Mistress Malapert probably wasn’t the first work of historical fiction I read, but it was certainly the book that made me fall in love with the genre. It’s the story of the headstrong and selfish Valerie, who disguises herself as a boy and runs away from a harsh guardian in Elizabethan England. Valerie is taken in by a troup of travelling players; she joins the troup and (not surprisingly) turns out to be better at playing female roles than the thirteen-year-old boy who’s been playing them up to that point. She’s so talented, in fact, that she ends up getting hired by Shakespeare’s company and working with the master himself.
Before the story reaches its satisfying but poignant conclusion, Val has played (appropriately) Kate in Taming of the Shrew as well as Juliet, has learned to master her temper and discovered much about herself, and has fallen in love (with one of the players who managed to see through her cunning disguise). Re-reading this novel as an adult I can see numerous places where the story strains historical credibility, but I still think it’s a wonderful novel for young readers and a great introduction to the Elizabethan era.
Like a lot of my old favourites, Mistress Malapert is hard to come by these days, but I came across one company that’s made a business of reprinting novels for girls from bygone days, and they have not only this one but all Sally Watson’s books, which I think is just cool.