'You like to hear of the world, don't you? To learn who's doing what and why. For a young maiden you have a lively curiosity.'
Only a few pages into this novel, the above lines are used to describe Emme Fifield, and we know immediately that she desires more from her life, beyond the realms of her role as lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, she wonders about the world that Sir Francis Drake and those who travel with him see; 'To think of such places!' she imagines, as she speaks with Lord Hertford in the opening chapter, discussing the imminent arrival of Sir Francis. Her moments spent with Lord Hertford will however take a turn for the worst and in fact increase her need to leave life at court, escaping a scandal that could ruin her.
She joins the expedition to the New World to Sir Walter Raleigh's Virginia, to found a permanent English settlement at Roanoke, travelling under another name and assuming a role beneath her previous status, with the promise to return and report back what she learns about the place to Queen Elizabeth and Sir Francis Walsingham, her chief intelligencer. However, Emme in fact intends to stay in the new colony and never return to England again, hoping the scandalous incident with Lord Hertford can thereby remain buried in the past.
She meets Kit Doonan, a mariner with Sir Francis Drake, whilst still in England, and her attraction to Kit is immediate and strong, and it is reciprocated by him. As Emme learns of the frightening experiences he has endured, being held hostage, taken prisoner, and set to work as a slave before being freed and finding his way home, her admiration for him grows:
'What must the mariner have been through: imprisoned, enslaved, outcast and then rescued as if brought back from the dead? What had he been through since? She watched him wipe the water from his mouth with the back of his hand, and pictured him in a prison cell, and then in a wilderness, and next on a rolling deck in the thick of a storm. He would have been graceful wherever he was, she decided; he did not need to drink from crystal to look like a gentleman.'
The attraction and will-they won't-they kind of tension between the pair of them simmers wonderfully before it becomes a great love, and Kit is a dashing, courageous and handsome hero to Emme's 'quick witted and stout-hearted' adventurous lady. I found both the main characters engaging. Kit is not without his own secrets, his own reasons why he so strongly wants to be part of the expedition to Virginia and to help form Governor John White's City of Raleigh, and he struggles inwardly about if and when to reveal them, and to what cost.
I loved reading this well-plotted story from start to finish, and I particularly loved the time once the settlers had arrived in what was to be their new home, and the encounters and tribulations they faced there. Jenny Barden writes wonderfully in her reimagining of what might have happened to them, and to Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement at Roanoke. The historical detail is strong and is evidence of her interest and passion for this period and these events; the author's research into this episode in history makes for an absorbing, convincing vivid depiction of the characters, the details of life at sea, the tribes, the locations. I liked the inclusion of extracts from authentic records by real figures named in the story such as John White, Ralph Lane and others at the start of the chapters.
She has combined a great cast of characters with plenty of action and tension to create an intelligent and informative read that I really enjoyed and also found absolutely fascinating. It's not an area I knew very much about at all, and it's inspired me to find out more about it. How wonderful to know for example that John White's granddaughter, Virginia Dare, whose birth I read about in the novel, really was the first English child born in North America, and to ponder the true mystery as to what happened to the colonists; it's intriguing. I loved reading the author's note at the end of the novel, and I was glad of the inclusion of the map at the beginning too, I referred to this several times as I read and enjoyed being able to do this.
The Lost Duchess begins as a novel set in the Elizabethan court, but it quickly becomes so much more; it's a marvellous historical novel of love, adventure and exploration, with excitement, danger and suspense; there is so much to enjoy in this novel, a compelling blend of fiction and fact. Emme declares: 'I want to be part of the brave adventure.' Reading The Lost Duchess was an escape, I set sail and immersed myself in a grand and momentous adventure, one I'd heartily recommend!