Author: Annie Dalton
Illustrator: Mark Elliot
Publishing Year: 2002
Setting: London, 1592
A lot has happened in the months since Isabel Campion turned twelve. Her older brother Robert, once a dear playmate of hers, now works as an apprentice in a shipyard, and will be sailing soon. Her older sister Sabine is engaged to be married, and will also be leaving. Her mother won't see Isabel have another birthday: she became ill after giving birth to Isabel's baby sister Hope (who is herself sickly) and languished for a few months before dying. Sabine, always more grown-up than her age, has been acting as the lady of the house, and strict Aunt Elinor is very vocal in her disappointment that Isabel isn't more of a proper lady. Isabel's father has been giving his daughter a lot of leeway, but lately has come to agree with his sister. When Isabel gets to know the new servant, a girl about her age named Meg, she finds an opportunity to see a play, as Meg's brother works in a theater, acting out small parts. They venture into working class London and make it back fine, but the outing is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Isabel had no business leaving the house unattended and going into a strange part of town, when she should have been helping keep house. Desperate to have his daughter shape up, Mr. Campion sends his daughter to stay with a widowed aunt. Late in the evening as they ride through on a forest road, Isabel and the servant accompanying her are attacked by robbers, and the servant is murdered. Isabel is left alone, with no horse or possessions aside from the clothes on her back. Thinking of the story her tutor let her read that featured a female protagonist, and after calling for help in vain, Isabel decides she needs to help herself. She climbs a tree to wait for daylight.
By fortunate coincidence, a troupe of actors comes by along the road later, and Meg's brother Kit is part of it. Kit is horrified to learn of the man's murder, and Kit points out that Isabel is lucky to have been left alive and unscathed. He credits the good-luck charm Meg gave her when Isabel was leaving. Kit suggests that Isabel come with the troupe until it gets to her aunt's village in three weeks, disguising herself as a boy for the meantime. Since seeing the play, Isabel has dreamed of acting (at the time, solely a man's profession, with boys or eunuchs using their higher voices to play women). Kit introduces Isabel to his fellow actors as her brother Robert, explaining that with "his" education "Robert" can read the scripts to help the actors practice their lines, and that "Robert's" aunt will reward the troupe handsomely for getting him safely to her home. Isabel will be playing the part of a boy twenty-four hours a day for three weeks. She's even able to fulfill her dream, filling in one night for a sick actor. But it's hard for her to be someone she's not, and she decides acting isn't the life for her. If only she could divine what she would be happy to spend her life doing.
When she finally reaches her Aunt de Vere's house, Isabel wonders if she'll find any insight there. Her aunt is a kind woman, and Isabel gets along well with her ward, Olivia, who is about the same age. Aunt de Vere took in the orphaned Olivia and treats her as her own (she lost five children born to her, shortly after birth). Isabel is surprised to see that Aunt de Vere is well respected for her medical knowledge, even by men. Isabel finds herself learning to be a nurse like her aunt, and also learning falconry. Her aunt encourages her to reach for her greatest potential, and Isabel thrives.
Then a letter arrives from Sabine in London. There is an outbreak of bubonic plague. Baby Hope is gravely ill, and Aunt Elinor says she has the plague. Sabine is pregnant and unable to risk contracting an illness. Isabel quickly goes to London, and find that while Hope is very sick, she lacks the tell-tale symptoms of the plague. Isabel and the maid Alice tend to Hope while Aunt Elinor rests (her nerves are beyond shot). Little by little, Hope improves, enough that Isabel is comfortable leaving the house on an errand. While out, she happens across Kit, who informs her that Meg tried to help a woman stricken with the plague. The woman's husband abandoned her and their children. But Meg and the children contracted the disease, and everyone left in the home died. Isabel can't understand why Hope, so frail as a young baby, could survive her mysterious illness while robust and energetic Meg was felled by another.
A few days later, Hope is fully recovered. Isabel's father returns home from a trading voyage, and when he learns all that has happened, he says Isabel should back to her Aunt de Vere--not as punishment, but to learn more about medicine. He promises to bring her siblings to visit frequently. Later, in a moment of quiet reflection, Isabel holds the good luck charm Meg gave her, marveling at the fact that her father has set her free to decide what to do with her own life.
Then and Now: A Girl's Life
During the Elizabethan era, England enjoyed peace and prosperity for the first time in a long time. With the luxury to turn to leisurely pursuits, creativity flourished, enriching art, music, literature, philosophy, and fashion. England's place in the international trading community helped fuel its creativity. While many people enjoyed a comfortable life, there was of course still a lower class, relegated to crowded slums. But even the lower classes were able to take time to experience culture, as Shakespearean plays were attended by all.
Dedicated to "my new granddaughter, Sophie Beatrice, who was born while this story was being written."
The author's note explains that Dalton has long been fascinated with the Elizabethan age and was thrilled to be able to write about it.
This book is set earlier than any other Girls of Many Lands, History Mystery, or historical character books to date (and of course earlier than any Girl of the Year). Shadows in the Glasshouse is the oldest History Mystery, set in 1621, and Meet Kaya is the oldest historical character book, set in 1764. The "youngest" books for Girls of Many Lands, History Mysteries, and the historical characters are Neela: Victory Song set in 1939, Circle of Fire set in 1958, and Lost in the City set in 1977.
St. Edmund Campion was martyred in England about a decade before this book is set. He came from a well-off family...perhaps a relative of Isabel?
On the way to her aunt's, Isabel stays at an inn. Because she has no female traveling companion and it's considered improper for her to sleep alone, she has to share a bed with the innkeeper's wife (who isn't exactly a paragon of neatness--Isabel wonders if she's ever trimmed her toenails in her life).
These books have first-person narration.