Wench Loretta Chase interviews Wench Susan Holloway Scott
Loretta: The French Mistress (now in bookstores!) completes Susan Holloway Scott’s beautiful trio of books about King Charles II’s most famous mistresses. This time we enter the world of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, who walked a tightrope between two kings–Charles II and Louis IV of France–and the cultures and intrigues of their very different courts. Louise, too, is different. She couldn’t be less like either of her great rivals, the Countess of Castlemaine or Nell Gwyn, or less well-liked. Yet as Susan brings her to life, Louise, the most reviled of Charles II’s mistresses, is the heroine of an amazing, compelling story. It's a remarkable book!
To begin, please tell us a bit about The French Mistress.
Susan:The French Mistress
is based on the fascinating life of Louise de Keroualle (1649-1734.)
The daughter of provincial French nobility, Louise was a young
maid-of-honor to the Duchesse d’Orleans when she caught the roving eye
of the duchess’s brother, King Charles II. (Here's the full portrait of her by Sir Peter Lely that's used on the cover.) The French king, Louis XIV,
noticed Charles’s interest, and sent Louise to London as a “gift.” Once
there, Louise’s duty was to become the English king’s mistress, and
from his bed act as a spy/agent for France. Though hardly the
respectable marriage her parents desired, Louise had no choice but to
obey, and balance on this diplomatic tightrope between the two kings, over a cast of scheming rivals and political enemies. For the next fourteen
years, Louise succeeded beyond everyone’s expectations. Not only did
she find the love of her life in the charming Charles, but she also
earned the lasting admiration of Louis as well, and she was
well rewarded with riches, titles, estates, and power. In England, she
was made Duchess of Portsmouth, and her son became the Duke of Richmond
and Lennox (for more about him, see my earlier WordWenches blog), while in France, she was made Duchesse d'Abuginy.
three women with whom King Charles II had long relationships were
so different. Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, bears no
resemblance to actress Nell Gwyn, who couldn’t be less like Louise.
Clearly, the king truly was attracted to and sought something different
from each of these women. What in particular was it about Louise that
captured and held his affection for so long?
SHS: Louise wasn’t
a wanton sensualist like Barbara, nor was she as quick-witted and
entertaining as the earthy Nell. Louise was a lady and a French one
at that, with an inborn style and presence that dazzled Charles (shown below, to the right.)
Even as he delighted in her plump figure and baby-faced beauty, it was
her elegance and grace that he loved. He knew she was a spy, and he
didn’t care. In many ways, Louise was his ideal, a seductively perfect
companion and hostess in her exquisitely decorated rooms in the
palace. No matter how treacherous the court intrigues became around
Charles, he always found solace with Louise, and, quite possibly, the
tempting, forbidden solace (for the head of the Anglican Church) of her
LC: Of the three mistresses you’ve dealt with so far, I found Louise the most enigmatic. She’s an isolated foreigner,
as the others are not. She seemed to have much more to lose than Nell
or Barbara. Given all the secrecy and double-dealing (hers and
others’), Louise’s foreignness and isolation, she must have been a most
elusive subject. What helped you develop a sense who she was?
SHS: I knew something of Louise after writing my previous two books about her rival-mistresses (Barbara Palmer in Royal Harlot and Nell Gwyn in The King’s Favorite),
and though some of Nell’s witty attacks had made me feel a little sorry
for Louise, it wasn’t until I’d begun researching her background in
France that I developed an empathy with her.
I hadn’t realized
how Louise spent her entire life as an outsider. As a girl, she’d had
a difficult relationship with her parents, and she was too shy to make
the brilliant marriage that they desired. She never quite fit in at
Louis XIV’s court, and even at the height of her success as Charles’s
mistress, she had virtually no true friends at the English court.
Realizing how tenuous her position could be (unlike both Barbara and
Nell, who blithely seemed to assume there’d always be a tomorrow),
Louise was constantly searching for security and trying to wrangle more
favors, more gifts, to prepare for her future and for that of her one
son. The only person whom she ever seemed fully to trust was Charles.
Even so, though she loved him completely, she feared (rightly) that
he didn’t return her degree of devotion. Learning that Louise never
married nor became romantically linked to any other man, remaining
constant to Charles’s memory for the remainder of her long life –– she
outlived Charles by fifty years! –– seems especially poignant.
