After our Long Weekend with Loretta Chase, Susan approached us with a chance to read and review her historical fiction novel The King’s Favorite. Having come highly recommended by Loretta, we eagerly agreed–and fell in love with her book. Susan, who is totally cool and a fellow sports nut (as Thea is), also graciously agreed to an interview! (And we have two copies of The King’s Favorite to giveaway, just leave a comment on this post and the Smugglers’ Sorting Hat will choose the lucky winners! )
So, we present you our Chat with Susan Holloway Scott!
The Book Smugglers: Focusing on the reign of King Charles II, The King’s Favorite sets the stage (so to speak) in Restoration England. Your other novels, Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill, Royal Harlot, and the upcoming The French Mistress, are also set in the Restoration era, in all its bawdy glory. Could you give us a little background information on the time period, and what makes it such a compelling era to write about?
Susan: I love Restoration England, the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685.) Following the grim puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, an ecstatic London welcomed Charles back from exile with giddy celebration. It’s 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, the Roaring Twenties, and the Swinging Sixties (every era needs a snappy nickname doesn’t it?), the Restoration is a time of tremendous social instability and change, with youth ruling the day and traditional moral standards being questioned. The mercantile middle class is increasing its power while the aristocracy is feeling the first pinch of waning influence. Add to this the “big events” of the Restoration like the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and the wealth of fascinating people, and it’s a fantastic setting for a novel.
The Book Smugglers: Nell Gwyn is a real life Cinderella, rising from her humble beginnings as a child working in a bawdy house teasing and singing songs to the grand (and cutthroat) stage of Whitehall. In The King’s Favorite, you portray Nell as a feisty sprite with a cunning wit that even the most seasoned courtiers could not match. How does your characterization of Nell compare to how history remembers her?
Susan: You’re right –– Nell is as close to a real-life Cinderella as real life ever gets!
Every generation interprets the past through their own eyes and attitudes. Nell’s “story” began evolving even during her own lifetime. Because she was for the most part illiterate, she left no journals or diaries, no version of her life in her own words. Everything was up for grabs, and throughout the next three hundred years or so, she has been both vilified as a whore and a guttersnipe who didn’t deserve to be loved by a king, and then practically turned into a Protestant saint for her legendary kindness and generosity to the poor. The Victorians in particular absolutely loved this mythic Nell, and that almost-saccharine version of her is the one that most often appears even today in movies, books, and mini-series.
I tried to sift through the folklore and repeated hearsay to try to find the girl and woman Nell must have been, within the context of her time. I tried to show how her early life helped shape her. Behind her light-hearted personality, she must have been tough as the proverbial nails, and cheerfully able to look after herself in just about every situation.
While the king was the great love of her life, I wanted to show the other men in her life, too. I also wanted to include her long-standing friendship with the notorious (and notoriously charming) Earl of Rochester (played by Johnny Depp in the recent movie “The Libertine”). Most of all, I wanted to try to show Nell as a real woman, with real joys and sorrows, and not just the plucky stereotype.
The Book Smugglers: As Nell was illiterate and has no memoirs or personal notes to draw from, how did you go about researching this remarkable woman?
Susan: It was a challenge. Without any of the letters, diaries, or memoirs that are always the backbone of research for historical fiction, I had to rely on what Nell’s contemporaries wrote about her. While some left detailed descriptions of what she said or did, most of the time the mentions are along the lines of “Saw Nelly Gwyn at the palace last night, and she had us all roaring with her jests.” Yes, but what did she SAY??? That was where the fiction had to take over from the history, mixing fact with what’s plausible and hoping that it all comes out as it should.
The Book Smugglers: One thing we marveled at in The King’s Favorite was the witty dialogue—and how genuine Nell’s and other characters’ colloquialisms sounded in the context of the historical period. How did you get a handle on the speech of the period? (We suspect right now the answer involves a flying, time traveling Delorean)
Susan: Oh, I wish it were the Delorean!
The reality is far less glamorous, and less shiny, too. Instead I read as many original sources as I could find: not just letters and diaries like Samuel Pepys’s, but also plays, handbills, and popular song lyrics –– anything to get the “flavor” of the how people might have spoken. I also read some of these things out loud (by myself, without witnesses
The Book Smugglers: A major part of the book, and a character unto itself, is the Theater. Something we were very interested in reading was the inclusion of female actresses in productions (since previously, men played any female roles). Nell flourished onstage and became one of the finest actresses of her time, relishing in her lewd comedic roles—growing so famous, in fact, that Nell’s participation in a play would fill seats regardless of the play or writer. Could you tell us a little about the theater of Restoration England? Was Nell’s immense popularity as an actress something unique to Nell, or were there other celebrated actresses of her caliber?
