Penelope Rich Blount, Countess of Devonshire (nee Devereux) is the main subject of Ms. Fremantle’s latest Elizabethan court novel. Sister of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite the Earl of Essex and probably the muse for Sir Philip Sidney’s poetry, Penelope was quite an independent, resourceful, and defiant woman for her time. Trapped in a loveless marriage to Lord Rich, she brokers a deal to allow her to pursue a love match with Charles Blount, whom she eventually divorces Rich to marry. Penelope is a consummate diplomat, soothing her hot-headed brother whenever he gets into trouble with the queen.
Robert Cecil makes for an excellent foil for Penelope’s plans. Complex, weak, tortured, vengeful – he hates her brother Essex and is constantly on the look out for information that will destroy others and further himself.
I found Penelope a fascinating character, but I think she fell short of the superb dynamic between the Grey sisters and Levina Teerlinc in Ms. Fremantle’s “Sisters of Treason” (reviewed here). I admired Penelope’s patience and drive. There was a foolish, impetuous side to her though that was challenging to comprehend. At the book’s opening, she’s sending secret letters to King James of Scotland to maneuver herself and her brother into a position of power when Elizabeth I dies (which is historically accurate). Considering her mother’s exclusion from court, the execution of a beloved court physician and friend, and the ousting of many of her kinswomen for far more minor faux pas, Penelope seems reckless at times, and that doesn’t square with her level-headed, diplomatic image, but at that court it was important to risk much to gain much. It is clear that Queen Elizabeth likes her and overlooks Penelope’s many domestic indiscretions, but treason is another game entirely. The tight rope Penelope walks between pleasing the queen and living her own life is captivating, however, and I think that’s the real heart of the novel. The subtle references to Shakespeare sprinkled throughout are also great.
Amazon link is here.