LC: In The French Mistress,
you took us into the French court, showing us what life was like not
only for Louise but for Charles II’s sister, the Duchesse d’Orleans.
For me –– and I think for many readers –– it’s an entry into another
world, and one with a decidedly dark side. What do you think was the
greatest difference between the French and English courts, and why?
two courts were perfect mirrors of their respective kings. While Louis
and Charles bore an outward similarity in appearance(they were first
cousins, in the inbred way of 17th century royalty), the two men could
not have been more different as rulers. Louis (shown to the left)
was suspicious and wary of his subjects, and defensively made himself
into an unapproachable demi-god. He was aloof and distant in his great
palace at Versailles, and his Court was wrapped in elaborate protocol
and rigidly observed rituals. Every moment of the day was accounted for
in exhausting detail, and he encouraged vicious rivalries and
infighting among his nobles as a way of keeping them from plotting
against him. Behind the gilded facade, there was much that was dark
indeed, including sadism, bisexuality, and witchcraft. There were
plenty of amusements at Versailles, but very little fun.
on the other hand, was affable and approachable, and literally embraced
his subjects of every rank. He enjoyed his people, and moved freely
among them in London, feeding the ducks in the park beside them and
attending the same public theaters and taverns for amusement as they
did. His Court was bawdy and free-wheeling, much as he was himself,
and visitors were as likely to encounter actors and scientists as peers
in the palace. After the rigidity of the French Court, Louise found
Whitehall shockingly informal, and she never became accustomed to the
directness of Charles’s courtiers, or their often-bawdy behavior.
LC: Like your previous historical novels, The French Mistress
beautifully recreates a time and place. This can’t be done without
hours and hours of research. What part of the research for this book
did you most enjoy?
SHS: My favorite part of the research for all of these books has been trying to discover the real woman who will
become my heroine. Louise offered a few special challenges. First, of
course, was the fact that many of the original sources about her and
her world were in French, and 17th century French at that. Once she
arrived in England, the research became much easier – but scarcely more
sympathetic to Louise herself. Likely because of her dual-role as a
French agent and a royal mistress, she seemed to have kept no diary or
journal, and she was always careful of what she revealed in the letters
that survive. Most of what was written about her by others was
critical, snide, or downright bitchy, with no one defending her or her
actions. In sharp contrast to so much back-biting are the charming love-letters
that Charles wrote to Louise, full of endearments, pet names, and
concern for her health. I had to sift through all of this, sensing what
felt false and what felt real, trying to “find” the Louise to be the
centerpiece of my novel. (Here's another portrait of Louise, this time by the French artist Henri Gascars.)
LC: Like many other readers, I can’t wait to time travel with Susan Holloway Scott again. What’s next?
SHS: My next heroine is already familiar to my readers with a good memory. Catherine Sedley (1657-1717) most recently appeared in The King’s Favorite
as a ten-year-old girl dancing jigs in the moonlight with Nell Gwyn. A
sixteen-year-old Catherine was also a minor character in Duchess,
the wealthy heiress that John Churchill’s parents tried to make him
marry. (My novels aren’t a true series since each book is independent
of the others, but certain individuals do keep popping up throughout,
much as they must have done at the English Court.) Now Catherine
finally will have a book of her own, and deserving she is, too. (That's a teenaged Catherine to the left, painted by Sir Peter Lely.) The
only daughter of poet and playwright Sir Charles Sedley, one of the
wildest of Charles II’s courtiers, Catherine grew up into a pretty wild
lady in her own right. She was considered shamefully plain by
her contemporaries, but she was blessed with a brilliant wit and sense
of humor to compensate for her lack of beauty. She was also rich and
well-connected, which made her much-sought-after as a wife, yet she
refused to marry and let any man take control of her life. Instead she
insisted on scandalous independence, becoming mistress to a king
because it amused her, wife (at 39!) to a general because she loved
him, and a countess in her own right. Look for Catherine’s adventurous
life next summer in The Countess and the King.
Thank you, Susan! For more about Susan's books and to read an excerpt from The French Mistress, visit her website at: www.susanhollowayscott.com.
We're givng away a copy of The French Mistress to a reader who posts a reply to this blog. Ask a question, make a comment, or simply say you'd like to be entered, and you're in. The winner will be announced next Sunday, July 19. Good luck!