The Spymaster’s Daughter

Written by Jeane Westin
Review by Lucille Cormier

Frances Walsingham (1567-1633), Countess of Essex, Countess of Clanricarde, and daughter of Elizabeth I’s renowned spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, becomes the heroine of this fine story of a young woman born centuries before women could determine their own destinies.

As the spymaster’s only child, Frances is determined to follow in her father’s profession. When she is called to attend the queen at court, she finds key allies to further her goal. Soon she proves her ability in decoding vital messages. But all of this is hidden behind daily life in court, with its gossip and intrigue.

Frances, in life and in fiction, was married to the poet Sir Philip Sidney, whose sonnet Astrophel and Stella was believed to express his love for Penelope Rich, also present at Elizabeth’s court. Philip is away at war, and Frances is left on her own to deal with the Lady Penelope. At the same time, the queen’s favorite, the dashing Earl of Essex, is bent on adding Frances to his list of romantic conquests. But Frances has fallen deeply in love with another, in an impossible relationship. Robert Pauley, though the bastard son of a nobleman, is but her guard and manservant – though also a brilliant spy in his own right. I will not spoil the story’s ending by revealing what comes of their affair.

One of the best things about this romance is the skillful weaving of historical fact into the fiction. The exciting scenes around Robert’s role as double agent to the Scottish queen, Mary, for example, are true to the facts known about the Babington Plot of 1586. And Frances did marry the Earl of Essex after Sidney’s death and a third time after Essex was executed. Details of court life, dress, and Elizabeth’s personality are faithfully rendered, as are the techniques of the spymaster’s trade.

As a romance, the story gets high marks. But as a historical novel, I would give it an A+.