By Sally Varlow.
The Lady Penelope is the story of Penelope Devereux, who was a celebrated beauty at the court of Elizabeth I. She was the subject of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet cycle, Astrophel and Stella. She was not just a beauty, but also highly intelligent and accomplished. Her personal life was not exactly conventional because although she married Lord Rich, her relationship with Lord Mountjoy was an open secret, which her husband tolerated. She was involved in the rebellion of her brother, Robert, the Earl of Essex, but escaped punishment or censure. She was pro-Catholic and may have converted on her deathbed. Rich formally separated from her, and she entered into a marriage of dubious legality with Mountjoy, who died of lung cancer not long afterwards. She herself did not outlive him long, and died at the age of 44.
Varlow is trying to resurrect Devereux as a person of historical note and not just as some noblewoman who happened to be around at the time while others were making history. In truth, though, much of the book is really about the others making history while Devereux puts in appearances.
The book is not good history, though. There is the requisite interpretation of the facts, but there’s also too much opinion, and the picture painted of Devereux feels biased, leaving me wondering what she was really like when the circumstances didn’t require her to be charming and charismatic. I am a little sceptical about all of Varlow’s assertions, which seem to be presented as commonly agreed facts when they are nothing of the sort. I’m not sure to what extent Shakespeare was Essex’s spin doctor and how far his plays can be interpreted as coded messages which were relevant to events at court.
At times the text seemed to be awash with a sea of Devereux’s relatives, which could be confusing for less assiduous readers trying to keep track of everyone. I preferred to plough on and not worry about the intricate connections among the various players in the English court.
However, The Lady Penelope is not without interest to the general reader for making them aware of Penelope Devereux, but I wouldn’t use this as a secondary source in an undergraduate essay on, say, late Elizabethan attitudes to marriage.