Book Review: The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick

Based on a real-life Tudor mystery, The Forgotten Sister is a stunning story of a curse that echoes through the centuries and shapes two women’s destinies…

Season 4 of The Crown, all 10 episodes, hit Netflix on November 15th, 2020. By now every avid fan has gobbled it up. Fortunately, help is at hand for aficionados of royal stories—Nicola Cornick’s The Forgotten Sister. Two women’s lives are intertwined, one historical, Amy Robsart, the first wife of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and a favorite of Elizabeth I, and the other fictional, Lizzie Kingdom, a young entertainer with a huge fan following.

Cornick writes time-slip novels: “These dual timeline novels are not time-travel books, but rather stories whose perspective slips back and forth between time periods.” Also be mindful that Robsart’s untimely death is a real-life Tudor mystery, over which Cornick layers a curse that echoes through centuries. Our first glimpse of Lizzie is at the 2010 wedding of her lifelong, childhood friend Dudley (emphasis on friend) to the shockingly wealthy Amelia. The rich and famous young idiots’ wedding holds no appeal for Lizzie. 

She wandered off in the direction of the luxury portaloos. Evidently the plumbing at Oakhangar Hall, the ridiculously ostentatious wedding present that Amelia’s father had bought for the bride, was not up to coping with two hundred celebrity guests. Nevertheless, the cool darkness of the entrance hall beckoned to her.

Inexplicably, Lizzie hears the melody of a harp, but there’s no harp to be seen, only a huge black grand piano. Yet, the harp’s melody beckons her.

She moved towards the sound and then she saw it, on a little shelf to the right of the door, a crystal ball held in the cupped palms of a stone angel.

 

The crystal swirled with a milky white mist. Touch me. Lizzie stopped when her hand was about an inch from the crystal surface.

 

No. The urge was strong but she knew what would happen if she did. Ever since she had been a small child, she had had an uncanny knack of being able to read objects.

“Natural” to Lizzie perhaps but she soon learned that hers was a “gift” not necessarily shared with or lauded by others. 

Later, when she looked it up, she saw it was called psychometry. She used it carefully, secretly, to connect with her past and the mother she had lost as a child. The rest of the time she tried not to touch anything much at all if it was likely to give her a vision. She really didn’t want to know.

Her gift seems more like a curse than a blessing. A young boy, Johnny, Amelia’s younger brother, watches Lizzie dither over the little statue. He seems wise beyond his years: Lizzie senses that Johnny understands the strange pull the stone angel has on her. Arthur Robsart, Johnny’s older brother, whisks him away but all hell breaks loose when Lizzie touches the stone angel’s wings. The crystal shatters, Lizzie passes out, waking up to a mad scene. Everyone thinks she’s trying to steal the spotlight from the bride. A shard of crystal embeds itself in her hand and Arthur patches her up. Lizzie hurriedly calls up her driver and takes off. A few days later she discovers the little stone angel among her goody bag detritus. While she meant to return it to Amelia after all the fuss, it never seemed like the right time.

Ten years later, on the 8th of September, Amelia is found dead at the bottom of the stairs. Her marriage with Dudley has foundered, she is alone at her country house when her cleaners discover her.

The parallels between Tudor England and modern-day Britain leap off the page: Queen Elizabeth/Lizzie Kingdom; Amy Robsart/Amelia Robsart; and Dudley/Dudley, who is quite frankly an out-for-himself cad in each time period. Many seemingly peripheral figures, be they managers, friends, cousins, half-sisters, or brothers, mirror each other over time as well. 

When Robert Dudley is described as a “favorite of Elizabeth I,” how does that acknowledge the hellishness of Amy Robsart’s fate, married to a man who never loved her? According to Wikipedia, Amy Dudley (née Robsart) “is primarily known for her death by falling down a flight of stairs, the circumstances of which have often been regarded as suspicious.” Robsart was only 28 years old at the time of her death. The scandal surrounding her death likely made it impossible for Queen Elizabeth to ever consider marrying Robert Dudley. Death in Elizabethan England was vicious, often brutal, and not unexpected. 

Consider the fallout for Lizzie Kingdom’s life and career after Dudley’s estranged wife is found dead. Death in modern times, for a celebrity, can be the plight of being ignored, vilified, or dropped  (i.e. cancel culture). Lizzie and Dudley, as Lizzie comes to regretfully understand, hurt Amelia, who was jealous of their deep friendship. Eventually, Lizzie realizes that in the years after Dudley’s marriage, Dudley abused their friendship, but her awakening is gradual and painful. 

Cornick’s portrayal of Amy Robsart shows a woman who rails against her fate: she has a plan to escape her husband and his Queen. That her plan was unsuccessful is the genesis of the curse surrounding her and the house where she died. A teenage Johnny Robsart, desperate to save his dead sister, persuades Lizzie to travel back to Tudor times with him, thinking that if they can change Amy’s fate, perhaps Amelia can also have a different ending. Their entry to the past is the stone angel. Cornick’s historical acumen informs The Forgotten Sister, particularly in her explanations of history’s hold on us. Amy died at Cumnor Hall, which centuries later fell into disrepair. Some of the stones from Cumnor Hall were reused to build a new manor at Oakhangar. Lizzie’s friend Avery references the bits and pieces of “all those monasteries that Henry VIII destroyed.”

“We’re a magpie breed; we take what we want but sometimes, perhaps, we take more than we imagine.”

 

“You mean that the stone retains a memory of the past in some way,” Lizzie said hesitantly, “that certain buildings can contain the memory of events that had happened hundreds of years ago?”

 

Avery’s gaze was very direct and very clear. “I think that’s true,” she said quietly. “A physical place can hold an emotional memory.”

Over the centuries, three people die under mysterious circumstances; each time the victim was part of a lover’s triangle, harkening back to Amy, Dudley, and Queen Elizabeth. Can Lizzie Kingdom break the curse and bring peace to Amy Robsart’s troubled soul? What a brilliant story, resonating as it does over time and space. Brava Nicola Cornick.

 

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