The Walsingham Woman by Jan Westcott

23506263The Walsingham Woman by Jan Westcott tells the story of Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham’s daughter, the beautiful Frances from childhood to the eve of her third marriage.

As the daughter of Walsingham, Frances was born with beauty and brains and into relative privilege. Given a sound education, she never wanted for much. Nonetheless, like all women of that period, any status she accrued came through the men she was associated with – from her father to her husbands. After being rescued from a romantic near-disaster by the rakish Irishman, Rickard de Burgh, Frances is married while still in her teens to the darling of the queen and court, Sir Philip Sidney. Frances’ star is on the rise.

But death follows in triumph’s wake and Frances and her fledgling family are forced to not only bury two people dear to them, but also work out how to pay the massive debts that have been accrued in these people’s names. Understanding her beauty is her greatest resource, Frances sets out to catch the man considered the greatest matrimonial prize in the kingdom using her considerable nous to do so. Only, this man has also caught the eye and heart of the queen, and no-one, not even Mister Secretaries beautiful daughter, dare come between the queen and her chosen courtiers… or does she? After all, what has she got to lose?

Weaving fact and fiction, Westcott does a very good job of portraying the limited choices even someone like Frances Walsingham had as a woman n Elizabethan times. While she rose up the social ladder, it was through the advocacy, wealth and power of the men to whom she was beholden for patronage and more. Though she may have manipulated events, Frances was also at the mercy of the men who regarded her as both promise and threat.

The beginning of the novel is not as strong as the latter half as it tends to jump around. Though I am very familiar with the period and major characters, I managed to become lost in some of the gaps. This sense of disorientation and absences dissipated as the pace picks up in the second half, making the novel hard to put down.

Westcott captures the times really well – from the gender politics, to the threat of war and religious dissent to internal strife and struggles as the once formidable queen ages and her young allies eye her throne with more desire than they do her Majesty’s person.

All the major characters of the period are there, from Elizabeth through to Robert Cecil, the young gallants that surrounded the Earl of Essex (for better and worse), and some of the other important and strong women – all whom were banned from court by the queen. Frances is an engaging character, loyal, manipulative and very much, in many ways, her father’s daughter as, chameleon–like she plays her part in order to guarantee the outcome.

A good read for history buffs and those who enjoy the repatriation of women’s voices and action from our past.

 

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Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

This was such an odd book. I started it a few months ago and had to put it aside as it simply didn’t engage me. Then, having finished another of Atkinson’s books (When WilHuman Croquetl There Be Good News) and not wanting to move away from her writing, I picked this one up again, started from the beginning once more, and couldn’t put it down.

Ostensibly the story of Isobel Fairfax, a young British woman who at an early age, along with her unattractive younger brother, Charles, “loses” her mother. Unlike Charles, Isobel appears to have the ability to slip through time, back to the Elizabethan period, and thus her life becomes this peculiar negotiation of time, space and people. Though the novel has this magic realist/mystical element it’s also a coming-of-age-story, a tale of familial and suburban dysfunction, murder, disappearances, secrets and lies, and an exploration of the ties that bind and tear us apart. The novel takes the reader on a remarkable journey through Isobel’s childhood, adolescence and that of her parents and forebears, exposing warts, flaws, mistakes, triumphs and tragedies.

Capturing the essence of the 1960s as well as war-time London, the characteristics of class, neighborhoods and the passion and heartbreak of relationships of all kind, this pseudo and quite dark fairy-tale is remarkable. Moving, haunting, at times funny, always strange and yet familiar, the novel shifts points of view from first to third person and a cocky omniscient narrator who through Isobel also functions like a Greek chorus, or a Shakespearian player setting the scene and passing commentary upon what unfolds. The book plays with reader expectations, genre, the notion of secrets, and in doing so examines the minutiae of the everyday, and explores the adult world from a child’s point of view and vice versa.

All the world and time is Atkinson’s stage, and this is certainly an ambitious and clever novel that offers alternative readings of not only scenes, but characters’ interpretations of events. What the reader accepts is up to her or him, but nothing is predictable.

The prose is simply lovely and some of the ideas expressed are timeless and erudite and have you reaching for a highlighter in order to recall them. This story won’t appeal to everyone, and it’s very different in so many ways from Atkinson’s other books, but if you cast aside expectations and go for the ride, it’s one you won’t forget in a hurry.

