Book Review: ‘Mistresses’ by Linda Porter

Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II, written by historian Linda Porter and published by Picador in 2020, is the second book on the Stuarts of the seventeenth century by Dr Porter, the first being, Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars. Porter previously wrote several books on Tudor history, including Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, Mary Tudor: The First Queen, and Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots

The cover is gorgeous: I love the vibrant red that was used against the portrait of Louise de Kérouaille, who was Charles’ French mistress (and who lived longer than any of his other mistresses). Being that this book was published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, it isn’t surprising that the quality of the physical book (in this case, the hardback), is superb. The interior has two sections of beautiful, colour images. The book begins with an Author’s Note, a list of Charles II’s (known) illegitimate children, and a prologue. Researchers will be happy to know this book includes a select bibliography and an index!

In Mistresses, Porter seeks to bring the histories of King Charles II’s mistresses to life with a dedicated part for each major mistress (then further divided into two or three chapters). This book is divided into seven parts: Lucy Walter (1630-58), Barbara Villiers (1640-1709), Catherine of Braganza [the long-suffering wife!] (1638-1705), Frances Teresa Stuart (1647-1702), Nell Gwynn (1651?-1687), Louise de Kérouaille (1649-1734), and Hortense Mancini (1646-1699).

I quite liked the way Porter organised these sections and think it worked well. It’s often a bit difficult (in my experience, at least) to decide these things, but I enjoyed the overall structure of the book. I was very pleased to find that Queen Catherine was not merely mentioned in passing, but had the whole of Part 3 (comprising two chapters) devoted to her.

I thought that a book about mistresses would have much more sexual content than this did, and whilst it did have some, I’m nevertheless inclined to say that this book is more about the political landscape during each woman’s ‘reign’ rather than their actual amorous relationships with their royal lover. That said, it’s all really interesting and covers notoriously complex topics such as the Popish Plot, and written in a very respectful tone throughout, which was pleasant. As a personal preference, however, I would have liked even more notes at the back (Porter uses endnotes, not footnotes, and I really like this).

In short, this is a solid work about some very fascinating women and a worthy addition to the study of Stuart history.

TSCL rating: 4/5

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