Susan: One of Charles II’s most popular “innovations” when he returned to England was to reopen the playhouses, and permit women to take women’s roles, as was done in France. (Before this, all female roles were played by boys, or men who specialized in playing women; remember the movie “Shakespeare in Love”?)
The only problem at first was that there were no actresses. The owners scrambled to find women with potential who were fast learners, and, of course, beautiful. Because reading was a plus, and few common women were literate at the time, many of the first actresses were from the middle class, daughters of merchants or even clergymen, with the proper education.
The results were apparently pretty mixed during the first few years, but soon talented actresses did emerge. Then, as now, the most respect went to those who specialized in tragic or dramatic roles. These pioneer actresses not only were popular with audiences, but also in time became shareholders in the playhouses, with some of them having careers that spanned twenty years.
Nell, who was a comedian with a gift for physical comedy, was also wildly popular, especially with the masses. Part of her appeal was that she’d “risen” from the audience, where she’d already established herself as a favorite orange-seller. She never forgot her origins, and never “put on airs.” The public believed she was one of them, and loved her long after she left the theater for the palace.
The Book Smugglers: A significant thread running through The King’s Favorite is the question of religion, and the sentiments of Protestants versus the threat of Popish Roman Catholicism. Similarly, the book deals with the antagonism of the English to the French—embodied beautifully in Nell priding herself as a self-proclaimed “Protestant whore”, and her disdain for all things French (especially the King’s other mistress Louise de Keroualle). Were these themes of religious antagonism and patriotism something that pervaded the time period and issues King Charles struggled with during his reign? Did Nell really did use her Englishness—lowborn or not—to differentiate herself as the King’s Protestant mistress?
Susan: The average 17th century Englishman was intensely suspicious of Catholics. Catholicism was commonly blamed for everything wrong with the (English) world, and Catholics, led by the Pope in Rome, were despised as corrupt and wicked. Even educated, titled people thought that persecuting Catholics (and other religious minorities) was a good, patriotic thing to do. Charles tried his best to create a national religious tolerance, and failed. Worse, he was often suspected himself: his wife, mother, brother, and two of his most famous mistresses were Catholic themselves.
This was a wonderful opportunity for Nell, who loved to play to an audience her entire life, both to differentiate herself from the other mistresses for being more “English”, and to ingratiate herself further to the king as being good for his public image. Of course, there were times that her behavior became too outrageous, even for Charles (she prided her house on having the biggest, most outlandish effigies of the Pope for burning on holidays), but Nell was never repentant for long, and continued proudly to proclaim herself the “Protestant whore.”
The Book Smugglers: Also, the political situation facing the English with the ongoing Dutch War and an increasingly volatile relationship with France and Parliament factored in to Nell’s narrative, coloring what roles she would take on in the playhouse, how she would dress, etc. Yet, Nell herself did not meddle with politics overtly, instead trusting—almost blindly—in her King to do what was best for England. Could you explain how the political intrigue might have shaped the relationship between Nell and the King? For a woman with such a meteoric rise in position, it is mind-boggling that Nell was able to become the King’s favorite without being involved in some bedroom political scheme. In your opinion, was her disengagement with politics reflective of her ‘lower’ birth status, or of her own choice?
Susan: For the most part, Nell kept away from political intrigue. I don’t think that it interested her much –– she doesn’t seem to have followed the intricacies of foreign policy the way that some of her rivals did. Whether it was because of this lack of interest or because foreign ministers couldn’t believe such a common creature could have any influence, she wasn’t offered the substantial bribes and gifts as the other royal mistresses. I also suspect that Nell was wise enough to see that the king needed a respite from politics, and made her home a kind of politics-free haven for him. In her home, he knew he would be entertained by her theatrical friends without being hounded by lobbyists –– which, of course, made him return often.
The Book Smugglers: According to your bio, you are an art historian, which really shines through your writing. In The King’s Favorite, you discuss a number of artifacts, with an alluring focus on portraits commissioned by Nell and the King. Are all of these portraits real? Which visual representation of Nell is your favorite?
Susan: I majored in art history in college, and I’m afraid that’s the extent of my being an “art historian.” But I’ve always enjoyed the “stories” behind paintings, and I’m especially fascinated by portraits, and how the sitters chose to have themselves portrayed for posterity. As a result, there’s usually a portrait-sitting scene or two in my books. The ones in King’s Favorite do indeed refer to real portraits, and are based on real anecdotes (including Nell receiving the king and his friends while posing naked as Venus!) For more about this, as well as the portraits themselves, check out the blog I wrote over at the WordWenches.
