Book Review – Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

Watch the Lady is the latest release by acclaimed fiction author Elizabeth Fremantle and focuses upon the intriguing yet captivating figure of Penelope Devereux, a legendary beauty of the Tudor court who possesses a smile that could ‘light up the shadows of hell’. Watch the Lady is the third book in Fremantle’s Tudor series and is the story of political intrigue and romance in the court of Elizabeth I. The story almost instantaneously leaps back and forth between plotting and love, both seemingly entwined with one another as various plans and strategies between the key characters gradually unveil themselves with absorbing results.

The real life Penelope Devereux was an Elizabethan noblewoman who was related by blood and marriage to some of the heavy-hitters of the late sixteenth century. Her father was Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex and her mother was Lettice Knollys, the woman who later married Robert Dudley. She was born in 1563 and married firstly Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich and controversially afterwards to Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devonshire. Through her Boleyn ancestors, she was a distant cousin of Queen Elizabeth. She was a golden-haired beauty, acknowledged to be a talented dancer and singer whilst also possessing the ability to converse in French, Italian and Spanish.

With this historical basis Fremantle’s Penelope is solely dedicated to securing her family’s future, even at the risk of committing treason against her godmother, the Queen. Penelope holds the queen responsible for the death of her father, the exile of her mother and her own failure to marry her true love. Penelope’s mother was Lettice Knollys, despised by the queen for marrying Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester. Although the queen gradually looked upon young Penelope as a surrogate daughter of sorts, the affection is not reciprocated.

After Leicester dies, the aged queen becomes infatuated with Penelope’s handsome if hasty brother, Robert, Earl of Essex. Indeed, Robert Cecil, a key adversary of the Devereuxs, refers to Penelope as ‘perfection had she not that brother, Essex’. Essex’s tumultuous career in an age of foreign threats and religious turmoil is covered in enthralling detail, influential as it is on Penelope’s own story and scheming.

It soon becomes clear in the first few pages that Penelope not just a pretty face, itself a formidable weapon in the sixteenth century, but a skilled political manipulator adept at placing herself in the right place at the right time. Her smile, it is said, ‘hides a perspicacity, a dangerous quality in a woman’. She is the archetypal wounded woman, deeply bitter at perceived injustices committed towards her family by some at court, particularly the Queen. She grows into a proud and astute noblewoman, outwardly a respectable jewel of Elizabeth’s court but silently plotting to influence any situation to the benefit of the Devereux family.

Yet she is a sympathetic character, eternally heartbroken and at times a cruel victim of late sixteenth century gender inequality. Her desire to ‘win’ at all costs is an admirable trait, but doesn’t make her an unpleasant character. This is to Fremantle’s credit that she has produced a complex multidimensional character. Her Penelope plays the game as capable as any noble duke or earl, her life at risk with every covert action or secret letter. Her every step is alluded to in the title of the book, monitored with elaborate detail by Cecil.

The book is an impressive weight and is a hefty 496 pages, plenty of stimulating content to keep the reader occupied and engaged. Although Watch the Lady is far from the first book which focuses on the themes of political intrigue, romance and treason in the Tudor period it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the genre and worth delving into.

The historical research behind the fiction is detailed and to be commended, with stale facts transcribed onto the page in such a way that they become dramatic markers in an ever-evolving and fast-paced story. It’s a powerfully gripping narrative that at times jumps of the page. It’s fair to suggest that Fremantle’s work is on par with any offering from writers such as Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel and may in some cases supersede those bestselling literary giants.

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Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason and Watch the Lady. She holds a first in English and an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck. As a Fashion Editor she has contributed to various publications including Vogue, Elle, and Vanity Fair. Watch the Lady is released on 11 February 2016

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