Welcome to Part Two of our interview with Susan Holloway Scott. We’re celebrating the release of her new historical novel, THE KING’S FAVORITE –and I’m delighted to report that the book is already appearing in stores–great news for all who’ve been waiting not very patiently for Nell Gwyn’s story.
For a tantalizing taste, you can read an excerpt from The King’s Favorite at Susan’s web site. And do visit Facebook, where not only does Susan have a brand-new page,
but so does Nell Gwyn herself. Stop by and become a friend to both of them.
And don’t forget: Susan will be giving away an autographed copy of The King’s Favorite to a reader who posts a comment or question to this interview.
Loretta: King Charles II plays, as a monarch ought to do, a major role in both Royal Harlot and The King’s Favorite. But we see a different Charles in this book. Did you find him more or less sympathetic in the context of his relationship with Nell?
Susan: This has been one of the most fascinating parts of writing this series of books: the same hero, but viewed through the very different perspective of each heroine. The Charles Stuart in Royal Harlot loved Barbara Villiers Palmer, Lady Castlemaine (another beautiful woman who relished the spotlight of celebrity, shown to the right) almost as an equal. They were cousins, and she was undeniably a lady, and even at the rancorous end of their long relationship, he always treated her with the courtesy and generosity due her rank.
But though Charles loved Nell, too, and regarded her as one of his dearest friends, he could not quite forget her humble origins. While he gave her several houses and a handsome income, he never granted her the same titles or livings that he gave to his other long-term mistresses, and his casual disregard for her feelings is as troubling as Nell’s constant forgiveness of his slights towards her. Theirs is undeniably a love story between friends, a fairy tale romance between king and commoner, but it’s also sadly a love story where the hero does not always behave as heroically as he should.
Loretta: So while Nell’s name was the last on the dying king’s lips, he did not provide very well for her. How do you account for this?
Susan: I wish I could! Actually, there is documentation that Charles had planned finally to give Nell her long-deferred title as a birthday present, a plan thwarted by his own untimely death. Always robustly healthy and athletic, he was stricken one night by a series of debilitating strokes, and thanks to the over-zealous bleeding, purging, and other rigorous attentions of 17th century medicine, died soon after, with no chance to right any of his wrongs to Nell. I think it was more his characteristic procrastination rather than any willful neglect. His dying words were in fact a plea to his brother James “not to let poor Nellie starve”, but James had other plans on his royal agenda beyond looking after his dead brother’s old mistresses. (James was especially cruel in forbidding Nell from Charles’s deathbed, claiming that she’d no right to say farewell to the dying king because she had no title.) Nell didn’t starve, but as soon as Charles’s protection was gone and her income with it, creditors swooped down to claim most of her wealth. When she died soon after Charles in 1687, she left considerable debts –– but also a generous legacy to the prisoners in Newgate.
Susan: By the time Charles became seriously involved with Nell (another portrait of her is to the right) in 1668, the first glorious optimism of his early reign had faded. He was faced with the genuine challenges of a difficult Parliament, lack of funds, a country ravaged by plague and a capital struggling to recover from the Great Fire, as well as the constant danger of war with France and the Dutch. Despite being called “the Merrie Monarch”, Charles was often plagued with melancholy (what we’d now call depression.) Nell’s high spirits and ability to amuse him were exactly what the darker side of his personality needed.
Loretta: You’ve mentioned on the blog and in our conversations the Victorians’ partiality for Nell. What about her appealed to that straitlaced, hypocritical lot?