The Book Smugglers: Similarly, there is a focus on the playhouse and Nell’s wonderful songs and spoken preludes. Poetry and other writings from John Dryden to Lord Rochester are frequently integrated into the story, and add a strong sense of authenticity. The research process must have been exhausting!
Susan: Thanks to the internet, it’s possible to find contemporary versions of nearly all the plays that Nell performed in, and those that she attended as well. Some are full of clever wordplay had hold up very well over the centuries. Others were so tied to contemporary events for their humor that to modern readers, they’re unfathomable, and not very funny at all. Some, too, needed the slapstick “business” to bring them to life, so reading them was often more dutiful than enjoyable. Those early allegorical plays by John Dryden can be pretty slow going, too, and there’s a reason they’re not read much today, not even in English Lit classes.
As for Lord Rochester’s poetry: it remains witty, clever, and, in many instances, beautifully phrased and wholly accessible. But it can also be some of the most obscene and misogynistic poetry ever published in English, which makes reading it something of an adventure. A complicated man, Lord Rochester!
The Book Smugglers: We MUST ask about Nell’s silver bed! Did she actually sleep on a sterling silver bed—complete with engravings of herself and the king, their sons, and her rivals? If so, is the bed still in existence—and have you seen it?
Susan: By all reports, Nell’s silver bed was quite real, and famous in her time. It was made by the master silversmiths to the royal family, and cost her a staggering amount. And yes, it really did have all those little portraits and “in-jokes” worked into the design. Nell was very proud of the bed, and invited all visitors to her house into her bedchamber to see it.
Unfortunately, while there are many descriptions of the bed, I’ve never found any drawings. Sadder still, soon after Nell’s death, the bed was broken up and melted down, and the silver sold to help pay her debts.
The Book Smugglers: While this is a novel focused on its heroine, the other major player to the story is the King of England himself, Charles Stuart. For all Nell’s devotion and constancy to her king, Charles kept many other mistresses, and in fact granted others more in the way of rooms, titles, and property than he did to Nell, even after promising to ennoble her. Why do you think he treated her in such a way, when she was one of his most long-standing, favorite mistresses and dear friend?
Susan: There’s no doubt that Charles loved Nell, and regarded her as one of his dearest friends. Yet despite that, he was never faithful to her (or to any of the women in his life), and he never could quite forget Nell’s 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.† There is proof that he was intending finally to grant her a title, but he died suddenly before he could: one last example of his characteristic procrastination.
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.
The Book Smugglers: So far you have written about the women in Charles Stuart’s life, with varying takes on the King. Do you plan on writing a book from Charles’s perspective?
Susan: Probably not. Oh, I know, never say never, especially in publishing!, but I don’t think it’s likely. For all that Charles was called the “merrie monarch”, he was also a complex man who worked hard to hide his true feelings and fears behind a charming, sardonic exterior. He would be a fascinating, but very challenging subject for a novel.
The Book Smugglers: We find it intriguing that you have written two books from the perspectives of two different mistresses to Charles Stuart, with a third on the way! From Nell’s point of view, the heroine of Royal Harlot Lady Castlemaine seems a jaded, bitter conniver when the King tires of her and they part ways. Similarly, the heroine of your next book, The French Mistress is none other than Nell’s dreaded rival, and subject of Nell’s pranks and jibes, the Frenchwoman Louise de Keroualle! What made you decide to write from these varied perspectives of these different mistresses, who all have designs on the same man? Will you be overlapping the events of Nell’s story with the narrative of Louise? As none of these women seem to “like” each other, do you find the task of giving each woman a different voice and casting them in a more sympathetic light (especially after you have just written from a rival’s perspective) a challenge?
Susan: It’s actually even more complicated: in Duchess, my historical novel about Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough, the same people appear yet again from another perspective. Sarah was a maid of honor at Court late in Charles’s reign, and in his youth, Sarah’s future husband John was Lady Castlemaine’s “boy toy” lover! It was a small world in that palace…
But I’ve had a lot of fun integrating the different stories like that. I remember one reader explaining why she enjoyed the seemingly endless stream of Anne Boleyn books: to her it was like going to a big, fancy party, and then discussing it the next morning with all her friends who’d been there, too. Everyone had a different perspective on the same events.
And no, none of Charles’s mistresses was particularly fond of any of the others. On the other hand, Charles’ much-neglected queen was fond of both Nell and Louise. Go figure.
