Friday, November 6, 2009

Royal Harlot by Susan Holloway-Scott


King Charles II has been living in impoverished exile for nearly twelve years, and Europe has pretty much given up on him as a prospective monarch of England. However in early 1660, General Monck puts forward the idea that with Cromwell dead and his son Richard a useless alternative, it’s time for the king to return.

Barbara Villiers, born into a notorious family but discarded by her cold mother as a child. Left to her own devices, albeit in a privileged world, Barbara decides her future is bound up with the young, passionate returning king. She knows from a young age what she is, and never apologises for it, though her amoral opportunism loses her friends and her lover, Lord Phillip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield along the way.

She marries Roger Palmer for expediency, but it is a loveless, desultory marriage and when her husband sees Barbara as a useful tool to help return the king to his throne, Barbara is no victim, more a willing participant. Inevitably, her first meeting with Charles II is magnetic, and when he regains his throne, Barbara is right there with him at Whitehall.

Admired by most of the Restoration court for her wit and beauty, it isn’t long before the king must marry and Barbara is relegated to the position of ‘whore’. Undeterred, Barbara wheedles her way into the new queen’s household and bears the king’s children, even claiming paternity for more than Charles fathered. Despite the titles and money she obtained for them as well as herself, her passionate nature doesn’t allow her to remain faithful, and among the men she takes as lovers is her profligate cousin, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and her lover’s illegitimate son, the teen age Duke of Monmouth.

Eventually, Barbara’s tantrums and demands grow tiresome and she is forced to concede to her younger competition. She converts to Catholicism, which gives her royal lover an excuse to have her exiled from court, leaving me with the impression this was less a love affair than a sexual enslavement and Charles was eager to disentangle himself.

Barbara never apologises, or pretends to be what she is not, for which I admire her, but I also feel her calculating character deprived her of real happiness. Her outrageous and notorious sexual appetite didn’t bring her happiness either, so in many ways I feel sorry for her, as I know she died almost impoverished and alone.
Ms Holloway Scott’s novel is written from Barbara’s perspective, thus her portrayal could have been done for authenticity and the coldness of Barbara’s character not the author’s invention. If so, Ms Holloway Scott did a great job, and I always longed for Barbara to feel more than triumph when things went her way and anger when they didn’t.

She even capitulated to being rejected by Chesterfield, her first lover with pragmatic coolness, which seemed out of place for a young woman not yet twenty. Even the sex, though very well written, was cold, dispassionate as it had a purpose. Then again, I cannot blame the author for that, this may be her interpretation of Barbara’s own inner emotions. Or perhaps, Charles II was the man Barbara really loved, but knew she could not have, for his notorious charm was well documented.

Ms Holloway-Scott’s depiction of the Restoration court is masterly, as is her understanding of political events and intrigues that have confused many before her.

If I expected this book to be a rags-to-riches romance with a happy ending, I was always going to be disappointed. However, as an accurate account of the volatile love between a King and his mistress, this book is a gripping read.
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