The Spymaster's Daughter
The Spymaster’s Daughter is an elegant portrayal of the machinations and dangers of the late Elizabethan Era court. As a depiction of an historical setting and mood, it is masterfully done. The story and characters, however, left me slightly cold, and I found myself reading on mostly to enjoy the scene. Overall, I cannot keep from feeling ambivalent about the novel in its entirety, though I recognize Westin’s talent and knowledge of the period.
First off, it is important to mention this is not a historical romance novel. It is a work of historical fiction that retains a strong element of romance in its plot, but as its main focus. And, based as it is in history with the characters all plucked from the historical record, there is no promise of a happy ending.
The protagonist of our tale is Frances Sidney, wife of the poet Sir Philip Sidney, who was, in his own time, just as famous amongst his peers at court as he is now amongst those who read 16th century literature. He was also a soldier as well as a poet, and as the novel opens Sidney leaves England for the war in Holland. Frances is not particularly bereft at his departure. Her husband does not love her – his muse is Lady Penelope Rich, the beautiful wife of another (suitably richer) man. It is an intriguing position to be in, the wife of an artist who has publicly used his art to immortalize another woman. Unfortunately, when Penelope Rich does appear in the novel, she is given only the shallowest characterization – an attention-hungry beauty who is completely unworthy of being the Stella of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella.
Frances, as the title relates, is the daughter – and, indeed, only child – of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and secretary of state. (Although, the word “spy” is not used in the novel; instead, the term is “intelligencer.”) Frances and her father have a tenuous bond; he seems to love her, but he wishes her to be the sort of meek, dutiful noble wife who will bring honor and not much attention to the family. Frances, meanwhile, wishes to be an intelligencer herself. When she comes to live at court, Frances is drawn into this world of secrets and ciphers, initially without her father’s knowledge.
The court of Elizabeth I, and the queen herself, are stunningly portrayed. It is a world of artifice and uncertain loyalties, shifting allegiances and a small, interconnected cast of characters. The queen’s current favorite is the Earl of Essex, stepson to the Earl of Leicester – very probably the love of the queen’s life, and her childhood friend, but a man she could never marry, and who is currently off fighting in Holland. Essex’s sister is Penelope Rich. Essex himself is a good friend of Sidney, and he spends much of the novel attempting to get into Frances’ bed, much to her disgust and that of the queen. There is also Robet Pauley, a handsome and brilliant but low-born man who is sent to serve Frances – and who is also an intelligencer for her father.
A good portion of the story revolves around the slow-building love affair between Frances and Robert. Their romance never really grabbed my attention, perhaps because neither Frances nor Robert did, either. Frances always seemed to waver somewhere between being the brave, clever woman other characters declared her to be, and the more easily flustered creature she was determined not to be. At one point, already neck-deep in peril in the Tower of London, Frances freaks out and begs Robert that they abandon their mission. The next time there is an espionage adventure afoot, and a character discusses bringing Frances along, I wanted to advise him against it. Frankly, I didn’t completely trust her to keep her head.
Of course, since Frances and Robert find themselves in real danger, both have a right to be frightened. But Frances’ panicking seemed to undercut her character as it was otherwise presented. The difficulty of being a woman in a time when men were generally thought to be both physically and mentally superior is an important theme, and perhaps I resented Frances showing herself to be less competent than a man. Actually, my two favorite characters were Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots. Theirs is a well-known rivalry of thrones, an impossible situation of two queens where there could only be one. Frances is able to meet both great women, and finds them both to be intelligent and sympathetic, though certainly not without their flaws. The likeability of Mary, whom Frances is helping to condemn to death, leads to one of the most moving realizations in the novel. The work of an intelligencer is exciting, but it carries real consequences for the people involved, and Frances suffers feelings of guilt for her actions, though she works out of loyalty for Elizabeth.
While the intelligence career of Frances Sidney is fictional, including her adventures and romance with Robert Pauley, Westin chooses not to deviate too wildly from historic fact, in the end. The real Frances Sidney was married off to Wessex, after Sidney’s death (though, in fact, there is little evidence to suggest that the Sidneys’ marriage was unhappy, and they had two children who are not present, in The Spymaster’s Daughter). But the espionage of the era is real and, as Westin’s historical note relates, the real Robert Pauley had a thrilling career, which included being present during the tavern brawl that killed a fellow intelligencer, the playwright Christopher Marlowe.