Author: Jennifer McGowan
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Maid of Secrets is the story of Meg Fellowes, a 17-year street thief who makes a living by lightening people’s pockets. Part of the Golden Rose acting troupe founded by her grandfather, Meg’s fortunes change dramatically when she is chosen to be one of five maids to spy for Queen Elizabeth.
Meg is caught and taken to Windsor Castle, where she expects to be punished. Instead, she is inducted into an elite group of five maids who will serve as the Queen’s ‘eyes and ears.’ She is to be the Queen’s property, utensils she can bend and shape as she wishes or throw into the trash heap without a backward glance.
Should she refuse this assignment, the members of her acting troupe will be hunted down and tortured, while she would be imprisoned for life.
While the adventure sounds exciting, poor Meg has to make do with tedious attempts to translate and study texts in Latin, French, Dutch and Spanish, besides politics, social graces, observation skills and poisons, manners and food, dancing and elocution, language and court behaviour and how to kill or maim without creasing our skirts. All this under the tutelage of Sir William Cecil, who does nothing to hide his disdain for her.
The other four maids are Anna Burgher, Sophia Dee, Beatrice Knowles, and Jane Morgan, who Meg nicknames the Scholar, the Seer, the Belle and the Blade respectively. She herself is named Rat by the others, on account of the task she is enjoined with, ferreting out secrets and reporting them to the Queen.
While Anna and Sophia treat her with kindness and Jane tolerates her, Beatrice does nothing to hide her contempt of Meg, of the fact that is unlettered, and her humble background.
Meg herself cares nothing for literacy skills, but she does want to learn to read well enough to decipher the contents of a book that her grandfather gave her on his deathbed. The book and a set of golden picklocks are his legacy to her.
The queen assigns her to spy upon the newest member of the Spanish delegation, Rafe Luis Medina, the Count de Martine, who she suspects of being an agent of King Philip of Spain. King Philip was married to Elizabeth’s late half-sister, Mary, and Elizabeth suspects him of causing disruptions at the court in an attempt to prove her unfit to rule. She asks Meg to find out who is causing the disturbances and brutal attacks. It is a top secret mission and Meg must trust no one.
Meanwhile, Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, urge Meg to spy on the queen herself. Meg is torn between fulfilling her duty to the Queen and following their orders, knowing that she and her troupe will be punished if she doesn’t.
Intrigue is rife and everyone has secrets and is playing games, manipulating situations for their own ends. The danger is very real, Meg realizes, when she comes to know that she has been brought in as a replacement for Marie Claire, a spy who was brutally murdered for her pains. Marie’s ears and tongue had been cut off and her eyes hollowed out of their sockets.
It’s all overwhelming for Meg, and the situation gets even more complicated when the Count turns out to be astonishingly handsome and charming. Isn’t her assignment hard enough without having to guard her heart?
Unfortunately Meg has no idea who is a friend and who a foe. She has to follow conflicting orders while ensuring that she doesn’t meet Marie’s fate. And it all comes to a head when the Queen announces the masked ball when there will be Sworn enemies.
And every one of them in disguise.
God save the Queen.
Written in the first person of Meg, the story is an engaging one that sweeps you off your feet, straight into the London of April 1559, shortly after the coronation of Elizabeth as Queen. The voice is friendly, winging her way into our confidence and goodwill.
Meg is an interesting character, intelligent and witty. I wouldn’t say her voice is distinctive, but she manages to meet adventure and danger head-on without simpering in the manner of other heroines of the time. And that is an achievement.
I liked the fact that marriage wasn’t the end-all of her existence, as well as her sense of loyalty to her troupe and her secret skills. These include her light-fingeredness and the ability to repeat verbatim anything she has heard once, down to inflection, no matter what the language. I also appreciated the fact that she fell into the deep end and learned to swim.
The author conjures up the London of the time, the sounds and smells of the streets, the rotting fish carcasses pooled in narrow ditches, the foul-smelling passages, that one knows from the works of Charles Dickens.
She also does a fine job of making the milieu come alive. It is a time when men have all the rights, and a married woman is at best a prize goat or a sturdy cow. She also excels in her descriptions of the outrageously flamboyant and slightly ridiculous costumes of the era.
I appreciated this book for the strength of the women in it. Elizabeth says she does not need a husband. She says The people need only a strong monarch to rule them, not a male one. And I need no one but myself to rule. It is a reminder that strong women have always stood up for themselves. Yet again, Elizabeth says, All men are a threat to women…no matter if she is maid or monarch…Especially those men we most want to trust.
Above all, kudos to the author for keeping the excitement burning throughout the story. The nervous tension, the danger all felt real. The Trenchmore dance where Meg steals the letters from Rafe’s pockets and has to return them to his pockets before the dance ends was a moment when I had my heart in my mouth.
I found myself getting caught in the excitement of it all. I also liked the fact that the romance here was not intrusive, and did not ever supersede the intrigue and the adventure. In this book, set within the genre of historical fiction, the romance was not without its charm.
With a sound knowledge of the Elizabethan era and its history, and a feisty and independent minded heroine to recommend it, Maid of Secrets is a book that deserves to be read.