Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

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Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Penelope Devereux/Lady Rich is one of the unsung heroines of the Elizabethan era. This story puts her front and centre of the most daring of anti-monarchist plots, sending us away with a greater respect for both Lady Rich and Elizabeth Fremantle. Gripping stuff!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: June 2015
Publisher: Michael Joseph
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0718177102

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Queen Elizabeth I is in her autumnal years and becoming increasingly pre-occupied with fear of potential plots and coups catching up with her – and perhaps justifiably so. This is how young Penelope Devereux finds Her Majesty (Penelope's godmother) on Penelope's acceptance at court. It's a dangerous time to be a royal maid, especially in young Miss Devereux's case with a banished mother, a step-father who is one of Elizabeth's favourites and the realisation that the girl has been placed there to spy for the family. However the Devereux interests will be served even if the game that Penelope plays is a fatal one.

I'm not saying that former Vanity Fayre editor Elizabeth Fremantle can do no wrong, just that even after this third novel, I'm still awaiting a wrong-doing moment. For after Katherine Parr and Henry VIII in The Queen's Gambit and the Grey Sisters of Treason and Queen Mary, we now have Penelope Devereux and Elizabeth I, each one being cracking, in a good way.

Although I'd heard of Penelope's brother Earl of Essex and her step-father Leicester, I'd never heard of her. It's odd to think that history side lined her as she wasn't exactly a shrinking violet. She may have been placed at court by her mother's ambitions but she was more than ready to hatch and lead the plots and plans that ensued as she and her family continued to wish for a future ruled over by James VI of Scotland years ahead of their time.

In common with women of her time Penelope, on the other hand, wasn’t the architect of her marriage. The Queen had ensured Penelope couldn't marry the love of her life, poet Philip Sidney, consigning her (in league with Penelope's step daddy Leicester) to a loveless marriage with Robert, Lord Rich. Indeed, Rich is one of the characters that doesn't exactly come out of the book with a fan club and yet it's hard to hate him through the waves of increasing pity as he comes to realise he's lumbered with Penelope as much as the other way around.

When Penelope wasn't trying to advance the family cause, she was pulling her brother Robin (Essex) back from over-exuberance when he tried. In this way Penelope wasn't only pitting her wits against the capricious, dangerously paranoid monarch but also the home front battle that was more immediate for her than the melees with the Irish or war in Spain became for her brother. I refer to the battle with the Burghleys.

It may sound like a bad reality series but it's a lot more dangerous for the Devereuxs, not to mention more deftly politicked. Lord Burghley and (more importantly) his deformed, chip-on-shoulder son Robert Cecil were vying for spy networks and Queen's favour against the Essex/Devereuxs and the only way to ensure victory is to manipulate events so that the Queen disposed of them, physically. The E/Ds felt the same and reciprocated in kind, Penelope proving a most adept manipulator.

The resulting webs and set-ups are regaled by Elizabeth F in a way that's easily understood, without dumbing down and without losing the aura of complication and intricacy. The added nail biter is that while we watch, we know about the Devereuxs' correspondence with the forbidden king and the possible consequences. This isn't just history re-animated but history that turns us into happily tense wall flies.

At this stage I should warn about the climax. My early night with an unstarted novel turned into a 2am lights out as I couldn't walk away till the end. The joy of not knowing Penelope before the novel means I had no idea if she lives or not so that last third of the novel became amazingly thrilling rather than just very exciting.

When that's resolved Elizabeth Fremantle's history notes again wait for us to separate recorded fact from extrapolation and both from educated creation. We therefore leave the pages feeling we've met Penelope and, if you're like me, with an urge to go read Sidney's poetry while remembering the significance of his sword that becomes more dangerous than is meant. (No, that's not a euphemism!)

(Thank you to the good folk at Michael Joseph for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you haven't read The Queen's Gambit and Sisters of Treason you may end up kicking yourself. If you have read them and want to find out more about the women who plotted and opined at Elizabethan court, we also recommend Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman.

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