Anne Turner, narrator and heroine of Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes, feels like she steps straight from the stage of a Jacobean masque. To an extent, she does. Turner, the widow of a London doctor, was a historical figure hanged at Tyburn for her part in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. She became an instant celebrity, vilified by contemporary playwrights. Turner was the subject of the anonymous play The Widow, and features in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The World Tossed at Tennis.
This is Jago’s first foray into adult fiction – having made her name with an award-winning biography of Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (The Northern Lights) and a YA novel, Montacute House – and she presents a different, more sympathetic Turner. She concentrates on the friendship between Anne and Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, her fellow defendant in what would become known as the “Overbury scandal” in this superb exploration of female agency, sexuality and class in early 17th-century England.
We first meet Anne when she is called to visit Frances Howard (“Frankie”), who has been brutally beaten by her husband, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. Anne, a “fashioner”, has been summoned by Frankie’s mother in the hope that a change of costume might persuade Essex to undertake his husbandly duties. Frankie remains, it would seem, a virgin. Anne is older and faintly disappointed with her life as a mother and sometime costumier. In Frankie she finds a young friend of beauty, spirit and class.
Within a few breathless chapters, Anne has followed Frankie into the court of King James, who takes a shine to Frankie and praises her attire. From that august encounter, a whole host of events are set in train. Anne is widowed and finds in her solitary status new freedoms but also increasing obligations, stripped of the physical and financial protection of a man. Frankie, meanwhile, severs ties with Essex, who finally admits his sexual insufficiency. She turns, instead, to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, one of the king’s favourites. She, too, is impoverished now, though, with Essex holding on to her dowry and her father near bankrupt from building Audley End country house. Then Overbury enters the affair, threatening to destroy the fragile happiness that Frankie and Anne have built around them. They must act or lose everything.
The book’s title refers to justice, which catches small fry while letting larger fish escape punishment. Anne thrums with life all the way through to her tragic, gruesome end, while Frankie is calculating and alluring. The fact that all of the action is filtered through Anne’s voice means that some of Frankie’s escapades have a slightly secondhand air to them, and Carr never really convinces as a replacement for the vile Essex. These, though, are small gripes compared with the many things there are to love in this scintillating novel that plunges you head-first into a darkly compelling chapter of British history.
• A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply