Recently I bought two books in the bargain bin of my local Chapters. Unbeknownst to me, they both featured a bevy of the same characters, despite having very different focuses.

The Spymaster’s Daughter is about Frances Walsingham and her struggles to be recognized as a useful spy by her father, Elizabeth I’s infamous spymaster. She is married to Philip Sydney, a poet famous for his Astrophel and Stella sonnets, but gradually moves away from her husband’s influence and into the arms of another spy, Robert Pauly, all the while being romantically pursued by the Earl of Essex.

Watch the Lady follows Penelope Devereux, legendary beauty of Elizabeth I’s court, through the various political intrigues of her life. She is a sister to the Earl of Essex, and the inspiration for Sydney’s Astrophel and Stella.

So it’s not exactly surprising that the protagonist of each book finds herself featuring in the other.

What I find interesting, though, is just how much their characterization differs from book to book, despite following the same historical facts and events. To be more exact, I find it interesting how these two women are characterized compared to one another in each of these books; in both books, Frances Walsingham and Penelope Devereux are pit against each other for the love of Philip Sydney, and are used as foils to further the other’s character development. And whichever lady happens to be our protagonist gets the far better treatment.

Now, I have to start by saying that we actually know little about these women’s personal lives, Frances Walsingham’s in particular, so the authors’ interpretation of history is paramount in creating these characters as they appear in the books. It’s also important to note that neither author can therefore be wrong about either woman’s inner life, because there’s just not enough information.

In The Spymaster’s Daughter, Frances is a resourceful, quick-witted girl who tries – and fails – to give a quiet and demure impression only to please her puritan father. She often throws herself physically into disputes, and her brashness and refusal to dishonor her marriage vows intrigues the earl of Essex to the point of asking for her hand in marriage later in the book. Penelope, on the other hand, is an overtly sexual woman who relies almost entirely on her beauty for position at court, openly cheats on her husband with Sydney, and purposefully engineers wardrobe malfunctions to gain attention.

In Watch the Lady, Penelope is a shrewd diplomat on a mission to secure her family’s future, risking everything for wealth, position, and a friendship with King James of Scotland. She doesn’t care for people’s opinions, and while she does cheat on her husband it is not with Sydney. Frances is a nervous, pious girl, whom Essex only marries for her father’s spy network, and is frequently described as mousy and altogether incapable of political intrigue.

The emotional climax of both books includes the protagonists recognizing the other woman’s qualities, and accepting Sydney’s love for them. Frances realizes what it means to love someone you can never have, and reconciles with Penelope at Sydney’s funeral. Penelope witnesses Frances’ quiet courage during Essex’s rebellion and understands that this was perhaps what Sydney liked about her, and why he married her.

Of course, none of those descriptions are exactly contradictory once we consider that each novel is from a different point of view. Frances Walshingham very well could be a clever, quick spy who feigns shyness in order to avoid suspicion, and Penelope could be an intelligent diplomat who uses her beauty and sex appeal to gain position in court. The importance is really in the framing of both these women’s stories, and the way in which historical bias carries very easily into novels.

The character in the spotlight is always the one with the most positive (or at the very least “protagonistic”) qualities. And in both stories these qualities are emphasized through female rivalry, perhaps one of the laziest ways of characterizing a female hero.

So what I’m really saying, all things considered, is that I want a story in which Frances Walsingham, super-spy, and Lady Penelope, master diplomat, team up to survive the intrigue of Elizabeth’s court.

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