A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

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This book about the Overbury Scandal, the alleged murder of Sir Thomas Overbury by the Countess of Essex, Frances Devereux nee Howard, who had her marriage annulled so that she could marry the Earl of Somerset, with whom she’d been having an affair, and who’d also been having an affair with James I/VI (keep up, keep up!), would have been very interesting had the author not infuriatingly referred throughout to Frances as “Frankie”.  “Frankie”?  In the 1610s?  Seriously?   It really did annoy me.  Also, it means that I’m now being earwormed by Sister Sledge.

If Lucy Jago had just stuck to “Frances” (I did wonder if maybe she had some school playground-ish aversion to “Fanny”, but even “Fanny” wasn’t really used until the mid-18th century), the book would have been excellent.  It was written from the point of view of Anne Turner, the impoverished widow of a doctor, who was hanged for being an accessory to the murder; and it really was entertaining.  There was so much going on here, much of it aspects of society which haven’t changed very much.  The title of the book reflects the fact that the aristocratic, influential Carrs – who, as the author points out several times, spent more on fripperies in an average month than most people could hope to earn in many years of hard work – were imprisoned for a few years but then pardoned, whereas the four “ordinary” people implicated went straight to the hangman’s noose.

The book gives a fascinating depiction of life both at Court and in the poorer areas of London, and brings in the effects on the Overbury trial of views of women and how they should behave, the Pendle Witch Trials, prejudice against Catholics – even though, or possibly because, the Howards, despite being Catholic, were able to dominate the Court – , rivalries between English and Scottish courtiers, and the difference in culture between the Whitehall bubble and everyone else.

To cut a long story short, Frances Howard was married off to the Earl of Essex, the marriage was unhappy, and she took up with Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset, the lover of James I and close friend of Thomas Overbury.  She wanted her marriage annulled, Overbury opposed it, the Howards turned on him, and he was imprisoned, possibly for refusing the position of ambassador to Tsar Michael of Russia.   He then mysteriously died.  The annulment and remarriage went ahead.  It was later claimed that Frances had had Overbury poisoned, and that was what a trial found.

Anne Turner was some sort of companion to Frances. She was the widow of a doctor, and mistress of a politician, became well-known because she was the only supplier of a saffron starch used to make fashionable yellow ruffs, and is often said to have been a madam of “houses of ill repute”.  However, in the book, her husband left her with a lot of debts, she genuinely expected her lover to marry her and was badly let down when he said that his position of court meant that he couldn’t be associated with her, and she made money by working as a general dressmaker.

Incidentally, Anne’s lover’s name was Arthur Mainwaring, but Lucy Jago’s changed it to Arthur Waring because she said that the name made her think of Dad’s Army, and sounded too silly alongside Frankie Howard (even spelt Howard rather than Howerd).  Right.  Let’s all change historical figures’ names because they remind us of TV characters.  OK, OK, I would have kept waiting for him to say “Don’t tell him, Pike”, but even so.  And Captain Mainwaring’s name wasn’t even Arthur!  It was George.  The actor who played him was called Arthur.

Anyway, to get back to the point 🙂 … so, Anne’s quite sympathetically portrayed.  They’re actually both quite sympathetically portrayed – Anne as an impoverished widow let down by a man, Frances as a young woman forced into an unhappy marriage by family politics – and they’re shown as having a very close friendship despite their different positions in life, with Frances, at the end, trying to save Anne but being unable to do so.

Lucy Jago’s take on it is that Robert Carr wasn’t involved, and that Anne and Frances did send poison to the Tower but that it was never used.  No-one’s really sure what’s happened.  Overbury had health problems anyway.  There was talk about poisoned enemas, poisoned cakes … and an interesting point’s made that poison was seen as a foreign, Catholic way of bumping people off!  To this day, it’s associated with Lucrezia Borgia (probably unfairly) and Catherine de Medici (fairly).  There was also some talk of witchcraft, which fitted the atmosphere of the times.

So there was a lot going on, and this book reflects this.  It also brings in the death of Prince Henry and how devastated people were about that, and it’s just generally a very interesting depiction of the lives of different people at an interesting time.  Even though the Gunpowder Plot’s one of the best-known events in British history, and even though the Pendle Witch Trials are so well-known too, James I and VI’s reign – and, of course, it was also crucial in that it was the start of the personal union between England and Scotland – does tend to get a bit overlooked, in between the Glorious Elizabethan Age and the build-up to the Civil War.

All in all, a very good book.  But “Frankie”?  Seriously?!

 

3 thoughts on “A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

  1. I’m glad it wasn’t just me who found the Frankie thing irritating! It’s a shame because it was an interesting book otherwise – and, as you say, this is a period that doesn’t tend to get much attention in historical fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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