The exploration of New World lands – and the profits gained thereby, especially at the expense of the Spanish – contributed to the glory of the Elizabethan Golden Age. Despite this, the novel’s subject isn’t one that most aficionados of Tudor fiction will be familiar with, and its originality is all to the good. If you’re a reader who thirsts for adventure, wouldn’t you prefer to travel somewhere you’ve never been?
While the backdrop is historically based, the main characters of Mistress of the Sea are fictional. Their story pivots upon a “what if” premise: Suppose a young woman took part in Drake’s voyage to Panama. What would her motives have been, and what would her experience have been like? What price would she pay for her impulsive act?
Ellyn Cooksley, daughter of a wealthy Plymouth merchant in 1570, loves her irascible father but can’t see marrying either of the boorish suitors he tries to pair her with. Master Cooksley agrees to finance Drake and his privateers, but when he insists on joining them, Ellyn worries about his poor health. To help care for him, she stows away aboard Drake's ship, the Swan, in the garb of a cabin boy.
If you anticipated a feminist scenario in which Ellyn successfully maintains her disguise and becomes an accepted member of their daring crew, you’d be much mistaken. While the men admire her beauty and respect her as their backer’s daughter, Ellyn is clearly a liability. In particular, Will Doonan, a master caulker and her family’s handsome lodger, feels let down by her presence. Will had dreamed of making his fortune and possibly winning Ellyn when he returned from sea, but now he starts questioning her judgment.
Although he has sworn to support Drake, who is depicted as merciless in seeing their mission fulfilled, Will also has a more private reason for signing on. His brother Kit was captured by Spaniards on a previous Caribbean voyage, and Will means to avenge his loss. He has tough calls to make, since protecting Ellyn will pull him away from their plan.
The prose has a calm confidence, balancing scenes of perilous escapades with others of thoughtful reflection while propelling readers smoothly through the exotic West Indies. The viewpoint switches from brave Ellyn, who is left behind with her ill father on a Caribbean island, to Will and Kit and then back again; this ensures a varied perspective while driving the story forward.
Will and Ellyn’s tender love story is no less passionate for its being chaste. They also endure long periods of separation, but their growing bond is anchored in the spirit of the age. One gets a sense of the vastness of the world, as the Elizabethans would have perceived it, and the mysterious forces that nonetheless tie these lovers to one another. Their dialogue has a gentle Shakespearean lilt, and given the novel’s strong historical sense, exclamations like “What ho!” and “Go to!” and “Fie!” come out sounding natural.
With its feminine spin, Mistress of the Sea invigorates a genre too often focused solely on brawny male exploits, but there’s plenty to satisfy fans of seafaring action, too. (And if you can’t distinguish a pinnace from a shallop, carrack, or caravel by the time you’re done, even with all the context provided, get thee to the glossary at the end of the book.) Whether you sign up for this journey in search of romance, high-stakes adventure, or just engaging entertainment, there’s something for most everyone here.
Mistress of the Sea was published by Ebury/Random House UK in August at £14.99 (hardcover, 408pp). The author is a fellow member of the Historical Novel Society, whose recent London conference she coordinated (and ran flawlessly) – and where she gave a great presentation on how her book found a mainstream publisher. Her website is www.jennybarden.com.