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Book Review: Watch the Lady

By (June 5, 2015) No Comment

Keeping Up With the Tudorswatch the lady

Watch the Lady

by Elizabeth Fremantle

Simon and Schuster, 2015

Elizabeth Fremantle’s new novel, the conclusion of the trilogy that began with Queen’s Gambit and continued with Sisters of Treason, opens at the end of the Tudor era: Watch the Lady starts in 1589 and progresses through the final decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, culminating in the ill-conceived and ill-fated Essex Rebellion of 1601, in which the Queen’s former favorite pretty-boy, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, attempted to … well, we might never be certain what he was attempting to do. Supplant the Queen’s Privy Council? Take over the government? Trend on Twitter?

In any case, Essex’s sister Penelope was deeply involved in the plot, and she’s the main character in Fremantle’s book, a sharp-minded and yearning woman who spends most of the book less embroiled in political intrigues than she is enmeshed in her other claim to fame, as the inspiration for Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnets – a poetic sequence even them most loutish courtier assures her is “unparalleled” (adding “they have transported me at times”), to which Penelope’s knee-jerk response is a combination of irritation and defensiveness:

“And what makes you suppose me to be the subject of Sir Philip’s sonnets?” She has wondered often at the fame that arose from being the muse of a great poet, how it seemed to have so little to do with her and so much more to do with Sidney. What is a muse anyway? She has asked herself many times – no more than a cipher.

She’s less concerned with the poems than with the poet himself, to whom she’s given her heart even though he’s destined for her own sister:

In the aftermath of that last encounter with Sidney she had lain awake in bed, filled with anger and confusion towards the forces that had contributed to her situation. It was as if God was mocking her by making her love one man – for if it was not love, then she knew not what it could be, that burning awareness that life could only make sense in proximity to him – yet be wed to another who cared nothing for her. Dorothy was sleeping soundly beside her, the soft rhythm of her breath punctuating the silence, a taunting reminder of the betrothal plans that had been concocted on her behalf. The idea of Sidney wed to her sister was unthinkable, akin to anticipating one’s own passing.

Curiously, Fremantle never really manages to make the romantic side of Penelope’s personality take life on the page, and her various sparrings with the “row of gargoyles: Ralegh, Cobham, Carew, Cecil – those who would happily see the Devereuxs take a tumble” likewise feel a bit rote, mainly because they’re at the heart of so much Tudor fiction. The novel’s consistent strong suit is its complicated depiction of the relationship between Essex and Penelope, despite some lazy-sounding anachronisms like “I’m scared, Sis.” (the prose just in general feels a bit lazier this time around – pat couplings like “capable hands,” “precious few,” “barking orders,” “velvet tongue” and several others crop up far more frequently than they did in the previous two books)

Despite being sister to treason and a traitor herself, and despite forming the inspiration to some of the most beautiful verses in the English language, Penelope Devereaux is less well-known to history than any of the men who surrounded her, and despite leading a fascinating and complex life, she’s been the subject of comparatively little Tudor historical fiction (Sheila Bishop’s delightfully dishy novel from thirty years ago being the most memorable exception). Readers of Fremantle’s book will learn a lot – and have a satisfying, involving read in the process.