Michael Joseph | 2020 (6 August) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1628 and sisters Hester, Melis and Hope must run and hide, taking with them Hester’s young son Rafe. Twelve years before Hester was raped by George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham and the favourite of James I. Rafe was the result and now Villiers wants the child, to do with nobody knows. The sisters hide at the country house of friends but they stand out – Melis is connected to nature in an intimate way, she has visions and feels an affinity with bees (as you’d expect – Melissa is Greek for bee*). She attracts suspicion. Hope is a young beauty. She attracts attention. Hester, meanwhile, must keep her son safe and hold her family together, supported by a soldier who has been sent by a relative to guard them. But this man is not who he says he is.
I am such a fan of this author’s historical fiction, whether writing as E.C. Fremantle or as Elizabeth Fremantle, and so a new novel is always a treat. I love her depiction of women of the past and their experiences in a society that is often unkind and unjust. This time the women are fictional characters but the man they have to deal with is not and George Villiers was an infamously nasty and corrupt man. His fate is well chronicled, which does reveal a little of what happens here, but I won’t make any mention of that in the review. But Villiers makes a perfect villain, although much of the menace here is provided not by him (who is largely absent) but by his henchman, Felton, a soldier whose mission is to kill the sisters and steal the boy. He is sinister and menacing and strange.
The sisters are wonderfully portrayed, especially Hester and Melis. Melis is an unusual girl and I love how she is depicted. Hester, though, is my favourite and it’s fitting that much of the novel is told in her own words, bringing us closer to her and her determination to keep her son safe. Hope is not a sensible girl and I couldn’t help becoming annoyed with her! The mystery in all this is Rafe, a character who only emerges gradually, to powerful effect. I think we need more of Rafe.
The Honey and the Sting is a beautifully written historical novel set at a time that I’m really interested in, during the days of the debauched, profligate and unpleasant Stuarts. The novel explores the effects of this society on those who are vulnerable, the women and the children, the beautiful and the innocent. Villiers exemplifies all that is rotten with the court, whereas through the sisters, especially Melis, we witness the purity of nature. It’s very well done. I’m keen to know where and when and to whom this author will take us next!
*Thanks to my Dad for the Greek reference!