Susan: Every generation interprets the past to suit themselves. The Victorians adored the 17th century, romanticizing Charles I’s doomed cavaliers and Charles II’s Court of wits and gallants and beautiful ladies in plumed hats as if they’d been created by Sir Walter Scott, and glossing over the harsher realities of the Restoration. Scenes from this sentimentalized version of the Restoration were great favorites of Victorian painters as well, such as this one after Edward Matthew Ward, of Nell improbably directing the king in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire Nell’s doll-like beauty appealed to the Victorians, and they fashioned her into a classic fallen-woman-with-a-heart-of-gold, praising her loyalty to Charles and her generosity to the poor, and making her into such a plucky Magdalene that I suspect the real, more earthy Nell would scarcely recognize herself. By all reports, Nell enjoyed the material rewards of her position as much as any of the other royal mistresses, and was especially proud of her elaborate, over-sized bedstead, featuring portraits of her and Charles, their two sons as cupids, and even her rival mistresses allegorically receiving their just desserts –– and wrought entirely of shining sterling silver! Unfortunately, the Victorian version of Nell, nobly giving away her oranges to the poor, is often the one that appears even today in contemporary histories.
Loretta: There were other men in Nell’s life beyond the king –– Charles Hart, the actor and an early lover; Lord Buckhurst, Lord Buckingham, Lord Rochester –– all fascinating men who played significant roles in Restoration London. But for me, Rochester was the most intriguing, a lost soul, if ever I’ve met one. Would you tell us something about this other player in Nell’s life?
Susan: There’s no better definition of a lost soul than John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, shown here. Yet another left fatherless by the Civil War, he was regarded as breathtakingly beautiful, funny, intelligent, intellectual, gifted both at writing poetry and the fast-paced banter of Charles II’s Court. Unfortunately, he was also cursed by self-destructive alcoholism and a true libertine’s taste for sexual adventure and excess, and died badly of drink and syphilis at the age of 33. The recent Johnny Depp movie (The Libertine) over-simplified his life, as film biographies often do. He and Nell were fast friends, though apparently never lovers. Like her, Rochester was much loved by the King for his ability to entertain, and he was fascinated by the make-believe world of the playhouse where Nell reigned as comic queen. He was often her advisor in financial matters and her advocate with Charles, and she remained his loyal friend through his repeated disgraces and banishments from Court and his last, consuming illness. I found it fascinating that the same man who wrote some of the most pornographic and bitter poetry about women to be found in English literature could also be so close to a woman like Nell, and their unusual friendship was an important stabilizer in both their lives.
Loretta: You’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Restoration era. In researching Nell’s story, did you come across anything that surprised or intrigued you?
Susan: I think I’ve probably had the same experience as most other writers do who love the past: the more you learn, the more you realize how little you still know. The Restoration is a delicious time in English history, straddling as it does the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the age of enlightenment. Traitors are still drawn and quartered, their heads stuck on spikes on London Bridge, yet Christopher Wren is rebuilding London into a modern city and Isaac Newton is making revolutionary scientific discoveries. Much like the Regency era 150 years in the future, the Restoration is a time of tremendous social instability and change, with a mercantile middle class increasing its power while the aristocracy is feeling the first pinch of waning influence. Add to this unforgettable people like King Charles, Nell Gwyn, and Lord Rochester, and it’s an irresistible setting for any historical novelist.
Loretta: The King’s Favorite offers us a number of glimpses of Louise de Keroualle, a detested rival of Nell’s whose story you’ll be telling in The French Mistress. Would you give us a preview of this book?
Susan: Louise de Keroualle (in the painting to the left) was Charles’s last “official” mistress, a lovely French lady whose plump cheeks so delighted Charles that he fondly nicknamed her Fubbs. The average Englishman was not as charmed: Louise was so despised that she dared not travel around London unattended. She was loathed as being greedy, petulant, and, worst of all, for being French. But Louise was far more complicated than that, and more intriguing, too. Born to a genteel French family, she was sent by King Louis as a “gift” to his cousin Charles, and a spy for the French. No one ever expected her to find a lasting place in Charles’s heart, and in English history as well. Click here for a preview of The French Mistress, scheduled for publication next summer.
Thank you, Susan!
And thank you, readers, for joining us–and one more reminder: One lucky commenter will win a copy of The King’s Favorite.