Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess of Castlemaine and King Charles II by Susan Holloway Scott was published in 2007, and has been in my to-be-read pile for least a decade. After this, I’ve got all her other books on my list!
Reading for pleasure is hard to do these days, but when one can read for both entertainment and as part of one’s work, that’s ideal. As readers on this site may know, I am working on a biography of Barbara Villiers, the rather notorious and most powerful mistress of King Charles II. The stories and figures associated with the Restoration court are some of the most memorable in the whole of the Stuart age, and it’s always a delight to read an author’s take on that incredible time.
I really enjoyed this novel, and I found that Holloway Scott’s characterisation of Barbara Villiers. Written in the first person, she skillfully weaves a full tapestry of this woman’s life—full of historical characters [particularly Roger Palmer, Frances Stuart, the Duke of Monmouth, Princess Anne (who later became Queen Anne), Moll Davies, Charles Hart, and John Churchill (who eventually became the 1st Duke of Marlborough] and events, but mainly focusing on Barbara’s long (and very fruitful) passionate love affair with Charles II.
Some parts made me laugh out loud, such as the following:
Barbara says, ‘You’re the king, and she’s a whore’.
Buckingham laughed. ‘Mind where you toss that particularly turd, cousin, lest it fall across your skirts.’
‘If it does, Your Grace,’ I replied graciously, ‘I’ll be sure to catch it first, and hurl the stinking thing back to you as the rightful owner.’ (page 321)
It can hardly be surprising, given the subject matter, that this book contains a fair amount of sex scenes, but all were tastefully done and [spoiler for those who don’t know about c17 history) the one with John Churchill near the end was particularly stimulating, for me at least. Barbara took many lovers, and it would be impossible to tell her tale without this.
To her credit, Holloway Scott did not fall into the trap some historical fiction authors fall into—that of making a woman of the past think and act in exactly the same way a woman would today. On the contrary, I was impressed by how much I believed her Barbara to be from the seventeenth century. Nothing jarred, nothing made me cringe: it was a thoroughly beautiful novel.
In general, I found Holloway Scott’s book to be very well-researched, encapsulating the passion this woman seems to have exuded so marvellously and captivatingly all those years ago. Holloway Scott, in her Author’s Note, shared her hope that Barbara would have approved of her telling of the story, and I think it is fair to say that she would have, very much so.
TSCL rating: 4.5/5