young men, frustrated at Henry's hoarding of power, Eleanor is forced into a rebellion of devastating consequences. She knows how much Henry needs her, but does Henry know himself? Overflowing with scandal, politics, sex, triumphs and tragedies, The Winter Crown is the much-awaited new novel in this trilogy and a rich, compelling story in its own right.



Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the best historical novelists of our time bringing the medieval era to life with her storytelling. She delivers with a realistic voice and is not overly dramatic with her topics, taking her time to tell the most believable version of history featuring notable protagonists such as Queen Eleanor and King Henry II of England.

Eleanor's life story is one of my favorites, and I have probably read at least ten books with her as a feature character. Her legend is a remarkable one as a Duchess becoming a Queen of France, a Crusader, and then a Queen of England, while raising kings and daughters to kings.

I was completely enthralled with the first installment of the Eleanor trilogy, The Summer QueenThe Winter Crown took on a bit of its name and seemed a bit more cold and less passionate, but given the subject matter I could hardly complain. Here Eleanor is already married to Henry II and the novel opens to his coronation in 1154 ending with her incarceration at Sarum in 1174.

These are the years of childbearing, all seemingly done as part of duty rather than love. Eleanor does her best to raise the children as Henry pulls the strings along the way, leaving little room left for Eleanor's wishes. She is portrayed as a regal Queen, and not as a sex-driven wanton as other writers have made her out to be, and Eleanor seems much more subdued in this story. It is very easy to dislike Henry and his overbearing ways and to sympathize with Eleanor and her lack of power. The Thomas Becket affair is addressed, along with the romantic affairs of Henry and how these events affected Eleanor.

Where previous books had shown Eleanor to be less of a mother and more of a Queen, Chadwick does put forth a more caring visage in this representation, which helps to endear us to Eleanor. Another welcome addition was the inclusion of a friendship between Eleanor and Isabel de Warrenne, and the gallant character of William Marshal was also appreciated. Chadwick's novel is foremost a story of Eleanor; the focus is on her, flaws and all, and not simply a rehash of absolutely everything that happened to Henry and his kingdom.

The last installment of the trilogy (The Autumn Throne) coming in 2016 will hopefully represent a thawing of the chains around Eleanor as she guides her sons closer to the coveted throne. Henry II has to die at some point -and as bad as it may sound- I look forward to that occurring in the last book, just as I look forward to seeing the fruits of Eleanor's labor come to light. Elizabeth Chadwick shows off her research and hones in on Eleanor and her character, and I am hoping for a very intriguing climax during the finale of the trilogy. If you haven't read many books on Eleanor before, this will be a treat for you.

Jun 3, 2015

'Watch The Lady' Giveaway! Interview with Elizabeth Fremantle


Available from Simon & Schuster June 9, 2015
From “a brilliant new player in the court of royal fiction” (People), comes the mesmerizing story of Lady Penelope Devereux—the daring young beauty in the Tudor court, who inspired Sir Philip Sidney’s famous sonnets even while she plotted against Queen Elizabeth.

Penelope Devereux arrives at Queen Elizabeth’s court where she and her brother, the Earl of Essex, are drawn into the aging Queen’s favor. Young and naïve, Penelope, though promised elsewhere, falls in love with Philip Sidney who pours his heartbreak into the now classic sonnet series Astrophil and Stella. But Penelope is soon married off to a man who loathes her. Never fainthearted, she chooses her moment and strikes a deal with her husband: after she gives birth to two sons, she will be free to live as she chooses, with whom she chooses. But she is to discover that the course of true love is never smooth.

Meanwhile Robert Cecil, ever loyal to Elizabeth, has his eye on Penelope and her brother. Although it seems the Earl of Essex can do no wrong in the eyes of the Queen, as his influence grows, so his enemies gather. Penelope must draw on all her political savvy to save her brother from his own ballooning ambition and Cecil’s trap, while daring to plan for an event it is treason even to think about.

Unfolding over the course of two decades and told from the perspectives of Penelope and her greatest enemy, the devious politician Cecil, Watch the Lady chronicles the last gasps of Elizabeth’s reign, and the deadly scramble for power in a dying dynasty.


Having very much enjoyed Elizabeth Fremantle's Queen's Gambit (my review here), I was excited to be able to offer my followers this chance to win Elizabeth Fremantle's newest work shown above, Watch The Lady.

I asked the author some questions to kick start the giveaway with:

Q: What drawbacks have you encountered now that you have fulfilled your childhood dream of becoming an author?

That’s an interesting question. I suppose that I now feel I have to improve with every book I publish. I want to challenge myself to write a better, more complex novel each time, building on the previous work and learning from my mistakes. I don’t want to be that author who wrote one good book and then wrote fundamentally the same book over and over again after it. I have high expectations of myself, which makes me anxious I won’t live up to them, so inevitably halfway through a first draft I have a crisis of confidence and feel that I’ll never make it work. I have learned through experience how to push through no matter what.

Q: As a younger self, what types of stories did you see yourself writing?

Funnily enough not historical ones. When I was very little I wanted to write about animals – the echoes of that live on in my novels which are full of dogs, horses, birds, even a pair of monkeys in Queen’s Gambit. I was always, and still am, interested in factual based narrative and never wanted to write about fantasy.

Q: What would you say sets yourself apart from other writers of the Tudor era, and what would you say to those readers who say they have no desire to read another Tudor novel!

I don’t read much other Tudor era fiction primarily because I want to keep my distinctive voice and not worry about whether other people are doing it better than I am. But I’d say my novels aim to be expansive and multi-focused. I also tend to focus on less-known figures from the period, so it’s unlikely I’d write a novel about Anne Boleyn as so many others have tackled her story. I’m more interested in the forgotten or misrepresented women, like Penelope Devereux or the younger Grey sisters. Q: What is one of the things that you remember as surprising you about Lady Penelope?

Penelope Devereux really was an extraordinary woman. I knew very little about her when I began my research, only that she’d been Sir Philip Sidney’s muse and that she was involved in some way in her brother’s insurrection. I was astonished to discover the extent to which she was making secret treasonous allegiances with a foreign power and also that she was much more deeply involved in the Essex plot than I’d previously thought.

Q: In your writing of WATCH THE LADY did you come across any characters that you felt you needed to give a more positive tone? Any character that you had trouble writing?

I thought Robert Cecil might be a challenge, as he seemed such a dry figure, but as it turned out he came to life on the page and became one of the main narrators of the story. Sometimes characters simply write themselves and he was one. Perhaps it was Lord Rich, Penelope’s husband, who I found difficult. there’s very little about him in the record and what there is makes him seem cowardly and unpleasant but I wanted to create him as a fully rounded character. He is an antagonist in Penelope’s story but I felt I needed it to be a complex relationship and not simply black and white.

Q: Which novel was the most fun to write, WATCH THE LADY or THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT?

Probably WATCH THE LADY; it was not an easy process but I had more confidence than I did when writing QUEEN’S GAMBIT and so it was a less tortuous process. QUEEN’S GAMBIT had to be rewritten from scratch at a late stage because the pacing simply didn’t work, which was excruciating. There are really pleasurable elements in the process of writing each novel; the moment a character takes shape, is one. For example when writing Katherine Grey in SISTERS OF TREASON her voice was so distinct to me that the writing flowed with ease and that is the most wonderful feeling as a writer.


What a pleasure to host Elizabeth Fremantle today on Burton Book Review! Courtesy of Simon and Schuster, we have one copy to give away to my USA readers.

Contest is over and winner has been mailed his book, edit to add the review for the title can be found here at Burtonbookreview.com