A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago review – bravura historical debut

Justine Jordan
·4 min read

Lucy Jago is an award-winning biographer whose richly imagined adult fiction debut is based around a scandal that rocked the Jacobean court. The poet and courtier Thomas Overbury was already in the Tower of London when he died, apparently of natural causes, in 1613; two years later, accusations that he’d been poisoned reached King James, and suspicion settled on the king’s favourite – and Overbury’s close friend – Robert Carr, now Earl of Somerset, and his wife Frances Howard. Frances’s companion Anne Turner, a doctor’s widow, was also implicated; she was Frances’s dresser and fixer, obtainer of both love potions and poisons, and much more vulnerable than the aristocratic Somersets to ruin and social censure. Justice, then as now, is the net for small fishes: “the great ones swim away”.

Tried as “a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon and a murderer”, Anne, who has appeared in fiction before, is a fascinating figure, and Jago makes her a brilliantly engaging narrator. A woman whose family has slid down the social scale but who is fighting valiantly to rise, through her flair for fashion and patent on saffron dye for yellow ruffs, she has a fond older husband who tolerates her lover, the father of her youngest three children. Frances is only a teenager when the two women meet, unhappily wedded to the teenage Earl of Essex, who whips her when he cannot consummate the marriage. In the bravura opening scenes, Anne dresses the weeping Frances for a court appearance, hoping that by making her splendid enough to inspire general respect she can fortify her against her husband’s assaults. Clothes are a woman’s armour; she may not speak out to assert her dignity and courage, so it falls to her dresser to “display these qualities on her body”. Tipped into high heels, feathers pinned on top of her hair, Frances can literally walk tall before the king.

Anne Turner.
Anne Turner. Photograph: Alamy


Jago is excellent on clothes: the “glittering husks of power” that once belonged to Elizabeth, now waiting for the new queen to step into them; the “gold and silver constructions” that make the power-grabbing Howards seem “larger and, were it not a sin to say it, somewhat divine”. Throughout the novel, surface detail is deftly handled to convey deeper anxieties and shifts in attitude. An era when rationalists believe in magic, this is also a time of uneasy change, with society worrying about a blurring of gender roles. “Womanish beauty” is fashionable in men, as the foreign king dotes on his male favourites, while women wear men’s doublets and feathers. At court, one character is “keen to prove himself modern by not taking fright at a woman speaking in public”. Frances, in her determination to escape her marriage and shape her own romantic destiny, is at the vanguard of modernity, even as her relatives follow the traditional route of placing her as the mistress of a powerful man.

Frances’s love object and eventual husband, Robert Carr, is rather sketchily drawn, as is the stumbling block to their intimacy Thomas Overbury, who fawns on Robert while writing dangerously insulting verses about Frances’s honour. This is partly a structural issue: we are firmly inside Anne’s consciousness, and she has no narrative access to the men except through encounters with Frances. The “secretest love” that both Overbury and the king bear for Robert is merely hinted at in passing, but a well-placed historical letter from James I conveys his shocking strength of feeling.

Jago keenly conveys the peril of being a woman in the 17th century – how rapidly one could fall through male whim

Ultimately, though, this is the story of a female friendship that transgressed moral and social norms in a misogynist society. Anne’s account of their relationship nicely balances self-interest with sincerity; Frances looks like her route to advancement, until the gossip gathering around the aristocratic lovers threatens her own more modest hopes of romantic happiness. “You live above your station,” says the family retainer who hopes to advance his by marrying Anne. “She is a dangerous friend.” Jago keenly conveys the peril of being a woman of any class in the 17th century – how rapidly one could fall from “the ladder on which we all perched” through bereavement, bad luck or male whim.

Like all the best historical fiction, A Net for Small Fishes is a gloriously immersive escape from present times, but it’s not escapism: the outrage with which Anne is told at her trial that “you have acted of and for yourself, which is itself against the proper bounds of womanhood” is a sentiment that echoes down the centuries. Shrewd yet impetuous, entirely without self-pity, Anne remains a lively companion for the modern reader throughout; her tragedy, Jago suggests, is that she was too good a companion to Frances.

A Net for Small Fishes is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.