The Poison Bed
London, 1615. The young, spirited Frances Howard-Carr and her husband (And James I’s long time favorite), the self-made social climber Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset, stand accused of poisoning Sir Thomas Overbury, Robert’s friend and advisor, who knew a dreadfully personal secret about the true nature of Robert’s relationship with James. Frances and Robert come up with a conflicting version of the crime and can only agree on one thing – once upon a time Robert, who fell in love at first sight with Frances when he was a lad and she was a fourteen year old bride to the Earl of Essex – would have killed God with his bare hands to win her.
Frances’ marriage to Essex was utterly sexless and totally abusive and Robert needed a foothold and protection in British society should James die; naturally, removing Essex and taking his place as Frances’ bridegroom seemed the best solution. Her ambitious father and uncle propel things; the two of them loving one another – Frances with a gameswoman’s poker face, Robert with obsessive and all-consuming devotion – is just icing on the cake. Eventually Essex is removed from their lives via an annulment, though he tries to argue Frances is a witch when she accuses him of impotence. Only the disapproving Overbury stands in their way, threatening to reveal all about James and Robert’s love affair – until he’s removed from their path via poison days before the annulment is finalized.
Only one other person is privy to the mystery – Nelly, a card-trick playing young wet nurse and nanny, imprisoned beside Frances and her infant daughter Anne, and who was turned out by her family after conceiving a child by her incestuous, rapist father. Where the truth lies and who truly killed Overbury ultimately unspools – and none will have clean hands by the end.
AAR reviewers Lisa Fernandes and Shannon Dyer read The Poison Bed, and are here to share their thoughts on this historical mystery.
Lisa: The jacket copy calls The Poison Bed a “Jacobean Gone Girl” and I can see the similarities. What did you think?
Shannon: I suppose there are some similarities, but Gone Girl was much more to my taste. I love twisty stories that are capable of taking me completely by surprise, but this one didn’t quite manage to pull that off.
Lisa: That was the biggest problem I had with the book; it tried to provide a mid-stream shock but it came off as kind of ludicrous instead.
What did you think of Frances? Did you sympathize with her choices after being a long-term pawn of her uncle? I thought she was fascinatingly complex but I didn’t wholly buy her late-page turnaround to sociopathy.
Shannon: I started out with quite a bit of sympathy for Frances. She was not in control of her own life, and it’s obvious she wasn’t happy with the choices her family had made on her behalf. However, as the story went on, I found my feelings for her changing little by little until I was quite frustrated by her inability to make a reasonable, logical choice.
Lisa: What of Robert’s social-climbing, determined self? His obsession with Frances was a well-defined characteristic, but how much of his own ambitions drove him? How much his temper?
Shannon: Robert was a pretty scary guy. He was ruled by his obsession for sure, but when things started going wrong, I think his temper got the better of him. Suddenly, this calculating character was acting rashly, and I think that’s ultimately what led to his downfall.
Lisa: Ah, Jacobean London. How did you feel about Fremantle’s research and atmospheric work? This is why I’m rating the book a little higher than you – the atmosphere was great.
Shannon: I thought the author did a great job creating a strong sense of place. It’s obvious she is quite familiar with the norms and customs of this historical period, and this is something I appreciate in a historical novel like this one. I never got the impression she was making things up to suit the story she was telling.
Lisa: King James I is portrayed as both shrewd and intensely dependent upon Robert. What did you think of him?
Shannon: I don’t know a great deal about James I, so I was intrigued by the author’s depiction of him. I found him to be an interesting mix of strength and vulnerability. He appears to have been a complicated man, as many historical figures are, and I think Ms. Freemantle did him justice.
Lisa: What of our third main character, Nelly? Did you find her to be too much of a plot device or wonderfully enjoyable? I liked her.
Shannon: So did I – Nelly was the best part of this whole book. I found her story quite compelling, and I would have liked to know more about her as a person, rather than as the vehicle for moving Frances’ story forward. She’s a character with a lot of depth, and I’m not sure the author gave her enough room to grow. Even so, the parts of the book that focused on her were fantastic!
Lisa: The balance between witchcraft, herbal healing and the poisoning arts are balanced in this novel. What did you think of the way the author portrayed that?
Shannon: I’ve long been fascinated by herbalism and its influence on modern medicine, so I was pleased by the attention the subject was given here. The author did a great job showing the practical uses of various herbs as well as the metaphysical reasons people might choose to turn to them. Like anything else in this world, herbs can be used for both good and bad things, and I felt Ms. Freemantle did an excellent job balancing the two.
Lisa: Frances and Robert have a marriage that’s characterised by passion nearing madness and obsession nearing blindness. It’s not healthy at all but it’s very compelling. What do you think of their relationship?
Shannon: The relationship between Robert and Frances wasn’t something I could ever fully get behind. It’s obvious they had deep and complicated feelings for one another, but the relationship as itself came off as quite unhealthy. Happiness seemed completely out of reach for these two, and the two of them together served only to make things worse for everyone in their sphere.
Lisa: Who’s your favorite minor character? I rather liked Anne Turner, Frances’ witchcraft-obsessed lady in waiting and friend.
Shannon: I was kind of intrigued by the character of Sir Thomas. I’m not sure we can call him a minor character though, since his death is the catalyst for so much of what happens in the story. Still, I found myself wanting to know more about him.
Lisa: What about the writing? There are many water metaphors in this novel – the sound of water rushing under and around people, specifically Frances, as she and Nellie occupy the Tower of London.
Shannon: I love when an author can use metaphors well. Unfortunately, I found them overused here. I think this was a definite case of less being more, and I will admit to skimming through some of the more flowery passages.
Lisa: What’s your final grade? I’m going with a B; absorbing, with complicated characters and a few minor blemishes.
Shannon: I’m going with a B-. The bare bones of the story were interesting, and the characters, though not always likable, seemed to align with the time in which lived. However, the non-linear structure of the novel made it difficult for me to keep track of the sequence of events, leaving me confused on several occasions.
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