LUCY JAGO A Net for Small Fishes. Reviewed by Ann Skea
Lucy Jago’s new novel reimagines the notorious Overbury poisoning at the court of James I from the point of view of the women involved.
In November 1615, Lord Chief Justice Edward Coke, presiding over the trial of Mistress Anne Turner in Westminster Hall, London, heard the formal accusation that:
… she did comfort, aid and assist Mr Richard Weston in the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury while the latter was held prisoner in the Tower of London.
Anne Turner, pronounced Justice Coke, was ‘A whore, a sorcerer, a witch, a bawd, a papist, a felon and a murderer’ who, by acting for herself, had acted against ‘the proper bounds of womanhood’.
Woman [he said] is born guilty of the sins of Eve and only in perfect purity and good conduct can she redeem herself … She who steps away from the path of duty, who puts herself beyond the guidance of husband, father and brother, is lost to wickedness.
Anne Turner was the widow of a fashionable London doctor, and a close friend and confidante of Lady Frances Howard. By implication, Justice Coke’s statements were also intended to apply to Frances, who was believed to be implicated in this poisoning. The annulment of Frances’s marriage to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, on the grounds of Devereux’s inability to consummate it, had already caused a public scandal.
Rumours of Frances’s liaison with King James I’s latest favourite, the young, handsome, Robert Carr, had also been circulating widely. Carr was the protégé of Sir Thomas Overbury and Overbury was out of favour with the King and fiercely opposed to the annulment. He had no wish to see the already powerful Howard family gain extra influence through Robert Carr, and he had composed a widely circulated verse that clearly suggested that Frances was a whore.
In A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Jago has taken this true and notorious scandal and, as she says in her Author’s Note, she has attempted to imaginatively reclaim Anne and Frances ‘from the limbo of misogynist stereotype’ in which they had become ‘icons co-opted by various parties to prove the villainy of villainous women, the rottenness of the English Court, the immorality of the courtier and so on’.
Anne Turner tells their story, and we first meet her as she describes entering the courtyard of a palace close to the Thames. It is immediately clear that she is unusually independent and strong-minded:
A godly woman would have run from that place as from the maw of hell; everyone knows that the jewelled facades of courtiers thinly veil their greedy, scurrilous, vain, lascivious souls.
Me? I rushed in.
Anne’s elderly husband already moves in Court circles – he had been physician to the late Queen Elizabeth – but, in spite of her nagging him, he has kept Anne away from what he calls a ‘cesspit’ of depravity ‘trussed up in velvet’. He has, however, taught her various skills with herbs and medicines, and she has invented, and managed to patent, her own saffron-yellow starch for the ruffs, collars and sleeves fashionable at James’s Court. Her yellow starch is brighter, more vivid, and smells better than the urine-based starches that have been in use. Now, she has been summoned by Frances Howard’s mother, the formidable and unsympathetic Countess of Suffolk, to dress Frances for a visit with James and his closest courtiers to see the King’s newly acquired silkworms.
Anne finds Frances bloodied and weeping after being beaten by her husband. Frances is just 18 and her husband Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex, is 17. The two had been married for five years in a political alliance between their powerful families but they have been kept apart until now. Robert, however, has been unable to consummate the marriage and in Lucy Jago’s book he vents his frustration of Frances by beating her and cruelly abusing her. He also tries to force her to submit to his strict Protestant rules. She must be always silent and obedient. Frances tells Anne that ‘He cares only for horses and dogs. Even those he thrashes. He says women are parasites, like ticks.’
Anne is older than Frances and has borne six children, but she is moved by Frances’s plight. She sees that they are alike in wanting independence and also sees an opportunity to better her own situation. If she helps Frances and is accepted by her then she may have access to other Court ladies and can make her own life ‘less precarious’. Looking at Frances, she imagines her as:
… a young thoroughbred, stamping about in her dark stall. If she allowed me, if I dared, we could take off her halter and together race the course in our own fashion. With Frankie, I could have the life I had always wanted. …
Had she an inkling of what I imagined for us both? I had no plan, no scheme, just a basket of desires. I sensed that deep-lying in us both was a longing for something to happen; we scanned the horizon daily, expectant … Her eyes flickered minutely as she tried to see both of mine. She held out her hand, like a man. It was a strange gesture but exactly what was required. I shook it.
