The 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.