Mistress Malapert was my favorite of Sally Watson’s books years ago, the rediscovery of which I discussed in my review of Lark. The only thing that might keep it from still being my favorite is its attempt at Elizabethan English, not entirely convincing although not horrible, even used sometimes in the narrative parts of the book. Watson in her updated notes at the end of the book says she wishes she hadn’t used so much of it but that she was inexperienced as it was her second book. Still, as a young reader, it clearly didn’t bother me. I’m not even sure I noticed it.
Valerie Leigh has been raised for years by her wealthy, childless aunt and uncle, who have given her everything she asks for. Now she is back with her own family, and they don’t know what to do with her. At fourteen, she has a nasty temper that appears whenever she doesn’t get what she wants. Her temper is over quickly and she always sincerely apologizes, but that doesn’t stop her from behaving in a truly outrageous manner when she is angry.
When Valerie’s parents are dispatched by her mother’s distant cousin, Queen Elizabeth, on a foreign embassy, they leave Valerie and her sister Audrey in the care of their stern Uncle Gil, who is determined to tame Valerie. Of course, she isn’t going to put up with much of this.
At a fair, she is fascinated by a troupe of players, especially the boy who plays the part of the princess. She decides it is unfair that girls aren’t allowed to act. Later, when Uncle Gil punishes her for fighting, she decides to run away. She disguises herself as a boy and runs off to join the traveling players, a plot straight from Shakespeare.
Val finds she has a talent for the stage, but her adventures on the stage aren’t all this novel is about. Slowly, she learns some lessons about her responsibilities to the other players and about the kind of person she really wants to be. To be that person, she must learn to control her temper and think of others.
I found this book quite enjoyable and think that many preteens and young teens might like it as well. Val has the opportunity to meet Shakespeare and even Queen Elizabeth by the end of the novel, and although I am not generally fond of historical novels where the main, invented character somehow meets lots of famous people, in this novel it seemed perfectly reasonable. And by the way, I recently criticized the depiction by another writer of Shakespeare’s dialogue in her book for its lack of playfulness. When Val meets Shakespeare, his response is a little clumsy, but much more what I would expect:
Here be a valiant Val to have with us for a valediction. Be you a valid Valentine? Can ye play a valet? Put down your valise, valiant Val, and be you proved valuable, we’ll keep you till you be valanced with a white beard.
Don’t worry, it’s not all like this.