THE SPYMASTER'S DAUGHTER – Jeane Westin
New American Library (Trade Paperback)
Elizabethan England, 1585
More than half way through the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the country is in turmoil. It's Protestant versus Catholic. England is on uncomfortable terms with France and Spain, and in the midst of much of the intrigue is Mary Stuart, briefly Queen Consort of France and former Queen of Scotland. Mary is and has been for some years the “guest” of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, whose crown Mary also claims. It's a time of plotting and spying. Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham—known as the Queen's Spymaster—employs men who gather and decode secret messengers. They are called intelligencers.
Walsingham has a daughter who longs to become one of the intelligencers. She was married very young to England's best-loved romantic poet. Lady Frances Sidney quickly became disillusioned when she realized her husband, Sir Philip, still loves the subject of his most famous work. Neither her father nor her husband appreciates that Frances has a strong character and a bright mind—what man in those days would credit a woman with either of those? Even with the example of their reigning monarch! Frances's chance comes when her husband leaves to fight the French in Holland, and the queen summons her to London to become a lady of the presence . (Her job is to join the other ladies of the presence when the queen holds audiences.)
Frances manages to meet some of her father's secretaries—behind his back—who teach her to decode ciphers. She's helped in this by Robert Pauley, the man her father assigned to escort and serve her. Pauley is an uncommon commoner, for his father educated and treated him as though he were legitimate…until he died. The legitimate heir then banished Robert. Frances and Robert both feel a connection to the other, but both are mindful of the distance between mistress and servant. For her family's good name and for honor, Frances feels obligated to be true to her husband, even if he's not true to her. That is a woman's duty.
Frances blossoms by being able to work at something meaningful. She's not so crazy about life at court, however. The attentions of the Earl of Essex—a favorite of the queen and all the other ladies—makes Frances uncomfortable. All the while, trouble is brewing, and Walsingham, a strict anti-Catholic Puritan, is convinced Queen Mary is plotting against Elizabeth. He is out to prove Mary is behind an assassination plan and that only her execution as a traitor will save queen and country.
THE SPYMASTER'S DAUGHTER is based on real people and gives a definite flavor of the period. (As one telling example, the whole court with its hundreds of courtiers and pensioners is moved from Whitehall Palace to Hampton Court because Whitehall's smell has become intolerable and the whole needs to be thoroughly cleaned.) Elizabeth and Mary are realistically presented, though the author doesn't pretend to solve all the mysteries surrounding these two exceptional women. The Author's Note and Readers Guide in the back of the book give readers a few more facts and informs us of where the book takes poetic license.
I recommend THE SPYMASTER'S DAUGHTER to fans of historical fiction, especially to those interested in the Elizabethan era. And you might look up two more of Ms. Westin's novels set in Elizabeth's court, HIS LAST LETTER and THE VIRGIN'S DAUGHTERS.