Thursday, January 02, 2014

Book review: The Lost Duchess, by Jenny Barden

Jenny Barden’s second book, a stand-alone sequel to her Mistress of the Sea, moves smoothly from Old World court etiquette to New World exploits. There are comparatively few novels that imagine the Elizabethan Golden Age from the perspective of its explorers, and even fewer about the lost Roanoke colonists, so The Lost Duchess deserves a warm welcome for those reasons alone.

Its heroine is an appealingly spirited young woman with a strong heart for adventure, and other highlights include the many beautiful descriptions of Virginia, a land of glorious, unspoiled wilderness and life-threatening perils.

For lady-in-waiting Emme Fifield, a baron’s daughter, joining the expedition to form the first permanent English colony in America solves many problems. She’ll avoid the damaging repercussions of a scandal not of her making while escaping her rigid life in London and satisfying her yearning for freedom.

Emme promises to come home on the Lion’s return voyage and provide intelligence on the expedition to Queen Elizabeth and Francis Walsingham.  To keep her plans secret, she’s advised to take a new name and travel as the maidservant of Eleanor Dare, daughter of colony governor John White.  However, she has every intention of remaining in Virginia. Meanwhile, complicating her life is her growing attraction to master boatswain Kit Doonan, who has a complicated past of his own – and personal reasons for wanting to sail to Roanoke.

Readers get to experience every aspect of Emme and Kit’s journey alongside them: the dangerous lurches of the ship during storms at sea, the pride of the “planters” in their newly constructed City of Raleigh, and the pair’s tender romance, a selfless love that serves to make them both stronger. The colonists’ relations with the Indians are presented with complexity, from the Secotans’ hostility to English incursion – which, it has to be said, isn’t unjustified – to the heroic efforts of Manteo, the settlers’ Croatan ally, to preserve the peace. Emme comes to play a greater role in the colony’s planning than one would expect of an unmarried female servant, but many of its leaders either know or suspect that she’s more than she seems.

Mysteries surrounding the colony’s past, present, and future create an underlying sense of unease that heightens as the answers come to light. What tragedies befell the previous Roanoke settlement, and why? What reasons lie behind pilot Simon Ferdinando’s navigational choices? And since readers will know the new colony is doomed, how will Emme and Kit’s story end?

The language has an authentic period flavor without feeling fusty, and The Lost Duchess movingly expresses the sense of exhilaration and amazement felt by Emme at the natural beauty of Roanoke Island: “How to marvel at wonders without name? She could only relish through her senses like a child before mastering language: enjoying the sight of a bird like a flame in the trees, a vivid flash of vermilion; see gourds like luscious melons, and flowers taller than she was with heads of radiant suns…”

Moreover, it also captures the distress she and Kit feel at the wrenching decisions they and the others are forced to make, and at the realization that there’s an unavoidable price to be paid for their daring venture. It’s a well-rounded portrait in that respect, and Emme and Kit, both of whom are fictional characters, fit comfortably into known events. They both make for good companions on this exciting journey to the New World.

The Lost Duchess was published by Ebury/Random House UK in hardback (£16.99) and trade pb (export edition, £12.99) in November (432pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.  Unfortunately there's no US publisher as yet, though it's available at Amazon UK and at Book Depository via ABE.


  1. I have her first book which I picked up at HNS Conference this summer, haven't read it yet, but the premise of both books is fascinating.

    1. It's too bad there aren't more authors writing about this eventful period of history. I like the fact that they're adventure novels seen at least partly from a woman's viewpoint, too.

  2. Anonymous11:25 AM

    If The Lost Duchess is anything like Jenny Barden's Mistress of the Sea, we're in for a great story. Sounds like you enjoyed it, Sarah.