The court of King James I is a dangerous place, full of fierce political and religious rivalries. Even the slightest whisper of scandal could result in loss of land, position, and life. In the midst of this intensity, Lady Frances “Frankie” Howard marries the third Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, in a political maneuver arranged by her powerful and influential Catholic family. The marriage is a nightmare. Devereux loathes the Howard family (I suppose that’s what happens when your in-laws are partly responsible for the execution of your father) and is increasingly violent and spiteful towards Frankie despite her efforts to make the marriage work and produce an heir. Frankie forms an inseparable, intimate friendship with Anne Turner, a talented albeit struggling fashion stylist and wife of the well-respected Dr. George Turner, when her mother enlists Anne’s services to make Frankie more attractive to her husband. Frankie ultimately wishes to annul her marriage and marry Sir Robert Carr, the King’s favorite, but a difficult, snide Thomas Overbury, royal courtier and Carr’s best friend, stands in her way. After a poisonous plot, the King’s justice seems to ensnare only the smallest of fishes.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Frances Carr before (if you’re unfamiliar with the Jacobean Era or need a quick introduction to Frances, I highly recommend Dana Schwartz’s Noble Blood podcast episode “The Schemes of Countess Frances Carr”), but Lucy’s Jago’s meticulously researched novel is a fresh interpretation. Women are typically absent from the historical record, but when they do appear, they are too often cast like Frances Carr: Scandalous, deviant, and improper. At the heart of A Net for Small Fishes is the story of female friendship, female morality, and women willing to stretch beyond the limitations placed on them by society. Jago gives voice to Carr and Turner, a glimpse into what their true, complex motivations might have been during the Overbury Scandal. Jago does an excellent job of portraying how any accident of fate could send a woman tumbling into poverty or disgrace. Her depictions of Jacobean society, including forbidden magic (the amount of astrology captured in this book makes me happy), aristocratic dress, and the narrow, filthy streets of London, are vivid and immersive. Historical fiction should be this imaginative and emotional. A stunning debut.