This reading group guide for Watch the Lady includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Fremantle. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction Watch the Lady
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tells the mesmerizing story of Lady Penelope Devereux—the daring young beauty who inspired Sir Philip Sidney’s famous sonnets even while she plotted against Queen Elizabeth.
Penelope Devereux arrives at court where she and her brother, the Earl of Essex, are drawn into the aging Queen’s favor. Young and naive, Penelope, though promised elsewhere, falls in love with Philip Sidney, but she is forced to marry Lord Rich, whom she loathes. Never fainthearted, she strikes a deal with her husband: after she gives him two heirs, she will be free to live as she chooses, with whom she chooses. But she is to discover that the course of true love is never smooth.
Meanwhile Robert Cecil, ever loyal to Elizabeth, has his eye on Penelope and her brother. Although it seems the Earl of Essex can do no wrong in the eyes of the Queen, as his influence grows, so his enemies gather. Penelope must draw on all her political savvy to save her brother from his ballooning ambition and Cecil’s trap, while daring to plan for an event it is treason even to think about.
Unfolding over the course of two decades and told from the perspectives of Penelope and the devious politician Cecil, Watch the Lady
chronicles the last gasps of Elizabeth’s reign and the deadly scramble for power in a dying dynasty. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Cecil tells his father, Lord Burghley, of Lady Rich’s letters to King James of Scotland, Burghley’s response is “Watch and wait. . . . You have valuable nuggets of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Why do you think that Fremantle chose this as the novel’s title? Why is Penelope such a formidable adversary? Are there other women Cecil should be watch? Who are they? Why are they dangerous?
2. The Devereux family motto is Virtutis comes invidia
(“Envy is the companion of virtue”). Explain its significance. Penelope wonders why one should “strive for virtue of it turns others into sinners?” Are there any who have been driven to sin through their envy of the Devereuxs? Who are they and what transgressions have they committed?
3. When Penelope first arrives at court, she envisions it to be “nothing but romance and lighthearted intrigue.” How does the reality measure up to her imaginings? What ultimately leads to Penelope’s realization that “everyone at court was in a state of compromise”? Discuss the compromises that Penelope and her peers make to stay in good stead with the Queen and why they make them. Do you agree with their choices? Why or why not?
4. Penelope is described as “a virago. . . . It was meant as a criticism but Penelope had rather liked the term, with its heroic implications.” Discuss whether this is deserved? How does Penelope conduct herself? Did you find any of her actions shocking? If so, which ones and why?
5. Discuss the epigraphs that begin each part of the novel. Did they affect your understanding of the book? How?
6. When Essex first appears, he has been wounded in a duel with Blount and Penelope chastises him, saying “ ‘Your temper will get you into serious trouble.’ ” How does this foreshadow Essex’s ultimate fate?
7. Elizabeth tells Penelope “ ‘impression is paramount in my position’ ” when explaining why she has shown Penelope lenience and ignored her affair with Blount. Why are appearances so important to the Queen? Both Penelope and Rich benefit from maintaining the outward appearance of their marriage. What does each gain?
8. When Penelope initially refuses to marry Rich, Leicester tells her, “ ‘we, your family, have your best interests at heart.’ ” Why does Penelope’s family want her to marry Rich? What role does marriage play in Elizabethan England?
9. Penelope’s daughter Lucy tells her, “ ‘I wish I were a boy.’ ” What prompts her to make this comment? Describe the role of women at the Tudor court. How is Penelope constrained by her gender? Are there instances when she can use it to her advantage? If so, describe them.
10. When Rich asks Penelope why she does not hate him, she tells him it is because “ ‘hatred makes you weak.’ ” Discuss the ongoing resentments in Watch the Lady
, particularly that between Cecil and Essex. What are the long-term repercussions of their mutual rancor?
11. At Sidney’s funeral, Frances tells Penelope “ ‘It was you he loved. I always knew.’ ” Were you surprised that Frances knew this? Why do you think she tells Penelope? How do Penelope’s feelings toward Frances evolve as they come to know each other? What accounts for the change?
12. After Lucy discovers Astrophil and Stella
and questions Penelope about it, Penelope says, “ ‘There is much you do not yet understand about love. It is not always straightforward.’ ” Do you agree? While Penelope loves Sidney and Blount, her relationship with each is very different. Compare and contrast them.
13. Power is an important concept throughout Watch the Lady
. In order to secure her position, Queen Elizabeth “was made ruthless by necessity.” Why must Elizabeth be merciless? Which other characters hold power in the Tudor court? How are they able to maintain it?
14. Elizabeth tells Cecil, “ ‘Trust is a most elusive quality, I have found. But, I can trust you
, can’t I?’ ” Do you think Cecil is a trustworthy? Why or why not? What qualities does a royal advisor need to have to be successful? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella
sonnet sequence and discuss his portrayal of Penelope. How does the poetic version of Penelope compare to the character that Fremantle has created? Did you prefer one version over the other? Which one and why?
2. After his failed coup d’état, Essex is imprisoned in the Tower of London. Learn more about its history at http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/.