The Book Smugglers: And now, for the more standard fare questions! You graduated from Brown with a degree in art history and now have a career as an author of historical fiction, and also as a writer of historical romance under a pen name! Could you share with us how you first got into writing books?
Susan: The short version: I wrote my first book when I was on maternity leave after my daughter was born, eighteen years ago. I thought it would be “fun”, which shows you how unbalanced my hormones were after childbirth. I didn’t know how the odds of publishing were stacked against first time writers, or else I probably wouldn’t have ever taken that first step. I didn’t have an agent or any connections. I’d never taken any writing courses (though I did work in public relations, which is great training for fiction writing.
So I wrote my book –– an enormous, rambling, epic historical romance set during the American Revolution–– and sent it off to an editor whose name I liked (really), and then went back to work. I didn’t get “the call” until nearly a year later, long after the original editor had left the publishing house, and long, long after I’d given up ever hearing, convinced that editors had decided my manuscript was too awful even to acknowledge. But I finally did sell that first manuscript to the senior editor, after I agreed to cut it by a third (and a good thing, too.) Fortunately, she continued to buy many more after it. After the fifth book, I was able to quit my day job and write full time, and I’ve been doing it ever since, some forty-odd books later. Yes, I’ve worked hard at my writing, and I enjoy it immensely, but I also realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have it all work out as well as it has. 🙂
For now, I’ve stopped writing historical romances, and I’m concentrating entirely on the historical novels. If you’re interested in exploring any of my books, please check out my website: www.susanhollowayscott.com
The Book Smugglers: Who (or what) are some of your influences? Any favorite authors?
Susan: If we’re talking influences, I’d have to say all those grand old historical writers that I devoured as a teenager. I can get a sunburn in about fifteen minutes, so while everyone else was at the pool in the summer, I developed a wicked “book-a-day” habit that I’m sure the Booksmugglers can understand.
The Book Smugglers: Quick! What five books would you bring with you to a desert island?
Susan: Arghh! That’s such a tough question! It’s doubly hard for me because I don’t often reread books – there are always so many new ones to discover. But if I were pressed, I’d probably take:
Persuasion, my favorite Jane Austen
Lord of Scoundrels, my favorite Loretta Chase, and probably the best historical romance ever written.
Any book by the costume historian Aileen Ribiero, because they combine all my favorite things: clothes, history, good writing, and gorgeous pictures.
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, because it makes me laugh out loud and is about a million pages long.
Diary of Samuel Pepys, because no matter where I open it, I find something interesting.
The Book Smugglers: Thank you so much again for your time, and for answering our questions!! We cannot wait to see Louise’s story in The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth & King Charles II!
Susan: And thank you for inviting me!
A Gemini in every way, Susan Holloway Scott was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in northern New Jersey, in an area rich with colonial American history. She graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School, and after a brief sojourn in art school, she realized her talents lay more with studying other people’s paintings than in creating her own. She graduated from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in art history, which combined her three great loves — history, writing, and art — into one delightful package..
What’s a Girl to Do?
But deciding what to do after that proved more of a challenge. She didn’t want to teach, and the job opportunities for art history majors without PhD’s were sadly lacking. By default she ended up in college communications, writing press releases and designing admissions publications for a succession of colleges and universities, including Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Bryn Mawr College. Public relations offered a great training ground for a novelist: it taught Susan how to write with clarity and precision, how to meet tight deadlines, and, most of all, how to deal with obstreperous characters.
And the writing bug had bitten hard. Now married to musician Jay Scott and the mother of two, Susan decided to use her maternity leave after her daughter was born to try writing a book. That first book, a historical romance set during the American Revolution called Steal the Stars, was published in 1992 by Harlequin Books, and Susan’s new career was on its way. Under the name Miranda Jarrett, she has written more than thirty bestselling historical romances for Harlequin and for Pocket Books. Many of these books were interlocking family sagas, following the lives and loves of several generations through American history. With over three and half million books in print, Miranda’s award-winning books are read in eleven languages and in sixteen foreign countries around the world. She has been a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences, and she has served on the executive board of Romance Writers of America.
Time for a Change
In 2005, Susan decided she wanted to write longer, more complex stories with more characters and actual history than could fit comfortably into a historical romance. She turned to a new time period for her — the late 17th Century of Charles II’s Restoration — and wrote Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill. Meticulously researched and filled with the memorable characters that readers expect from Susan’s books, Duchess is the fictionalized biography of one the most fascinating and influential women of her time.
Susan lives with her family in a house filled with books outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
You can reach susan online at her website: http://susanhollowayscott.com/ or over at Word Wenches. Thank you again to Susan for the interview!