A NET FOR SMALL FISHES
BY LUCY JAGO
“We are all caught, from the highest to the lowest, in nets of custom and propriety; those that cut themselves free do not swim away but are destroyed.”
Lucy Jago draws us into the rich tapestry of the Jacobean Court in this gripping story of two women trying to better themselves in this unashamedly man’s world. Set in the English court of King James I, Jago has woven a heart-breaking story based on the “Overbury Scandal” when Frances Howard and Anne Turner were accused of poisoning the courtier Thomas Overbury, two years after his supposed “natural” death in The Tower of London” in 1613.
Frances Howard (Frankie) comes from wealthy catholic nobility with close ties to the court. Frankie is beautiful, vivacious and curious. At 15, her family marry her to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. An insipid debauched individual he is unable to consummate their marriage so mercilessly begins to beat and humiliate his wife. Frankie forms a close friendship with Anne Turner, a reputable doctor’s wife, 15 years her senior with six children. Anne has gained a notoriety for her fashionable yellow starch lace and has a fine eye for dressing women for court. Anne sets about dressing Frankie powerfully to enhance her presence in court and to encourage the Earl of Essex to notice her and hopefully give her a much desired heir. As Frankie is continually rejected by her young husband these two women resort to obtaining powerful medicinal potions from undesirable sorcerers and Frankie inevitably seeks solace with another man, in this case Sir Robert Carr, a handsome Scottish knight who has become the King’s favourite, a relationship inevitably fraught with danger.
As these two forward thinking women navigate their position in this unashamedly man’s world, they commit wrongdoings with far reaching consequences. Jago doesn’t set out to challenge their innocence, rather she sets out to show the immorality and prejudices of a corrupt English court together with the fragility of women’s position within society and the fickle nature of the King’s favourites. This book has everything for a lively book club discussion, with much to compare with what is still happening today.
The writing sometimes becomes a bit stilted, because perhaps Jago is more at home with her non-fiction and documentary work. However, it builds up to an excellent and moving finale and the Den can see this being made into a drama for screen in the future.
Reading Den tip – it is hard to remember all the different names at court so the list of principal actors at the start is an important reference point.