3. In an attempt to gain support for their cause, some of Essex’s allies try to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II
. Read the play with your book club and discuss why mounting it would be construed as a treasonous act. Are there any parallels between Richard II
and the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign? Discuss them with your book club.
4. To read more about Elizabeth Fremantle and her research, visit http://www.elizabethfremantle.com/. A Conversation with Elizabeth Fremantle Your first novel, The Queen’s Gambit, was widely praised. You were hailed by People as a “brilliant new player in the court of royal fiction” and by The Bookseller as a “major new voice in historical fiction.” Did you feel any added pressure while writing the other two books in your Tudor trilogy, Sisters of Treason and Watch the Lady
I think if an author focuses too much on how they think a novel will be received it can stultify the creative process, so I try not to think about it; though, of course, it gave me confidence to know that I could produce something that people responded positively to. It is always my hope that with each book I develop as a writer. Watch the Lady concludes your Tudor trilogy. How does its publication compare to the publication of other two books?
In my mind the three novels are all inextricably linked, with one story leading on to the next, but I do feel that Watch the Lady
is slightly different in tone, partly as one of my main narrators is a man and also because my protagonist, Penelope Devereux, is a more dangerous woman than my previous heroines. What inspired you to make Penelope Devereux the focus of your book?
I mentioned before that Penelope was a dangerous woman and this is what attracted me to her. She was deeply involved in the treacherous politics of the time, not caring if she courted controversy. She was a kind of femme fatale figure and that fascinated me. Can you tell us how you research your novels? In the course of your research, did you discover anything you found surprising? If so, what?
My research is primarily textual: I read everything available, both primary and secondary sources, about all my characters and also look at social history to get a better sense of how people lived in the period. There are some amusing dialogue books from the late sixteenth century that use vignettes as a way to teach French. They are scenes of everyday life and are incredibly informative. I also visit historic sites and look at collections of contemporary fabrics, clothing, jewelry, and artifacts in general as well as recipes and herbals. Portraiture too is a great inspiration.
I suppose the most surprising thing I discovered about Penelope Devereux was the extent to which she was involved in her brother’s rebellion. It is there in the record. While Watch the Lady is based on historical facts, in your author’s note, you state that it is impossible to know some of the motives behind the recorded actions. What liberties did you take when writing the novel?
A primary liberty was in making Lord Rich, Penelope’s husband, homosexual. There are many things that history cannot explain about their marriage, one being that he turned a blind eye to her relationship with Blount. Rich’s homosexuality and his fear of exposure offered an explanation for this behavior. We do not know that Penelope struck a deal with Cecil—it is something that emerged from my own creative process; it fits well with the political outcomes in the wake of the Essex plot and explains why Penelope was never tried for her part in it, but it was my own invention. As novelist, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Is there anything that you wish you had been told at the start of your writing career?
I was told lots of things that I chose not to believe but wish I had. For example, many people told me I it was unusual for writers to find a publisher for their first efforts. I chose to ignore that, but it is true—I wrote three unpublished novels before Queen’s Gambit
I always advise writers to read as much and as widely as possible. That is how to develop your writing. Also, develop a thick skin; rejection is part of the deal, I’m afraid. When Penelope confronts Rich about his secret, she realizes that “words held a power all of their own,” a theme that is repeated throughout this book. The act of writing and publishing is a political act in the Tudor court. Do you think the role of the writer has changed in our times? If so, how?
The sheer cacophony of voices nowadays makes it impossible to compare. But for women to write and be published took real courage, as they were expected to conform to the meek and silent model of the “good woman.” So a female taking up a pen was an inherently transgressive and political act. Happily now things have changed.
In the sixteenth century almost all the voices were male and from the educated classes. This began to change during the Civil War in the following century, when minority voices began to emerge. The subsequent rise of literacy and the novel changed everything. While Elizabeth is a major force in all your novels, the young, ambitious Elizabeth portrayed in The Queen’s Gambit is quite different from the “elderly, pitiless Queen” of Watch the Lady. How were you able to reconcile both versions of Elizabeth while you were writing? Which version of Elizabeth was your favorite to write about, if any? Why?
In many ways the trilogy is Elizabeth’s story: the headstrong young woman of Queen’s Gambit
holds all the potential for the intransigent elderly Queen in Watch the Lady.
In my mind they are one character—I cannot separate them and say I preferred writing one or the other. When a character comes to life, they have a hold over you. I was completely at Elizabeth’s mercy when writing her into my books. What would you like your readers to take away from Watch the Lady?
A writer always wants readers to be in some way touched by her writing. I hope it resonates and entertains, but I don’t pretend to be anything more than a storyteller. Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I am working on a novel about Arbella Stuart, the great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, who was raised to be Elizabeth’s heir. Her life had echoes of that of Katherine Grey in Sisters of Treason
, which is something I am bringing out in the narrative. I am intertwining it with the story of Aemelia Lanyer, a female poet who admired Arbella. It is a harrowing tale of an extraordinary woman who was buffeted by political events and yet made great attempts to find a way to take control of her destiny.