This reading group guide for All the Queen’s Players includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jane Feather. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Rosamund Walsingham is not your average sixteenth-century lady. Plucked from her simple country home by her conniving cousin, the secretary of state Sir Francis Walsingham, Rosamund is sent to London to spy on Queen Elizabeth’s court. Francis asks her to gather information by keeping a sketchbook and diary of everything she observes and overhears in the queen’s private chambers. Her work at the court leads to an unexpected romance with a young playwright and courtier, Will Creighton. In the throes of romance, Rosamund’s affair is discovered, and she is banished from Elizabeth’s court, but Francis believes Rosamund can be of use to his cause of entrapping Mary, Queen of Scots, who is suspected of planning a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth and overtake the throne. But distance cannot shake Rosamund’s feelings for Will, and serving Queen Mary teaches Rosamund what it means to be loyal and selfless even in the face of ruthlessness.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe says, “The world is not a pretty place. Why should anyone, man or woman, have to pretend that it is?” (p. 10). Rosamund learns this lesson early on in the story as she is forced from her quiet country life into the tough world of courtly existence. Was there a singular event you see as the moment of Rosamund’s realization that this world is not an easy place—even in the seemingly perfect world of the queen’s court? Who do you feel is most responsible for Rosamund’s worldly education, and why?
2. Discuss Rosamund’s connection with the theatre. What does it represent for her? The theatre is the setting where Will and Rosamund first fall in love, but without the theatre Rosamund would not have been caught in her affair with Will. Do you see the theatre more as escape or as entrapment for Rosamund?
3. What significance can you glean from the title All the Queen’s Players? Who, in your opinion, were the most prominent of the queen’s players? Would the title All the Secretary’s Players also work? Who do you think had more control of the court—Elizabeth or Francis?
4. Rosamund successfully escapes from the palace disguised as a page by faking a stomach illness. She muses, “It hadn’t occurred to anyone that a maid of honor would willingly forgo the delight of a trip on the river to Greenwich” (191). Do you consider Rosamund an anti–maid of honor? Do you think Rosamund considers herself different from the other ladies at court? To what extent?
5. How do Thomas and Kit factor into the story? Do you view them as minor characters or necessary to the integrity of the story? How much or how little do you think Thomas and Kit aided in Rosamund’s discovery of love? Of happiness? Of survival?
6. The story opens with the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. Knowing that Mary is to die all along, are you more sympathetic to her plight? Consider the structure of the novel in your response.
7. Is Agathe a mentor to Rosamund? To what extent is she a positive influence? To what extent is she a negative influence? Do you think Rosamund would have fallen for Arnaud without Agathe’s persuasion?
8. The struggle for power is a central theme in the novel. On page 106, Sir Francis advises Rosamund that “this world . . . runs on favors given and received. Remember that.” Sir Francis uses an elaborate system of favors and threats as the means of maintaining his own considerable sphere of influence at court and beyond. Kit’s play is likewise about this very struggle for power, something he believes that every man desires. Think of other examples of power struggles in the novel. Consider Thomas, Kit, Sir Francis, Elizabeth, Mary, Agathe, Arnaud, Frizer, Will, and Rosamund in your response, and how each of them struggles for their own version of power.
9. After Mary’s cohorts’ executions, Rosamund tells Lady Walsingham she “needed to make sense of the horror” (327) by drawing the scene. Consider the ways in which drawing helps Rosamund understand the meaning of life. Is drawing a means of freedom for Rosamund? Does drawing also hinder Rosamund’s freedom?
10. Discuss the significance of Rosamund losing her virginity in boys’ clothing (200). Was her new “identity” as Pip responsible for her newfound freedom or not? Agathe tells Rosamund that independence is the secret to happiness (145). Is Rosamund able to be free—and therefore happy—dressed as Pip?
11. In All the Queen’s Players, as in the theatre, appearances are never what they seem. For example, when Queen Mary’s wig falls off in the first scene of the book, Rosamund is stunned to see that Mary’s hair is short and gray underneath her gorgeous red wig. Think of other examples where things are not what they seem in the story. How does Jane Feather use this idea throughout the novel? For what purpose do you think the author uses theatrical devices? Is she successful?
12. Do you think Rosamund grew to care for Queen Mary, even love her? What did Mary teach Rosamund? Turn to page 303–04 and discuss.
Activities to Enhance Your Book Club
1. Christopher Marlowe was a famous playwright and poet. He is considered one of the most important writers of the sixteenth century. Have each member of your book club pick up a copy of Marlowe’s complete plays (Penguin, 2003) or poems (Penguin, 2007). Choose a poem or part of a play featured in the book and discuss. Can you find traces of Kit’s character in the play or poem?
2. Queen Elizabeth’s England is a popular topic in contemporary film. Rent Elizabeth—The Golden Age (2008), Elizabeth (2007), or Mary, Queen of Scots (2007) with your group and discuss the costumes and period diction. How are these depictions of Elizabethan life different from or similar to the world portrayed in All the Queen’s Players?
