Book review: Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

Watch the Lady byElizabeth Fremantle

Watch the Lady byElizabeth Fremantle

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She was bold, intelligent, had close royal connections and was reputed to be one of the greatest beauties at the Elizabethan court… so how did Penelope Devereux become an enemy of the state?

Elizabeth Fremantle – the new champion of history’s marginalised Tudor women – returns to the late 16th century’s corridors of power in a thrilling novel which follows the dangerous and scandalous dealings of the sister of the notorious Earl of Essex who led an unsuccessful rebellion against the queen.

Penelope, whose story has long been overshadowed by her treacherous younger brother, turns out to be a remarkable woman who negotiated the hazardous journey from the queen’s great niece, goddaughter and most trusted maid to schemer, adulteress and suspected traitor.

Fremantle, a former fashion editor turned author, has already brought us the riveting stories of Katherine Parr in Queen’s Gambit and Katherine and Mary Grey in Sisters of Treason, and now she seduces us again with another extraordinarily penetrating Tudor portrait.

Weaving fact and fiction and a stunningly detailed and imagined evocation of the Elizabethan court and its leading players, Fremantle turns a woman’s life that was once a mere footnote in history into a gripping, full-blooded epic packed with intrigue, passion, politics and heartbreak.

With her black starry eyes, spun-gold hair and nightingale’s voice, Penelope Devereux’s combination of brains and beauty have made her the legendary muse of poet Philip Sidney and the one to watch at the court of Queen Elizabeth.

Penelope’s instinct for being in the right place at the right time, and her skilled political manoeuvrings under the guise of diplomacy, have rendered her a formidable adversary to anyone who stands in her path, including the ageing queen.

Since her mother Lettice Knollys, a cousin of Elizabeth, was banished from court for marrying royal favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Penelope has become the family’s ‘eyes and ears’ and must secure the future of the Devereux dynasty at whatever cost… even treason.

Because Penelope has her own personal axe to grind against the queen, the woman she holds responsible for the death of her father, the exile of her mother, the loss of the only man she ever truly loved and a forced, loveless marriage.

Walking a knife-edge at court, whilst ensuring that her reckless younger brother Robert, Earl of Essex, keeps himself in the queen’s favour and out of the Tower, Penelope starts making secret plans for the inevitable succession of an ailing monarch.

But her secret letters of friendship to King James VI of Scotland could endanger her life, particularly if they were discovered by young Robert Cecil, the queen’s obsessive minister who recognises that behind Penelope’s smile is a ‘dangerous perspicacity.’

As sister is turned against brother, husband against wife, courtier against queen, will Penelope become the architect of her own downfall?

Fremantle impresses with her impeccable research, incisive characterisation and the rich landscape of Elizabeth’s court with its coterie of minsters, advisers and ambitious hangers-on who surrounded the throne.

Fast-paced, atmospheric and enthralling, Watch the Lady offers up a new and refreshing perspective on the beautiful, mysterious Penelope Devereux as well as providing fascinating insights into the likes of political genius Robert Cecil, court poet Philip Sidney and the foolhardy Earl of Essex.

This is the personal and political played out to best dramatic effect as Fremantle keeps one eye on the facts and the other on the intimacies and small details which make her historical fiction so absorbing, exciting and breathtakingly authentic.

(Penguin, paperback, £7.99)