A compelling novel of the Elizabethan Court, the interactions of Elizabeth favourites, including Robert Dudley, the Earl of Essex and his sister Penelope Devereux. We are treated to a tale that exposes the jealousies and jostlings for Elizabeth's favour of the major and minor satellites that surround her.
Penelope Devereux remained one of Elizabeth's preferred ladies-in-waiting for more than twenty years. Elizabeth, ever jealous of her favours arranges marriages to her accord. Woe betide those maids who marry outside her will. Banishment, the tower, penury--all are weapons Elizabeth employs against those who thwart her will. As Lettice Devereux, Essex and Penelope's mother, can attest. The pages are riddled with examples of Elizabeth's grasp upon those she favours. Essex and Penelope are no less touched by this control. Penelope at a young age is promised to Philip Sidney (portrayed as a chivalrous poetic knight), whose sonnets of Astrophil and Stella are tributes to her. She is heartbroken when instead of Sidney she is married to Rich, orchestrated it is later discovered by Elizabeth.
Robert Cecil is another who's family star is ascendence. Firstly via the work of his father, a favoured advisor, and then through his own efforts. Presented as a machevellian figure, with a spy network that stretches into the heart of the Spanish court and beyond, Cecil is a character in constant turmoil as he forever seeks with his actions, approval by his father and his Queen.
This is a novel of the last days of Elizabeth's reign when the fears for succession become a political nightmare of intrigue, self serving greed, compromise and ambition.
At the personal level this is a novel of Penelope's unrequited love and passionless duty, and of a woman walking the thin path of societal approval combined with a not-so-secret romance. Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich, is linked by marriage to Lord Rich, by first love to Philip Sidney, and by mature love and understanding to Blount, the Earl of Devenshire.
Penelope has the added burden of being the person designated by her mother to help reinstate the Devereux name and Lettice herself to the court. Penelope plays a deep game as she supports her brother, The Earl of Essex, through his fits and passions and disregard of the Queen's instructions. She is in contact with the Scottish Court over the succession, and is propelled by forces within and without to navigate the maelstrom of the Elizabethan court. The slightest slip will lead to, at the least banishment, at the worst, 'The Tower.'
Reading Fremantle's notes about her research adds further illumination to Penelope's story. Fremantle's treatment of the agreement between Rich and Penelope is believable. She owns to a certain poetic licence taken where the facts are not available. All to the good to render us a story that is both fascinating in its truths and comprehensive in its fictional licence.
A NetGalley ARC