Michael Joseph | 2018 (14 June) | 406p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is Autumn 1615 and the court of James I is swept up in a scandal. Two of its most celebrated and glamorous members, Robert and Frances Carr, the earl and countess of Somerset, are imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of murder, of poisoning a man who knew far too much about the King, about Robert and about Frances. As a result, his life was forfeit, and now somebody must pay. But for Frances in the Tower, imprisoned with her newborn baby and the wet nurse, this is the time for her to look back on her short and eventful life, on her upbringing among the cruelly ambitious and powerful Howard family, on her unhappy first marriage, and on her passion for the beautiful Robert Carr, himself beloved by the King.
The Poison Bed is a story with two sides if not more and, as a result, it moves back and forth between chapters dedicated to ‘Her’ and to ‘Him’. In this way we get to know both Frances and Robert, although the reader must keep their wits about them. We, after all, were not there at the time. We are merely an audience. And in James I’s court with its love of wit and drama, little should be taken at face value.
This new novel by Elizabeth Fremantle (here published with a slight change of name) marks a little bit of a change by this fine author. Her previous novels have been more conventional works of historical fiction, focused on the Tudor and Jacobean periods, and bringing to life such incredible women as Katherine Parr (Queen’s Gambit), the Grey sisters (Sisters of Treason), Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady) and Lady Arbella Stuart (The Girl in the Glass Tower). All four are wonderful novels (I love the first two in particular) and have such a powerful, brilliantly evoked historical setting and context. In The Poison Bed, Elizabeth Fremantle picks another formidable and remarkable figure from history, Frances Carr, and gives her story a bit of a psychological twist. The book is being billed as the Jacobean Gone Girl and I can understand why the comparison is being made because it really does have the feel of that novel in several ways.
The murder at the heart of the novel and the ensuing arrest of this most glamorous couple are a perfect subject for historical fiction, not least because it reveals so much about James I’s court. His sexual relationship with Robert Carr is given a significant place here. Frances Carr’s position in the court is ambiguous and curious. So much is hidden by the threat of scandal but it certainly tantalises. Frances dominates the book in a way that James fails to dominate his court and government and it is up to the reader to make up their minds from the stories offered up by both Frances and her husband, Robert.
It’s in the second half of the novel that it takes on more of a psychological thriller feel and, possibly because of that, it’s the first half that’s my favourite for it’s then that Elizabeth Fremantle builds up a vivid painting of life in the early 17th century for the very wealthy and ambitious. The Howard family is outrageous and the little child Frances is very much their pawn. I really enjoyed the depiction of James I and his circle. James isn’t a character that we meet too often in historical fiction but he certainly makes for a fascinating subject and the author does such a fine job of animating a figure that I know mostly from portraits. Robert Carr left me comparatively cold. He is completely out of his depth in James I’s government and he flounders. His devotion to Frances, though, is undoubtedly intense. There are so many richly drawn, larger than life characters in The Poison Bed. I love the way that we flit between them.
Elizabeth Fremantle writes so well. This is sparkly, witty prose, dancing between characters, between past and present. The reader is rewarded for paying attention because it can be a challenge keeping up with some of the figures in the book, not to mention their moods. Personally, I think that the story behind The Poison Bed is intriguing enough (and in such safe hands here) that the psychological thriller element wasn’t needed but it may mean that a wider readership will discover the joys of Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical fiction.
I must mention the cover of this hardback – look how beautiful it is!
I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.