Guest Post: ‘Royal Harlot’

806777Royal Harlot by Susan Holloway Scott
NAL Trade, July 3, 2007 (Historical Fiction)

Stacey and I are pleased to welcome back Koren, with another guest review. Not surprisingly, she is reviewing historical fiction that brings us court intrigue and introduces readers to a woman from the history books, Barbara Villiers. It looks like an interesting read, and we thank Koren for writing and contributing her review.

Rating: 3 stars

The first introduction I had to Barbara Villiers was in my first ever Jean Plaidy novels, A Health Unto His Majesty, and The Pleasures of Love. Plaidy portrayed her as a villain you love to hate. She was calculating and vindictive and I rooted for the queen who just couldn’t compete for Charles II’s attention. Coming into this book, I tried to set aside my existing views of Barbara and be more open minded about her motives and actions.

The book begins with Barbara’s journey to Antwerp on a secret Royalist mission to meet Charles Stuart, son of the executed English king Charles I, while he’s still in exile. As soon as the two meet, Scott takes us back in time to fifteen year old Barbara’s arrival in London to live with her mother and stepfather. Her mother plans on polishing away Barbara’s country attitudes and behaviours in order to prepare her for a good marriage. However, Barbara is stubborn and follows her own heart. This leads her into the arms of Philip, the Earl of Chesterfield and a notorious womanizer. Though Barbara isn’t faithful to Philip, or anyone for that matter, Philip’s treatment of her hardens Barbara.

Once she meets Charles, the story really gets interesting. Not only does Barbara realize her interest in power, but she also feels like she’s found a match in the king (not that this stops her from dallying with other men). Having children pushes Barbara’s power-seeking to a new level as she collects titles, positions, income, and jewels from the king. The book follows the ups and downs of her relationship with Charles, including Barbara’s succession of lovers during this time. Scott ends the book with the end of Barbara and Charles’ relationship. The author’s note provides a good summary the rest of Barbara’s life as well as the other main players in the novel.

Political and religious issues of the Restoration were skillfully weaved into the story and Scott was able to show how these issues affected the king and his relationship with his mistress. I wish Scott had gone into a bit more depth with Barbara’s involvement with international relations – she mentions a few times how the French and Spanish ambassadors woo Barbara with jewels because they believe she can influence Charles in their favour but beyond the jewel-flaunting. Scott does a good job of bringing out the flavor of the Protectorate and especially the Restoration. I’m a sucker for good description and I enjoyed Scott’s descriptions of Barbara’s jewels and gowns.

At the beginning of the story, Barbara wasn’t seeking anything beyond her own immediate pleasure and I found her quite shallow. Her extreme vanity is ever-present, and she constantly dresses and poses in provocative ways. I found this exhausting at times – yes, you’re unbelievably gorgeous, we get it. Her dominating concern for her beauty and to secure her status as fairest of them all is troubling for her as she ages. Her power is in her beauty, and Barbara recognizes that.
I respected Barbara’s desire for freedom and doing what her heart desired – going against social expectations – I just couldn’t sympathize with her character, at least at first. She could be so very cruel and vindictive, especially to the queen. By the end of the story, I did feel sympathetic towards her as she recognized that her “glory days” at court were finished. Barbara comes across as very self-aware, and is quite intelligent financially. In a day when women were considered the weaker sex and expected to follow strict social rules, Barbara effectively works the system to her and her children’s advantage while she can (meaning, while her beauty lasts).

While Plaidy glossed over Barbara’s bawdy thoughts and romantic “dalliances”, Scott puts them all out there on the table for all to see. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when the title of the book is Royal Harlot, and it’s the story of Lady Castlemaine, the famous mistress of the famously randy king, Charles II. Barbara was unashamed of her sexuality and sexual appetites and Scott really brings this out. I’m sure I blushed while reading this.

Overall, an enjoyable read. For more Restoration-era court romance and adventure, I recommend Plaidy’s trilogy of Charles II (The Wandering Prince, A Health Unto His Majesty, and Here Lies Our Sovereign Lord) and Rose Tremain’s Restoration.

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