Book Review: The Spymaster’s Daughter
Keeping Up with the Tudors
by Jeane Westin
New American Library, 2012
Conyers Read, in his great three-volume biography of Sir Francis Walsingham (almost a century old now and long out of print, but absorbingly addictive reading even so), Elizabeth I’s loyal courtier and spymaster, devotes barely two paragraphs and a couple of footnotes to Frances, Walsingham’s oldest daughter by his second wife. Francis was an extremely intelligent, loyal, and wryly humorous man (in his letters there are flashes of mordant wit not quite like anything else in the vast Elizabethan record), utterly relied upon by a Queen who nevertheless constantly tweaked him about his expenses and his ambitions. Frances might as well be a ghost for all that history really knows of her. She married the famous courtier poet Philip Sidney in 1583, and at his heroic death in 1586 the Earl of Leicester wrote the she was “wonderfully overthrown” with exhaustion and perhaps grief. In a few years she married the Earl of Essex, and a few years after his death she married the Earl of Clanricard. She was a mother many times over and presumably acted as steward and chatelaine for her high-born husbands while they were away on state business, but absent a newly-discovered cask of letters, she’s as much a riddle as one of her father’s coded ciphers.
Enter the historical novelists, naturally – in this case passionate, energetic Tudor enthusiast Jeane Westin, whose very engaging new novel The Spymaster’s Daughter starts its business with those very coded ciphers, whose intricacies our heroine absorbed in the very air of her father’s household as she was growing up. A less conventional writer than Westin might have made their Frances out to be a freakish prodigy, a repressed savant of sigils and signifiers. That would have been an interesting novel to read. Westin is telling a far more approachable tale, but she’s still interesting to read: The Spymaster’s Daughter is a fine piece of speculative historical fiction, although it contains no surprises.
The Frances Walsingham here is not a brainless, avaricious brood mare but rather a spirited, witty young woman who wants nothing more than to enter the family trade, much to the chagrin of her often-ailing father, who tells her early on that her appearance reminds him of her late mother – although appearances can be deceiving:
“Father, I am sorry to remind you of your loss.”
“You do not,” he said firmly, his jaw tightening. “I but remember her much softer nature. You, Frances, are unrelenting in your wants.”
“In that I am like you, Father. Surely it is not only sons who inherit strength and courage from their fathers.”
He dropped her hand, studying her closely, as if just now seeing her clearly. “As I said, unrelenting.”
Even from our skimpy historical record on the subject, we can readily infer that Sir Francis was a kind and indulgent father – and what good is that for fiction? So Westin busies herself throwing complications into young Frances’ life, including the amorous advances of the hot-blooded Earl of Essex (in one of the book’s most amusing threads, absolutely nobody seems to like him) and the untoward passion her servant Robert Pauley feels for her (he knows that when she’s angry, when she’s defying custom, “that was always Frances at her best” – and Westin writes her best in those moments). Indeed, just about the only man who isn’t conspicuously lusting after her in the course of The Spymaster’s Daughter is her own husband, Philip Sidney:
Jennet pushed her playfully to the polished-steel mirror on the wall of the outer chamber. “See how fine a lady you look! Sir Philip should see his fair wife now; he would take the fastest ship home.”
But not to me, Frances thought …
Marital problems don’t stop her from becoming embroiled in the machinations of Mary Queen of Scots to unseat Elizabeth I by any means necessary. Ciphers fly fast as sparrows, and eventually Frances faces not only the Babington Plot but Anthony Babington himself, waving a pistol. But such things, though adroitly presented, can only be side-shows to the real drama of the story, this tense, years-long battle of wills between two formidable queens. Westin sticks close to the historical record in her portrayal of Mary, although it’s a carefully-managed accuracy that never allows us to even begin to sympathize with her. And the Elizabeth who stalks these pages – older, disillusioned, smarter than everybody – is Westin’s most consistently enjoyable creation, by turns tender with a Frances who clearly reminds her of her own younger self and tempestuous with the upstarts and would-be assassins she faces as her long reign draws to a close. One of those would-be assassins springs out at her from the shrubbery yelling a Latin motto (what is it with assassins and Latin mottos?), Dabit dues his quoque finem! He’s quickly stopped by Sir Francis’ protective agents, and he faces an angry queen:
Elizabeth was in a towering rage. “Traitor, God will bring an end to this. How dare you attack your queen … and quoting Virgil! To me … Elizabeth Tudor, who knew my Virgil by heart before you were born!”
The Spymaster’s Daughter takes mild dramatic liberties with some facts and dates and such, although Westin’s careful research is evident, and there is some fascinating lore about the methods of encryption and code-breaking. This is an author who has thoroughly mastered the conventions of modern-day commercial Tudor fiction – only readers who might want more than that (or from her) will come away from this novel unsatisfied.