So, the two women become friends. ‘You may call me Frankie, but not in public’, Anne is told. Yet, even as her skills at dressing women to their best advantage become accepted in Court circles, and the Queen herself adopts Anne’s saffron-yellow ruffs, Anne’s life soon becomes difficult. When her elderly husband, George, dies, her eldest son inherits everything and refuses to support her. Her long-time lover, father of her two youngest children (with George’s approval) keeps postponing their agreed marriage, her youngest daughter is sickly, and she has to move into poor accommodation and find ways to support herself and the three youngest children.
Frankie’s husband allows her no money, and her mother and sisters are angry with her for not being an obedient wife, so she gives Anne pieces of jewellery and cast-off clothes to sell and they share the proceeds. Frankie, meanwhile, has fallen in love with the King’s favourite, Robert Carr, and he has begun to send her small gifts. Rumours fly around the Court, her husband accuses her of having affairs, and after a particularly vicious and degrading attack on her, Frankie is desperate for things to change. Anne, too, wants to change her own circumstances, so she persuades Frankie that they should visit an astrologer who consults ‘angels’. Dr Simon Forman is known to be a charlatan. He prompts Frankie to tell him that she wishes to be free of her husband, then he tells her:
‘… the sacred bond of matrimony can be broken only by the death of one party and I am bound by the Hippocratic Oath … Angels are not. They must be called in this case ….
‘I have broken my brains in studying the Providences of God. They are beyond our comprehension. We can but ask and they will do as He wills.’
Anne describes the dark room and the ‘witch marks’ in which Forman requires them to stand, the charms he hangs around their necks, the pungent vapours from something he throws into a bowl, and the magical ritual he performs, all of which induce a trance-like state in both women. When the ritual is finished he opens the shutters, burns feathers under their noses to rouse them, and proclaims that the angels will help.
Things do change. Frankie and Robert Carr become lovers. Her marriage to Robert Devereux is annulled after he admits he has been unable to perform his husbandly duties with his wife, but he also implies that she is not chaste. So, Frankie is required to undergo an inspection by two midwives and four noblewomen appointed by the Annulment Commission, to prove that she is still a virgin. Jago’s description of this examination, based on fact, is shocking. Her account of the deception which Anne orchestrates for this examination is based on historical rumour. Two months after the annulment is granted Frankie and Robert Carr are married.
Not everything goes smoothly, however. Various plots are hatched and poisons are procured by Anne and Frankie; Overbury, who threatens to disrupt the annulment process, dies, seemingly of natural causes; then the King finds a new favourite in George Villiers and Carr becomes bitter and falls from favour. Accusations are made that Overbury was poisoned and evidence of Anne’s involvement (and possibly Frankie’s) is revealed. An enquiry is initiated by the King. Anne, Frankie, Robert Carr and suspected accomplices are arrested, and trials lead to subsequent sentencing and executions.
A Net for Small Fishes is rich with detail and colour, not only of the friendship between Anne and Frankie, but also of the lives of Anne’s family and friends, and the poorer Londoners who are part of her world. Frankie’s life at Court and the plots and intrigues which flourish there are vividly evoked, as is life in James’s England at a time when Catholics (like the Howard family) worship in secret, Guy Fawkes and the Powder Plotters have recently tried to blow up parliament, and the Pendle witch trials are fresh in everyone’s memories.
This is historical fiction at its most readable and enjoyable. It gives two women, who for centuries have been vilified, good, understandable reasons for their actions.
Facing the prospect of death by hanging, Anne feels nothing but loyalty to Frankie:
The greatest friend of my life. She will be pardoned for the King is fond of her and her actions have allowed him release from Carr’s bitterness. The great love she holds for Robin [Robert Carr] will bear fruit. The risks we took will lead others to want what she has: freedom from cruel husbands and a say in whom they will marry.
Frances and Robert Carr were pardoned but four people who had no powerful families to protect them were hanged. As one of them says of the King’s justice in Lucy Jago’s book: ‘This be a net for small fishes, that the great ones swim away.’
Lucy Jago A Net for Small Fishes Bloomsbury 2021 PB 352pp $29.99
Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.
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