I’ve fallen behind with Elizabeth Fremantle’s books; having read Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason shortly after they came out, the publication of her next book – Watch the Lady – seemed to escape my notice and now there’s also a fourth novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower. I discovered that my library had both and decided that Watch the Lady, her novel about the 16th century noblewoman Penelope Devereux, would be the next one I read.
Penelope’s story is one that is not often told; she has appeared as a minor character in other books I’ve read set during the Elizabethan period, such as Elizabeth I by Margaret George, but this is the first novel I’ve come across in which she is the main character.
Penelope is related to Elizabeth I through her mother, Lettice Knollys, a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth’s aunt. Lettice has incurred the Queen’s displeasure by secretly marrying Robert Dudley, the man said to be Elizabeth’s own love interest, and has been exiled from court. Lettice’s children, however, are still welcome and Penelope’s handsome, dashing brother, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, has become a particular favourite of Elizabeth’s. As Essex rises higher and higher in the Queen’s favour, his enemies plot to pull him down and Penelope must do everything in her power to protect her brother and keep the family’s ambitions alive.
While Essex’s turbulent career, which is marked by military defeats, trials and banishments and ends in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, is followed in detail, Penelope herself is the real focus of the novel. Penelope is considered to be one of the beauties of the Elizabethan court and the inspiration for the poet Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence. The real nature of her relationship with Sidney is uncertain, but Fremantle gives one interpretation here. Penelope’s unhappy marriage to Lord Rich and her later love for Charles Blount are also described, but I was less interested in these parts of the story and I don’t think the balance between the romance and the politics in this book was quite right for me.
I did like the way Penelope is portrayed – a strong, intelligent and ambitious woman, but one who is still convincing as an Elizabethan woman, rather than feeling like a modern day character dropped into a historical setting – and Essex, if not very likeable, is always interesting to read about. Elizabeth’s adviser, Robert Cecil, however, is very much the villain of the novel; there are several chapters written from his perspective and from the beginning he is shown to be working against Essex and his family, acting on his father’s advice that people need someone to hate and that if he can learn to be that hated person he will be indispensable. I think Cecil does a good job of making himself hated, and it wasn’t until near the end of the book that I began to have some sympathy for him.
I enjoyed reading Watch the Lady and getting to know Penelope Devereux, but this is not my favourite of the three Elizabeth Fremantle novels I’ve read so far, partly because, as I’ve mentioned, Penelope’s love life didn’t interest me all that much, and also because I prefer the periods of Tudor history covered in Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason. I’ve now moved on to The Girl in the Glass Tower and am finding it a much stronger novel; my full thoughts on that one should be coming soon.