The Honey and the Sting, by EC Fremantle

The bond between three sisters is put to the test.
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In this lyrically written, highly anticipated novel, E C Fremantle cements her place as one of Britain’s foremost writers of historical fiction. She is to be especially commended for her exploration of periods which are not well covered (her Jacobean The Poison Bed was an instant classic). Here, she treats us to the tense years which followed the death of James I.

Those who have heard of George Villiers, the notorious duke of Buckingham, likely know him as the lover whom King James advanced seemingly beyond his worth and talent. Less well known is that Villiers maintained his influence into the reign of Charles I, having won over the young king during James’ reign. In this wonderfully spooky and gripping novel, we meet the duke during the early Caroline era – and his downfall forms a central part of the story.

Essentially, Fremantle has composed (and I use the word advisedly) a masterful Hitchcockian thriller – a psychological game of cat-and-mouse which involves three sisters: the sensible Hester, Cassandran Melis, and winsome Hope, all of whom are seeking to evade an agent of Villiers, Lieutenant Felton, by hiding in a secluded old mansion. We are treated to the perspective of all four characters, pursued and pursuer, and thus thoroughly explore the interior worlds of each very different personality. Gradually, we see the women and their male pursuer broken down, figuratively and metaphorically, their broken arms, bitten nails, and increasingly degraded clothing allowing us to glimpse the motivations and beliefs which undercut the faces they each show to the world.

Thematically, the novel is rewarding in that it explores love (romantic and filial), loss, obsession, and fear. The distinct personalities of the sisters, especially, provide a powerful meditation on family responsibilities (Hester, for example, appears to expect the absolute loyalty of her sisters, rarely questioning their right to their own lives). There are very deliberate Gothic elements present throughout (most obviously in the ‘crumbling house as metaphor’) which work superbly in developing the understated supernatural undercurrent. This wide thematic palette and usage of various genres has the effect of freeing the novel from its setting and genre; The Honey and the Sting becomes not simply a Caroline-era historical novel but a timeless one, with elements of Victorian Gothic, spy thriller, political thriller, and supernatural horror. The old clock in the house is well placed indeed.