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Review: A Net for Small Fishes, by Lucy Jago
Flatiron, 2021. 331 pp. $27

London, 1609. Anne Turner, mother of six with a much older husband and heavy debts, looks to increase her income from “fashioning” for wealthy ladies, her sideline in medicinal concoctions being less lucrative. Indeed, it is as a fashion consultant that Katherine, countess of Suffolk, has summoned her to dress her daughter Frances, countess of Essex. Anne’s task: to get Frances out of bed, ready to please her husband, Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex.

But the earl is not easily pleased, even by the most beautiful, vivacious young wife in England. Only an empty-headed bully, coward, and brute with multiple axes to grind could treat Frances Howard so badly she’d refuse to leave her bedchamber. But Essex is all that, and more: He’s impotent and can’t consummate the marriage, which only adds to his shame, prompting him to abuse his nineteen-year-old bride even further.

Moreover, there are politics involved, as always among English aristocrats. Frances Howard is one of those Howards, the family with which Tudor monarchs had to reckon, as do the Stuarts now, in the court of James I. And Essex’s family is the Howard faction’s sworn enemy.

So Mistress Turner, seamstress and herbalist, is sailing in deep, choppy waters, but she’s ambitious. She has claim to social respectability, through this or that marriage or cousin, and she’s always liked finer things, of which she’s had a taste. Consequently, though she resents being ordered about by Frances’s mother, as if she were a servant, the young countess draws her in, and not just as a means for advancement.

Anne Turner, artist unknown, 1615 (courtesy http://www.kateemersonhistoricals.com/TudorWomen5.htm via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

A most unusual friendship develops, as Frankie, as she’s known to intimates, relies heavily on Anne’s guidance. Impulsive, passionate, and unguarded in tongue, the neophyte noblewoman requires a steadying hand, whereas Anne sees in her protégée a kindly soul craving warmth and protection. To be sure, the commoner also revels in court intrigue and the display of wealth and pomp to which she has access through Frankie.

But Frankie’s no easy charge to look after, and she has dangerous tastes, in particular a deep, powerful attraction to Robert Carr, the king’s favorite. All eyes, and not just those of Frankie’s boorish husband, are watching — and Anne is dragooned into acting as go-between.

The narrative therefore intersects with that of The Poison Bed, Elizabeth Fremantle’s take on the Howard-Carr intrigue. But where Fremantle fixed on the cut-and-thrust of court politics and the tempestuous romance, Jago, though she pays attention to those facets of the story, concentrates on the friendship between the two women. She casts her narrative as a feminist tale, a woman wronged by her beast of a husband; has she really no recourse?

Jago’s authorial hand is remarkably sure, especially in a first novel. From the beginning, the reader will admire the prose, descriptive and emotionally evocative at once, as with this early passage, in which Anne contrives to dress Frances appropriately, yet with an eye to the young woman’s own advantage and image to portray:

My hands darted like a bird pecking seed, working needles and pins, laces and points, circling Frances like a whole flock of maids though I was but one woman. My deftness pleased me, as if the pins and laces grew from my own body as silk comes from the spider. I enjoyed the feel of the sharp metal broaching cloth made on looms in foreign lands, by hands as quick and sure as my own. It pleased me to sculpt fine materials into the shapes in my mind’s eye. To the bodice I tied sleeves, pulling them into sharp peaks above her shoulders. From the shambles of this whipped child rose a castle, every swag and buttress a testament to her worth.

With such keen observation, the novel renders the manner in which the court honors or breaks reputations, and what happens as a result. There are a few decent people about, but they must be watchful, for no one falls faster or harder than the lucky person elevated in esteem, then dropped; and courtiers take delight in revenge, whenever they can. Though court life is a standard in historical fiction portraying this era, I nevertheless note Jago’s persistent eye to the human cost, as with the innocent offspring of the figures cast down.

I’m not sure I find as much meaning in the feminist aspect of Frances Howard’s predicament as Jago intends, maybe because, as the daughter of one earl and wife of another, our countess is hardly representative. (I find more of that thematic substance in Anne’s story.) I see the issues involved with Frances — it’s hard not to — just not the claim of deep significance. I’m also not persuaded of Anne Turner’s venal side, because we’re told it rather than shown.

But all the same, A Net for Small Fishes is a splendid novel, evocative and moving, and I highly recommend it. Few authors can bring off literary thrillers, but Jago does. She’s an author to watch.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.