Sumptuous historical fiction set in the court of James I which revisits a notorious scandal: the poisoning of courtier and poet Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. Those charged with his murder included Mistress Anne Turner and a society dresser and aristocratic beauty, Frances Howard, married to a brutish Earl. All of London was agog at the salacious details aired at trial-lust, sorcery, witchcraft and murder-but here Jago explores the friendship between the two women and the reckless risks they took in pursuit of their individual happiness.
Based on a real scandal at James I’s court, in which a noblewoman and others were accused of plotting murder, Lucy Jago’s riveting first novel for adults is about a friendship between two very different women. Anne Turner has intelligence and energy but few connections, while Frances Howard is a young aristocrat, trapped in a loveless marriage from which she forces an escape. When both women fear for their futures, they turn to extreme measures to protect themselves.
The king, his lover, his lover’s lover and his lover’s best friend — scandal in the court of James I is the inspiration for this novel from Lucy Jago. The king’s lover is the handsome Scotsman Robert Carr, who in turn loves the beautiful noblewoman Frances Howard, unhappily married to the obnoxious Earl of Essex. Carr’s best friend is the unpleasant Thomas Overbury. Impotence, adultery and murder in high places — it’s a novelist’s dream...
Three years ago EC Fremantle turned the same scandal into a gripping psychological thriller, The Poison Bed. Jago’s retelling is more straightforward, but her novel is well written and a powerful take in its own right on a fascinating piece of history.
Anne thrums with life all the way through to her tragic, gruesome end, while Frankie is calculating and alluring. The fact that all of the action is filtered through Anne’s voice means that some of Frankie’s escapades have a slightly secondhand air to them, and Carr never really convinces as a replacement for the vile Essex. These, though, are small gripes compared with the many things there are to love in this scintillating novel that plunges you head-first into a darkly compelling chapter of British history.
Like all the best historical fiction, A Net for Small Fishes is a gloriously immersive escape from present times, but it’s not escapism: the outrage with which Anne is told at her trial that “you have acted of and for yourself, which is itself against the proper bounds of womanhood” is a sentiment that echoes down the centuries. Shrewd yet impetuous, entirely without self-pity, Anne remains a lively companion for the modern reader throughout; her tragedy, Jago suggests, is that she was too good a companion to Frances.