Based on a true story, the book opens with our narrator, Anne Turner, being led to meet with Frances (Frankie) Howard in her chambers, having been called there by Frankie’s mother to dress her to meet the King. We are immediately thrown into Anne’s world. It’s dark and tearful as we wind our way through candlelit passages and corridors of palaces to Frankie, who has been badly beaten by her husband.
‘My lady,’ I said with a deep curtsy, for this unhappy creature was the Countess of Essex, Frances Howard. She was wife to an earl, daughter to an earl, great-niece to an earl and lady-in-waiting (second rank) to the Queen. The Howards were as close to the King as his own family; oftentimes they appeared more favoured. I had not seen Frances in three years since her wedding nor had I ever known her intimately, but we were acquainted, both our families being Catholic and living within a short distance of each other in the country, near Saffron Walden. ‘My husband is Dr Turner, your husband’s physician.’
She gave no indication of having heard me. Slowly, however, after much hiccupping and sniffing, her crying subsided. The silence that ensued was not of the peaceful kind. No one moved, the fire did not spit, all eyes were on a bowed figure, even her dog gazed into her face with concern. As her stillness became unbearable, she extended an arm. Without hesitation, the maid with the cup stepped forward and placed it in the girl’s outstretched fingers. She drained it and sat back on her heels. With eyes closed, she pushed the hair back from her damp face. Only then did she look at me.A Net for Small Fishes
Anne dresses her in a “carmine skirt, pinning up the hem to reveal her ankles… from the shambles of this whipped child rose a castle, every swag and buttress testament to her worth.” Anne finishes the look with a ruff dyed yellow with her own patent starch recipe. Frankie receives the approval of the King and, as Anne continues to dress her, the two become close friends. However, it is a dangerous world they live in and Frankie needs to be free of her violent marriage because she has fallen in love with another man. Despite the new business that comes from dressing Frankie, Anne faces poverty following her husband’s death and, as her children start to fall ill, she too must make decisions in order to protect them and herself.
For months after that night, Frankie did no more than nod in acknowledgement of Sir Robert Carr, but feelings for him began to stir her heart. She had reached an age to choose for herself whom to love and she was falling for a man who eminently suited her. It worsened her distress in her own marriage, for now she had someone to compare to her husband, and in no area did Essex triumph…A Net for Small Fishes
It took me a few chapters to get into the rhythm and narration of this book, but once you fall into it, you are immersed. The detail about in the early 1600s, from the sounds and the smells that seem to radiate off the page, to what people were doing and wearing, and just how hard life was for the majority of people, I found this book fascinating to read.
It was also difficult read and as much as I was invested in Anne and Frankie’s stories, I didn’t warm to either of them all that much. As Anne comments, they are both used by the people around them in awful and manipulative ways, but when they get the chance to manipulate others to get what they want, they do it. This book is as much about survival as it is about love and freedom.
It’s a beautifully detailed book and all the more amazing as I kept thinking how Anne and Frankie were real and had to go through these ordeals. I recommend this to readers who enjoy historical fiction (you guys will *love* this), but also to anyone who enjoys a really well written story.