Susan Holloway Scott’s new
historical novel, ROYAL HARLOT, A Novel of the Countess of Castlemaine and King
Charles II, is a love story and then some. The “then some” has mainly to do with the
Countess of Castlemaine’s extraordinary life and the way she chose to live
it. What follows is Part I (Part II
appears Friday) of my picking Susan’s brains about the characters and the world
she’s so beautifully created…in a book I loved so much that I read it
twice. Being a history nerd, I’ve
asked historical nerd kinds of questions–but you can ask your own or make your
own observations. One of you who
does so will win his/her own autographed copy of ROYAL
Loretta: Your July book ROYAL HARLOT again takes us to Restoration England, but this time we start a few decades before the setting of your previous historical novel DUCHESS. Once again, you’ve done an incredible job of establishing time and place. To start, I’ll ask you to help set the stage for those of us not very familiar with this era.
Loretta: What and when was the Restoration era?
Susan: The seventeenth century is one of the most complex and contradictory eras in English history. The Restoration refers to Charles II’s reign (1660-1682) following his ‘restoration’ to the throne after years of exile following the English Civil War. For nearly a decade, England had been ruled by an army general, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, and conservative Protestant extremists who attempted to “purify” England of frivolous wickedness by banning everything from choral music and stained glass windows in churches to dancing, theatres, bright clothing, and Maypoles. Many of the aristocratic families were ruined during the Civil War, their properties destroyed or confiscated by the new government, with many fathers and sons killed. With Cromwell’s death in 1659, the English people decided they’d had enough, and welcomed Charles II back. With him came the return of a very Merrie Old England.
The Restoration has much in common with other permissive eras that follow a repressive period, such as the Roaring 20s and the Swinging 60s. (All it’s missing is a snappy modifying gerund.) Barbara typified an entire generation of aristocratic children with royalist sympathies who had grown to adulthood without the stability of homes, families, or an expected position in society. In the most extreme cases, like Charles himself, they had led impoverished, gypsy-like existences in exile on the Continent. As a result, many who would once again form a "ruling class" with the Restoration were rootless and wild, and often undereducated as well. (To the left is Charles in his coronation robes.)
Traditional morality went out the window. Charles hoped England would be a country tolerant of all kinds of people and beliefs. There was a great deal of experimentation, not only in sexual behavior, but also in theatre, science, art, and music, even in fashion. But like all such times, the high spirits of the Restoration couldn’t last: by Charles’s death, society was exhausted by so much freedom, and the pendulum swung back to a more conservative era under the sterner, more restrictive reigns of James II, William and Mary, and Anne. It’s a fascinating time, looking forward to the humanist themes of the coming Age of Enlightenment, but still medieval enough for traitors to be hung, drawn, and quartered, their severed heads finally stuck on pikes on London Bridge as cheery warnings.
Loretta: The court of King Charles II is not only a completely different world from the present-day royal court but from the courts with which a great many of us are somewhat familiar, those of the Georgian and Regency eras. Would you tell us what that court was like?
Susan: Courts take on the character of their kings and queens, and Charles’s court was no different.
Like him, it craved amusement and gratification, and distinctly lacked formality. He liked witty people, and surrounded himself with gentlemen who made him laugh and beautiful women of every class. There are numerous stories of visiting ambassadors attempting to conduct diplomatic meetings which are interrupted by the appearance of some laughing, half-naked woman, much to Charles’s delight and the ambassador’s shocked disapproval. But while Charles had great affection for his barren queen, she was marginalized in the court, and his mistresses sat brazenly at Charles’s side. His courtiers followed his lead, and the social atmosphere was bawdy and promiscuous, and given to all manner of excess. (That’s Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s Queen, to the right.)
Yet it was also a place where intellectual adventure was encouraged. Charles’s time in exile on the Continent had widened his interests beyond those of most English monarchs. He dabbled in scientific
experiments in his own laboratory in the palace, and supported the kind of “new thinking” by men like Isaac Newton. (To the right is a picture of Charles accepting the first pineapple to be grown in England –– a considerable horticultural feat at the time –– from the kneeling royal gardener who’d nursed the tropical plant along in a greenhouse.) After the Puritan drought, art and music were flourishing. Charles sponsored one of London’s major theatre companies himself, encouraging new plays and playwrights for the city’s playhouses as well as court masques and entertainments with the same enthusiasm as his ancestor Queen Elizabeth I. Clearly there was seldom a dull moment at Whitehall Palace.
There were momentous events outside the palace, too. Charles’s reign saw the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England, a devastating epidemic that killed thousands of his subjects, followed soon after by the Great Fire, which destroyed much of London. Over the same time, there were also several wars with the Dutch, which, though fought largely at sea and not on English lands, were costly both in money and life.
Loretta: The Royal Harlot is Barbara Villiers, the Countess of Castlemaine, who seems to have been the queen of King Charles II’s many mistresses. What made you choose this particular woman for your second historical novel?
Susan: In every fiction and nonfiction book I’d read about the Restoration, Barbara is always painted as the blackest villain: ruthless, greedy, shrewish, and manipulative. Yet she was Charles’s favorite and friend for many years, and he showed her and their children lasting affection until his death. I guessed there had to be more to her than the convenient monster, and that it would be a fascinating challenge to tell her side of the story. (That’s Barbara over there to the left in a portrait by Joseph Wright; she’s dressed as a shepherdess, complete with a shepherd’s crook and a fortune in pearls and sapphires from the King on her gown.)
Loretta: History has not looked kindly on Lady Castlemaine. Do you think today’s readers are likely to find her more sympathetic or do you think she’ll always be controversial?
Susan: For the last three hundred years or so, the overwhelming majority of historians and chroniclers to address Barbara have been male. Barbara was a beautiful, high-born woman. She was also intelligent, shameless, and direct in her desires –– the infamous “woman of appetites,” Such women are worrisome to a great many men; they’re unpredictable, challenging, and they don’t do what they’re told. They make men nervous.
They’re also easy to denigrate: where a man is ambitious, a woman is avaricious. A man is a shrewd politician, a woman is only a shrew, conniving and manipulative. A man is forthright, a woman is shrill. A man is a libertine, a rake, a player, but a woman’s a harlot, a slut, a ho. Some things don’t seem to change, do they?
Still, I’d like to think modern readers will be a bit more sympathetic to Barbara. One doesn’t have to approve her immorality to find it fascinating reading. As (female) historian Lady Antonia Fraser notes, “Barbara must have been tremendous fun.” (The portrait of Barbara up to the left is by the French painter, Henri Gascar, who
had a tendency to make all his sitters look French –– which was likely
why he was the favorite artist of Louise de Kerouelle, Duchess of
Portsmouth, and another of Charles’s mistresses. It was also reason
enough for Barbara, always acutely conscious of any slights or
disregard, not to sit for him again.)
Loretta: What do you think, readers? Bad girls — fun or not fun to read about? Do you think modern readers are more sympathetic to women like Lady Castlemaine than her contemporaries who called her the "Great Imperial Whore"? Do you believe that there’s still a double standard in fiction (and in life as well) –– that heroes can be men of vast sexual experience, while heroines are expected to be either virgins or widows, or at least true to one man?
What about BEING a bad girl? How do you think you’d behave if you were in Barbara’s place, riding in that carriage with the king through the gates of Whitehall Palace? Would you be as bold and daring, or not?
Look for Part Two of the Harlot Interview on Friday!