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Book Review: The Tudor Conspiracy by C. W Gortner

While I really enjoyed The Tudor Secret by CW Gortner, I simply loved The Tudor Conspiracy. Picking up a short time after the events in The Tudor Conspiracy (The Spymaster Chronicles, #2)The Tudor Secret, we find Queen Mary upon the throne and negotiations for her marriage well under way. Our hero, Brendan Prescott, and his love, Kate are embedded in Elizabeth’s household at Hatfield. Not for long. Summoned by William Cecil, Brendan has no choice but to journey to London and find employ at the royal court, feigning an allegiance to Queen Mary, the woman he once helped. Though he is sympathetic towards Queen Mary, Brendan is really at court to protect the Princess Elizabeth from the plots and cunning of not only the Spanish delegation, but even Elizabeth’s so-called friend and Brendan’s former employer, Robert Dudley who, though locked in the tower, appears to be manipulating events. With the Spaniards determined to indict Elizabeth for treason and deliver a death sentence and the Dudley’s working for their own ends, Brendan has his work cut out.

Ensconced among the courtiers, Brendan doesn’t know who to trust, or where to turn and is forced to make decisions, decisions that prove deadly and place not just his Princess at risk, but those he loves.

Fast-paced, evocative and well-written, this is a page turner par excellence that takes known history and turns it on its head in exciting and plausible ways. Cannot wait for the next instalment.

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Book Review: A Knight in Shining Armour by Jude Deveraux

Still on my fiction set in Elizabethan times kick, I wasn’t sure what to make of this book at first. I think the clichéd title worried me. It tells the stA Knight In Shining Armourory of the wonderfully named American, Dougless Montgomery, who is holidaying with her boyfriend (and she hopes, though it becomes rapidly apparent God knows why, soon to be fiancé), Robert, and his precocious and horribly spoilt teenage daughter in England. Meant to be the trip of a lifetime, within pages, things rapidly deteriorate between the couple and flashbacks indicate that Dougless’ dreams of an overseas holiday and a proposal of marriage are far from the reality of her situation or relationship.

Left  stranded in a church in a small village after being accused of all sorts of poor behaviour and intentions, Dougless weeps by the altar of long-dead Earl, bemoaning her situation, revelling in her misery but nonetheless with the optimism that the reader soon learns characterises this increasingly endearing if somewhat feckless young woman.

Lo and behold, a knight in shining armour literally manifests before her and what started out as a story about a grossly mismatched couple turns into a time-travelling tale about a seemingly mis-matched couple. Given little choice but to help this out-of-time Earl, Nicholas Stafford, Dougless learns what she can about his place in history discovering his philandering and generally poor reputation, a reputation that at first appears deserved, but the more time they spend together, the more Dougless realises that history has been unjust to her knight. Determined to help Nicholas change the legacy for which he’s remembered, and to understand why he was accused of the things that destroyed his family name, she discovers a traitor in the Stafford mix – but what use is the knowledge if she can’t alter the outcome?

In order to make a difference, Dougless must take an enormous risk and an extraordinary leap of faith and, lately, her faith in men has been severely compromised. But time with Nicholas has changed Dougless and she is no longer the woman she once was – but even with her new-found strength, can she change the course of history?

And what about her feelings? Will she sacrifice what could be for the sake of cultural memory? These questions and more pepper the second half of the book and make for quite a page-turner.

I have to say, Deveraux has done a grand job of time-travel and romance and not since Diana Gabaldron have I enjoyed the concept so much (Oh, hang on, I also loved The Time Traveller’s Wife, but that was different). Lighter in touch than Gabaldron, Deveraux brings a great deal of humour to the notion of a Sixteenth Century knight in the 1980s and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments, but without compromising tenderness or the core of the story, and still managing to tug at the heart-strings. I also enjoyed the fact that this book didn’t try and do big picture stuff – eg. Quuen Elizabeth and all the huge personalities and figures and plots that surrounded her reign. It really was about Nicholas, Dougless, Robert and intimate relationships – about family, soul-mates, love, compromises and what’s important to sustain feelings. Even so, it does hover around the edges of emotional and psychological abuse and gender subordination within relationships as well, which gives it a depth that enriches the narrative.

Overall, I found this hard to put down and thoroughly enjoyed the historical detail that Deveraux was at pains to present but without spoiling story.

A delightful time-travelling romp for lovers of romance and lighter historical novels.

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