“Obviously if you’re married to someone when you’re 13 to someone who’s 14, there’s a strong likelihood you’re going to grow apart at some point, and it seems like at least a third of the nobles did that.” Novelist Lucy Jago discusses A Net for Small Fishes with host Alka Joshi on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Alka Joshi: Welcome, Lucy. Thank you so much for writing this fabulous novel. You’re talking about a sensational real life murder trial in 1615. Why was this so important for you to write?
Lucy Jago: I felt the women involved had not been given a fair trial, either at the time or in the four centuries since. They were misrepresented in the courts of the 17th century. It would now be considered a gross miscarriage of justice that they were convicted at all. There was no real evidence. And ever since, they have been portrayed as wicked women, villainous women. There’s never been a rounded, complex portrayal of these women. I just wanted to know more about them because I didn’t really believe what I was reading in the history books. I wanted to understand them better.
Joshi: How does a commoner like Anne Turner get to know somebody in the royalty like Francis, the wife of the Earl of Essex?
Jago: Anne Turner’s husband, George, was a member of a very prestigious medical society. He was a doctor and was allowed into court and was treating the nobility. In fact, Queen Elizabeth herself wrote a letter promoting him to the Royal College of Physicians because he was a Catholic. He could have been barred, but she said, “No, he’s a wonderful doctor. I love him. It’s okay to promote him,”. So he was moving in the court, but obviously, as a doctor, on the peripheries and it’s through that, I imagine, that Anne was introduced into court because she was very good with fashion.
Joshi: Anne is somebody who fashions ladies. What does that mean in the 17th century?
Jago: The word fashion in the 17th century has quite a different meaning to today. To fashion meant to make. If you were fashioning something, it meant sewing it or knitting it or carving it. And this is partly why she was seen as a bit of a witch at her trials, because she was fashioning the bodies of men and women with her clothing. What she both famously did was introduce yellow starch into the court. Before that, goose turd green had been very popular.. And she brought in this very glorious golden saffron color, which was highly controversial at the time. A very political statement that she is credited with introducing to the court.
Joshi: Frankie’s family wants her to produce an heir. That seems to be her main mission in life. Why is she not able to produce an heir?
Jago: Because her husband is unable to penetrate her. I mean, it says that quite clearly in the divorce proceedings and element proceedings. For some reason he was unable to fulfill his marriage vows. They were never properly married in the eyes of the church because of that.
Joshi: Frankie has eyes for somebody else, Robert Carr, who is actually a favorite of the king. Describe that scandalous relationship between the King and Robert Carr and between Robert Carr and Francis.
Jago: It was exceedingly scandalous because although he was married and had children, the King clearly had male favorites. It is largely accepted by most historians that these were sexual relationships he had with very beautiful young men. And this very beautiful young man, called Robert Carr, caught the eye of Francis Howard. She was married to the Earl of Essex, very unhappily, and wasn’t able to have a child. She was married probably at 13 or 15, we don’t quite know, but when she was around 20, she meets Robert Carr, falls in love, and wants to annul her marriage and marry him. He was probably also bisexual like the King. I know you don’t really expect this level of knowing about people’s private lives, but actually there is quite a lot of historical evidence around this.
Joshi: Your extensive research about court life in 17th century really shines through in this novel. What were some of the other strange or interesting or disturbing facts that you learned?
Jago: I did eight years of research so I did come across a lot. There’s a scene in the book of about a very famous brothel and really you couldn’t make it up. It was called Donna Orlandia’s Brothel and she did have all sorts of strange and wonderful and exotic things going on there. And the scene with the necromancer, when he’s talking to the spirits and angels and so on? Necromancy was a well-known activity and that character was a well-known doctor.
A rather amusing thing I found: the book opens in 1609 when the first shopping center was built in London, which was much earlier than I thought. It was two stories and there were lots of rules around it. One of the rules was that apprentices, who were working in the shops on the upper level, mustn’t urinate on the floor. Because the urine seeps through, into the shops below. With little details like that, suddenly you’re back in the 17th century!
Joshi: What about this whole idea that the Royals had to gamble in order to be part of the court?
Jago: This was pre-TV, pre-Netflix, pre-radio, so gambling was hugely popular. Partly I suppose it’s very absorbing and addictive, but also it was a way of showing off your wealth. So Cecil—Lord Cecil, who was an ally of Francis’s family—apparently lost 3000 pounds in one evening. This is a sum almost impossible to conceive for most people at the time. It was a way of showing your power and your wealth and your status.
Joshi: Anne Turner has a lover outside of her marriage. This is condoned by her husband, George, since he is impotent. Of her six children, three were conceived by her lover. Was this an acceptable thing in the 17th century?
Jago: I found that detail in George’s will. Anne’s husband,. In it, there is the bit about money being left in the will for the lover to buy Anne a gold ring, with the engraving “may fate unite the lovers”. It’s a historical document. So he obviously condones it enough to write that in a will.