3. All the Queen’s Players explores some of the most interesting and provocative aspects of courtly life. Host a luncheon that Rosamund and the other maids of honors might have enjoyed. Have each member of your group research and make a recipe popular in sixteenth-century England. Over lunch, discuss the best and worst aspects of life in the queen’s court.
4. Will and Rosamund’s love shares many similarities with Romeo and Juliet. Go to a production of this famous love story if one is being performed near your town, or pick up a copy of the play or movie. Revisit the famous scenes, and compare and contrast with Will and Rosamund’s story.
A Conversation with Jane Feather
Q. You’ve written many historical romance novels. How did your experience writing those books impact your writing process on All the Queen’s Players?
A. I’ve always enjoyed the historical research involved, and this book, with its emphasis more on the history than on pure romance, offered more opportunity for in-depth research. I’ve always liked to have actual historical figures on the periphery of my novels, but with this one it was possible to make them central to the action and plot development. It was a wonderfully rich experience.
Q. Rosamund is quite a dynamic young lady. Was her character inspired by anyone in history? By anyone in real life?
A. I’ve always enjoyed creating women characters who stand out against the conventional lives expected of them in any particular historical period. Throughout history there are always real-life examples of strong, dynamic, and unconventional women to be found, and of course, during this period, Queen Elizabeth herself was the perfect example: a highly educated woman who ruled men, kept her country safe through some of its most turbulent times, practiced the most devious diplomacy, and avoided marriage because it would reduce her to the role of a mere consort rather than a most powerful sovereign.
Q. Describe the research you had to do in order to correctly represent real-life characters such as Queen Elizabeth and Christopher Marlowe. Were there any interesting stories you came across about your characters that did not make it into the novel?
A. I was initially surprised at the number of scholarly books available about Marlowe’s life and work, as I had thought very little was known about him apart from his writing. But dedicated scholars have pieced together a wonderful picture using scraps of information, including something as esoteric as his buttery accounts at Corpus Christi to support the theory of his activities with Sir Francis Walsingham. There is, of course, copious material available on Queen Elizabeth. I would have loved to incorporate more of the devious world of Walsingham’s secret service and the detailed speculation about Marlowe’s part in it. It reads like a detective story, and his death remains one of the great historical mysteries. Was his murder ordered by Essex? Was it ordered by Sir Francis Drake? Was someone trying to protect his own secrets? All of these are theories offered in explanation, and of course, there’s the other little story about how Marlowe’s death was faked, and he went on to live and write Shakespeare’s plays.
Q. Who is your favorite character in the story and why? Do you relate particularly to any of the characters?
A. Kit Marlowe is my favorite, without question: an Elizabethan “roaring boy” whose extraordinary genius somehow blossomed despite his reckless, hot-tempered character. He killed at least one man in his short career, spent some time in prison, was accused of counterfeiting coins in the Low Countries, and yet was the acknowledged friend and confidant of some of the greatest scientific and literary minds of the period. And he died at twenty-nine, leaving the world to wonder, What if ? As far as relating to a character is concerned, I probably relate more to Rosamund than to any other, although I am a lamentable artist!
Q. How did you get started in your writing career? What is your background and what authors are your influences?
A. My educational background is in clinical social work, rather a far cry from writing historical romances. But my real loves have always been history and literature, and I’ve always enjoyed writing stories. I have very eclectic tastes in authors, but in the field of historical novels I cut my teeth on Alexandre Dumas, Baroness Orczy, Daphne du Maurier, Georgette Heyer, Thackeray, Robert Graves . . . the list goes on.
Q. Is Elizabethan England your favorite period in history? What other eras do you find intriguing?
A. It’s certainly a period I find fascinating, but there are many others. I am particularly enthralled by the English civil war period, the Restoration, Georgian England, the Napoleonic Wars.
Q. You were born in Egypt, grew up in the south of England, and now live in Maryland. Explain how the various places you have lived have helped shape you as a writer.
A. I was born in Egypt because my parents were stationed there, but as I left when I was three years old, I doubt it had much influence on me. I had a very “proper” English childhood and education, with a heavy emphasis on reading and literature. But I probably wouldn’t have started writing novels if my husband and I had not taken the plunge and moved our family to the States in 1978. Shaking up life in one aspect makes it seem much easier to contemplate taking quite different paths in another.
Q. Your novel depicts a part of Elizabethan court life that we don’t often see. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view? Do you think your readers need this alternative portrayal of life at the queen’s court?
A. A lot of romance has been written about the early Elizabethan days; rather less about the latter part of her reign, when she was a vain, raddled old woman with a penchant for the flattery of young men and a greedy delight in riches. I liked the idea of exploring that woman’s world. Despite her faults, one can only admire from a distance all the incredible achievements of her reign, not least the fact that she survived to die a queen, and sole sovereign of one of the most powerful countries in the known world.
Q. Who is your favorite author? Who are you reading now?
A. I have many favorite authors; it would be impossible to pick any one. At the moment I’m reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
Q. What is next for you? Are you currently working on anything?
A. I’m just beginning a romantic trilogy set in Georgian England toward the end of the eighteenth century.