Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Painted Lady by Maeve Haran

‘This is my tale and I will leave you to tell whether it be high romance or tragedy.’ 

Frances Stuart has few memories of her life in England, having spent most of her young life in exile at the court of the dowager Queen Henrietta Maria. When Charles II is restored to his throne, Frances is sent to England to become Lady in Waiting to the new Queen, Catherine of Braganza.

At sixteen, Frances innocence and beauty are highly-prized amongst the decadent Restoration Court, but when King Charles falls passionately in love with her, she discovers to refuse a king leaves her open to suspicion as well as ridicule and false modesty, becoming a target for nefarious seduction plans by those with ambition to win favour with the king.

Frances is also inconveniently in love with Charles, Duke of Richmond, and when his wife dies in childbirth, she harbours the faint hope that he might turn to her to be his next duchess. However Frances is penniless and with the eye of the king on her, no man dare pay court to Mistress Stuart, and The Duke of Richmond looks elsewhere for his next wife.

Set against the drama of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, The Painted Lady is a wonderfully colourful portrait of  the 17th century Restoration court with some well known names given new life by Ms Haran. I especially loved the passion of Barbara Castlemaine as the King’s long-term mistress, who when Frances holds out against her Royal lover, Barbara accuses her with scathing cruelty of causing him untold misery.

Frances’ relationship with Catherine of Braganza is especially moving, in that the queen is aware of and deeply hurt by her husband’s passion for Frances, and although she never speaks of it openly, Catherine is unfailingly kind to her rival and mindful of Frances’ restraint. Bound by their mutual resentment of Barbara Castlemaine, the scenes between the two women are very touching.

The historical research is exemplary and I learned some interesting facts about an era I thought I was familiar with. The character of Frances is beautifully portrayed with her own determination to hold out for a home and husband of her own and not become the king’s mistress when everyone around her intimates she should succumb. Frances’ strength and character shines through and with few on her side, she struggles to keep the virtue that has become a subject for ridicule.

Some of the scenarios where Castlemaine and the King contrive to seduce Frances are well known, and I suspect Ms Haran has fabricated others, but the story is no less compelling for that. If you love the 17th century with all its corruption, filth, betrayal and luxury, you will enjoy this book.

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