Historical Fiction Reading Challenge #1
Through the good offices of her late husband’s employer, Ursula Blanchard has acquired a place at the court of the new queen Elizabeth. It’s much better than returning to her family, who have never forgiven her for eloping with the man they intended should marry her cousin. Nevertheless it is far from ideal - with only a modest income she must support her daughter and keep up appearances on par with considerably wealthier women. When word of her straitened circumstances gets out, she receives an offer of additional employment.
All the court is abuzz with gossip about Elizabeth’s relationship with her Master of Horse, Sir Robin Dudley. Unfortunately for Dudley, there is an obstacle in the way of his becoming king - his wife. Chronically ill and secluded in the country, Amy Robsart is terrified of her husband ... and the court knows it. Rumours of dark deeds are circulating, and both Elizabeth and Dudley want them stopped. To that end, he offers Ursula a generous payment to go to Oxfordshire, convince Amy that she has nothing to fear from him, and stop her talking of attempts at murder. Ursula agrees, and soon discovers that something is going on at Cumnor Place that shouldn’t be, though she cannot tell exactly what before she finds herself on the trail of both murderers and the conspirators in a Catholic plot. Which could be more than a little awkward as both her relatives and her suitor are Catholic, and they could well be in it up to their necks.
A number of times I have seen this book at the library, thought it looked interesting, yet never actually borrowed it. Now I wish I had. Ursula makes a fantastic heroine, and one well-endowed with common sense. Except for the years of her marriage fate hasn’t dealt her a good hand, but she doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself - she just sets out to do what must be done. She thinks before she acts and willingly confides in, and listens to, her servants. The three of them make a great team - even if her groom does think that hunting down killers is unbecoming a lady. Ursula is a refreshing change from the all-too-common kind of heroine who puts getting to the truth ahead of all other considerations; she has plenty of curiosity, but she puts caution first, except for one perfectly understandable outburst at her uncle. And though unconventional, she’s very much of her time.
The mystery takes some time to get started but it’s time well spent watching as Ursula gets accustomed to court life and learns how to deliver discreet yet poisonous set-downs to Lady Catherine Grey. When it does get underway it provides a plausible explanation for Amy Robsart’s still-mysterious death. With a possible connection to both her relatives and the man she’s fallen in love with, there won’t be an easy resolution for Ursula. Nor will there be one for the court, where truth takes second place to appearances. It’s a complicated situation and I like the way it was tied up in the end, and that the origin of the murder plot spoke volumes about the nature of the court. I’ve added the rest of the series to my must-read list, and I hope they’re as good as this.