A NET FOR SMALL FISHES
By Lucy Jago
Bloomsbury Publishing/ Paperback/ 331 pages/ $27.95/ Available here
5 out of 5
Clothes maketh the woman, as the opening chapter of this absorbing historical fiction debut from author Lucy Jago makes clear.
Mistress Anne Turner, married to court doctor George Turner, is already a mother of six when she meets the teenaged Frances Howard, Countess of Essex.
In a tour de force scene-setter, Anne dresses the weeping Frances, who first appears in a torn undershirt, back scored with bleeding welts inflicted by her loathsome young husband, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
Anne proceeds to pull Frances together, dressing her in a farthingale, layering pins and laces, establishing the leitmotif of clothes as armour, for defence and as weaponry: "From the shambles of this whipped child rose a castle, every swag and buttress testament to her worth."
A delighted Frances declares: "You may call me Frankie, but not in public."
So begins the deep relationship between the humble Anne and the aristocratic Frankie, two women whose historical lives have been overshadowed by the "Overbury scandal".
The real-life Frances refused to consummate her relationship with her husband and fell in love with Robert Carr, a favourite of King James.
Carr's mentor, Sir Thomas Overbury, who disapproved of the match, died in the Tower of London in 1613.
Two years later, details emerged that Overbury had died from poisoning. Anne was hanged for her role in the plot while the Countess, after being tried and confined to the Tower, was pardoned and released in 1622.
This unequal justice system inspires the book's title, as one of the characters observes: "This be a net for small fishes, that the great ones swim away!"
Jago says in her author's note that she has no intention of whitewashing their actions, "but to give Anne and Frankie greater complexity of motive: to reclaim them from the limbo of misogynist stereotype where wraiths lament at how they are reduced".
This, she accomplishes with lyrical depth. Anne as the narrator comes across as a bright, self-aware woman. She is drawn to Frankie not simply for material gain, but also because she admires her spunk in refusing to cave to her family's demands that she be an obedient pawn in the court's power games.
Frankie, filtered through Anne's perception, grows from rebellious teenager to tempestuous woman, redeemed by her clarity of purpose and desperate pursuit of happiness in a world where men hold all the power.
Despite the period setting, there is a startlingly contemporary feel to the women's personalities and plights and chillingly familiar scenarios in which women's bodies and lives are subject to the whims of a patriarchal society.
As Frankie attempts to manoeuvre her family patriarch into supporting her efforts to annul her marriage, Anne struggles to keep her family and dignity intact after her husband's death.
While Jago reclaims familiar feminist territory for the #MeToo era, she is also sympathetic to the gender trap that ensnares men.
Anne approves of Carr's dandy attire, observing: "Where I drew on the power of male attire to embolden ladies, he understood that womanish beauty invited possession."
When the younger, more beautiful George Villiers appears on the scene as a rival for King James' attention, Carr's emotional collapse inspires pity rather than schadenfreude.
Jago handles deftly the suggestion of same-sex liaisons between the king and his male courtiers as well as Anne and Frankie, without spelling out the salacious details.
In the process, she highlights the complexity of sexual attraction and friendships, deepening emotional and psychological entanglements that would defy easy categorisation even by today's fluid social norms.
It is a marvellously intricate net she has woven, and a pleasure to be caught in its spell.
If you like this, read: Katherine by Anya Seton (Mariner Books, 1954, reissued 2013, $29.84, available here). This deeply researched and vividly written book tells of the 14th-century love affair between the married Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. Besides romance and adultery, there is also war, plague and an in-depth look at mediaeval Catholic England.