With a title like The Lost Duchess and an opening chapter set at the court of Elizabeth I, describing an encounter between one of the Queen’s ladies and Lord Hertford, you may think this sounds like just another Elizabethan court romance – but you would be mistaken. With the arrival of Sir Francis Drake bringing stories of his adventures in the New World comes the first hint of what this book is actually about. And when Emme Fifield, the lady who had that confrontation with Hertford, decides to join Governor John White’s expedition to establish a new colony at Chesapeake, it becomes clear that The Lost Duchess is going to be something fresh and different.
Emme is desperate to leave England and sail to the New World so that she can avoid the disgrace she knows she will face when her involvement with Lord Hertford is made public. In order to convince the Queen to let her go, she promises to return with reports on the colonies for Elizabeth and her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, but Emme’s real intention is to stay in Chesapeake and build a new life there…especially when she begins to fall in love with one of her fellow travellers, the mariner Kit Doonan. But while Emme is trying to keep the truth about her past hidden from Kit, we learn that Kit also has some secrets of his own.
Emme and Kit are great characters and I enjoyed getting to know both of them, but the aspect of this book that I found the most interesting was the fate of the lost colony of Roanoke – the English settlement established by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s before being abandoned with no trace of the colonists. The explanation for the colony’s disappearance is still a mystery today, but Jenny Barden suggests one possible theory which I thought was very convincing. And if you’re wondering why all of this is significant to the story told in The Lost Duchess, although the ship on which Kit and Emme set out from England is originally heading for Chesapeake, Roanoke is where they end up.
The voyage itself provides lots of exciting action as Emme and the other colonists face dangerous seas and the loss of their supplies, while finding themselves at the mercy of their Portuguese navigator, Simon Ferdinando, who may or may not be trying to betray them. Life becomes no easier when they land at Roanoke – poisonous fruit being one hazard and conflicts with the native people another. Having befriended Chief Manteo of the Croatoans, the settlers are hopeful that they can negotiate with the Native Americans but it seems that things have happened in the past which will make it difficult for them to live peacefully alongside each other.
Roanoke and its mysteries is a fascinating, unusual setting and I’m sure you’ll agree that it makes a change from the majority of Tudor/Elizabethan novels which tend to focus on royalty and life at court. Jenny Barden’s previous novel, Mistress of the Sea, sounds wonderful too and is linked with this one through the character of Kit Doonan’s brother, Will. I’m looking forward to reading it.
I read The Lost Duchess as part of a blog tour. For more reviews, interviews and giveaways please see the tour schedule at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.