Lawrence Stone, who’s a very well-known historian, estimates that a third of all the nobility were not living together. Most nobles had arranged marriages. Obviously, if you are married to someone when you’re 13 to someone who’s 14, there’s a strong likelihood you’re going to grow apart at some point. And it seems like a least of third of the nobility did that. There was a lot of what they called “bed swerving.” Once you produced your heir and ideally a spare, it was sort of accepted that you might wander off. Anne’s own mother was said to be the lover of Lord Cecil, who was a very powerful man at court. It was open knowledge.
Joshi: One of the things that is really remarkable about your book is the female perspective of what was happening in 1615 when women’s lives were governed by the judgment of others. Describe why it’s so important for you to give us that perspective.
Jago: Yes, it’s a complex issue. Because of course women’s lives were governed by the judgment of others on many levels and by the expectations of others. But at the same time, women were not all victims to this. They did find ways to get around the expectations. To try and create fulfillment in their lives and so on. I felt that Anne and Frankie not only had to negotiate that very difficult position at the time, but they had been subsequently used by history and treated like villainous women and used as icons. They hadn’t been properly examined as people. To me, it was very important to show how Frankie and Anne had managed to maneuver themselves through very prescribed 17th century society to create a life for themselves. And this is partly why they sparked such a huge scandal; they were challenging so many ideas around arranged marriages, patriarchy, women’s roles, which sparks this huge debate in contemporary Jacobean society, around women and their roles.
Joshi: Why do you think your novel is being compared to Thelma and Louise?
Jago: There’s that wonderful scene in Thelma and Louise where they’ve blown up the petrol tanker. And that horrible sexist bloke is chasing them down the motorway. In a way, that’s what Anne and Frankie do. They set off this enormous explosion, right at the heart of the court. They involve the King and his favorites and all the main ministers in this massive potential murder case. So they really did create an enormous scandal with letters being sent all over the known world about what they’d done and what did it mean? It spurred a lot of heart searching.
Joshi: What does the title A Net For Small Fishes mean?
Jago: The title is taken from words that were spoken by one of the people who was involved in the plot and who sadly came to a sticky end. And what it meant at the time is that the King’s justice system caught the little people, the poor, while the big fish swam away. The aristocrats get away with things that people who are not aristocrats can’t get away with. That’s what it meant at the time. But for me, it also meant this net of social expectation and judgment and so on, that we are all caught in, even now. Even the King was caught in a net because he couldn’t freely express his sexuality. So from the highest to the lowest, we are caught in these nets that we have to try and negotiate our way through in life. I suppose the title was trying to have a wider meaning as well, a wider significance.
Joshi: What do you hope readers will take away from A Net For Small Fishes?
Jago: Well, I hope they find it entertaining. I mean, at these times when we need a bit of entertainment., there’s something incredibly satisfying about a good historical novel, where you are entertained, but you also feel that you really understand a different period. It’s almost like going on holiday. You’ve been able to go to somewhere very different and come back quite enriched by that experience. I hope I’m adding to our knowledge of women in history. I feel women have been very much painted out. Women, if they’re talked about at all in historical books, are often sidelined or stereotyped. I suppose this is my effort to try and make some small dent in that.
Joshi: I know that you are a huge fan of Hillary Mantel and you feel that she brought to life the literary historical fiction of female perspectives and what was really happening in court life. Other than reading Hillary Mantel, how do you like to spend your free time?
Jago: I do read a lot in my free time and not only historical novels. I read very widely, but I have three children. So I spend quite a lot of time looking after them. They have quite a lot of pets so I spend a lot of time walking around the countryside with dogs. And we now have a cat. I love going to the movies. And I love chatting to my writer friends because we sit there trying to work out all the difficulties we’re having as we are writing.
Joshi: You were a BBC producer. How did that impact your writing and talking about your work?
Jago: I do think having done that has made me write in a very visual sense. The book has been sold to a film company and I’ve said they can only do it as long as I get to prance around in the background at some point. I write in a very visual way. I studied art history at university. And I think making films, it’s all about how you can tell a message or portray something visually. When I’m writing, I obviously care a lot about the words, but I also care about the pictures that I’m creating in people’s heads.
I think almost everything in the book, from the smallest detail really, comes from research. I haven’t really been fantastical about anything in the book. There’s a lot known through the state trials. When they were on trial, it was all written down. Trials at the time were almost like plays. You would walk into Westminster Hall. There were banks of seats where people could watch. The judge was also the prosecutor and was telling a jolly good story and getting the audience on his side. The recorded proceeding is very good for language. It’s very good for descriptions of the characters. It’s very good for atmosphere.
Virtually everything in the book does come from my research—although obviously it is a fictional book. I feel a lot of history is quite fictional. You have a lot of facts, but historians string those facts together and help them make sense for us through their own interpretation and their own storytelling around those facts. I think quite a lot of historical writers like Penelope Fitzgerald, Hillary Mantel, all agree that history and accurate historical fiction are not so very far apart. I suppose that is what I was trying to do in my book: bring to life a period of history. But as accurately as I possibly could, because I find that more interesting than sort of going off into fantasy.
Joshi: Thank you, Lucy Jago for joining us today for A Word On Words. I’m Alka Joshi. Keep reading!
Lucy Jago Recommends
A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
Independent People, by Halldór Laxness
Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys