Day 22 (4 Days to Smugglivus and counting)
Who: Susan Holloway Scott, author of historical fiction. We heard about Susan through Romance writing legend Loretta Chase, and were given the great opportunity to read and review her most recent book, The King’s Favorite. We loved the book, so much so that we had to have Susan over for an interview, and now for Smugglivus! Plus, Susan is a fellow sports fanatic (just as Thea is), and can talk smack with the best of ’em! (Yes, yes, congrats again to your Phillies! Even if they did spank the Dodgers)
Recent Work: Susan’s current series is historical fiction from the perspective of the different mistresses of King Charles II. 2008 saw the release of The King’s Favorite, told from the wonderful perspective of Nell Gwyn. For her Smugglivus post, Susan has offered us a tantalizing snippet from her upcoming novel, The French Mistress!
We proudly give you Susan Holloway Scott!
First of all, let me wish all Smugglers a most joyous Smugglivus, with plenty of new books to help guide you through the coming year, wherever you happen to be.
One of the topics that Ana and Thea suggested was to name our favorite book of the 2008. Alas, the majority of the books I read are nonfiction research for my own writing and likely not of much interest to most other readers, or what my husband charmingly refers to as “Tedious Times Past, Volume XIV.” But I do sneak my share of fun-time novels in here and there, and I can easily choose the best of the year: Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase.
Yes, I know, Loretta’s a buddy of mine, but I was a fan of hers long, long before we met. Her books never fail for me, and Ways represents her at the top of her form, much like the legendary Lord of Scoundrels. For me, this book had everything –– Venice, witty dialogue, a fantastically jaded hero, and unusual secondary characters an d villains, all topped off with a quote from Bryon to open each chapter –– but what I liked best was the heroine, Francesca Bonnard. Francesca is a courtesan, the real deal, and not one of those faux-courtesans currently cluttering up historical romances. She likes men and they like her, and she’s perfectly happy about it. No regrets, no guilt, no gnashing of teeth. She’s a delicious match to her equally worldly hero, and the evolution of their relationships is not only believable, but great fun, and I can’t recommend this book enough.
Best of all, Francesca is an unrepentant Bad Girl, and Loretta and I adore Bad Girls. I should add that is purely vicarious, because in real life, neither of us is Very Bad At All. But writing Heroines Who Are Bad is entirely different. For the last several years, I’ve been writing a series of fictionalized biographies of the royal mistresses of King Charles II. This summer, the Smugglers were kind enough to feature The King’s Favorite, about the king’s relationship to actress (and famous Bad Girl) Nell Gwyn. I’m just finishing up the last of the series, The French Mistress, due in stores in July, 2009. The mistress and real-life Bad Girl of the title is Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, who used her gifts of beauty, intelligence, cleverness, and a penchant for spying to rise from obscurity to become one of the most wealthy and powerful women in 17th century England. Scroll down for an excerpt to put you in the mood.
And happy Smugglivus, everyone!
THE FRENCH MISTRESS
A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth & King Charles II
by Susan Holloway Scott
Coming July, 2008 from New American Library
You will have heard much wickedness spoken of me. Don’t pretend otherwise, I beg you. I know the truth, just as I know every word and breath of the hateful slanders that have been hurled at me. It is what comes of being a loyal daughter of France, here in this foreign land. I cannot change who I am, or what I have done. The English will always despise me, and that cannot be changed, either.
It was not always so, of course. Once, before I’d come to Versailles and the great court of King Louis XIV, I was a girl like any other, shy and trembling innocent of the power of my nascent beauty. But how then could I have guessed my future, or how my fate, my fortune, my very heart, would carry me across the cold, grey water and into the land of my enemies?
In the spring I’d turned nineteen, I stood on the heaving deck of the royal sloop , dutifully at the side of the princess I served, Henriette-Anne, Madame la Duchesse d’Orleans. The crossing from Dunkirk to Dover had already been delayed for nearly a week because of ill weather, and though the skies had finally brightened enough for the sloop’s captain to clear the harbor, our brief voyage had been a hazardous one. We two ladies were as good as alone on the deck, with the crew so occupied with their tasks that they kept a respectful distance apart from us, though always ready to assist the princess if necessary.
Not that they’d be needed. Madame was proud of her ease at sea, claiming it was a natural gift of her English blood. Heedless of the rough waters that kept all her other attendants retching below, she squinted into the blowing mist and rain, her dark curls limp from the salty spray and her fur-lined cloak beaded with sea-water. Resolutely she turned her pale face towards the east, desperate for her first glimpse of land.
Such was the sorry lot of a princess: born daughter to one English king, sister to another, and now wife to the brother of the French king, this was the first time in ten years that those royal gentlemen had permitted Madame to visit the country of her birth. Some would say that the life of this princess had been tragic since her very birth, for within a fortnight of Madame’s birth and baptism, her queenly mother had been forced to flee from the king’s enemies to France. Two years passed before the infant had been smuggled across the sea to rejoin her exiled mother, and escape the English civil war that made a regicide of her father, King Charles I. It was a sad tale indeed, well-known even to us in France.
These vicissitudes and sorrows had served to draw Madame closer to her older brother, the dark prince who had likewise been exiled but was now King Charles II. Though more often apart than together, these two had remained as bound together through their letters as any brother and sister, royal or common, in perfect sympathy of spirit and soul.
“The sailors believe we’ll make Dover by dusk, Louise,” Madame said to me, though her gaze never shifted from the wet, grey horizon. “To think that I could dine with my brother this very night!”
“Yes, Madame,” I said, shivering inside my plain woolen cloak. If Madame did not feel the cold, then I, as her youngest maid-of-honor, was not permitted to feel it, either. “Perhaps you should rest now, to be refreshed when you meet His Majesty.”
She shook her head, her gloved hands tightening on the wooden taffrail as if she feared I’d try to pull her away by force. “My brother will find me worn and changed and scold me for it, too, yet I also know he’ll love me still, just as I love him.”
“Then please let me fetch another cloak to warm you, Madame, or ––“
“I’m well enough, Louise.” She sighed restlessly, slipping one hand inside her cloak to press the pain in her belly. She wasn’t well, let alone well enough, and all o f us in her household knew it. In the last months, she’d shrunk and diminished into a fragile wisp of the vigorous lady she’d been, her digestion so weak that she now subsisted entirely on warmed milk. The way she tried to deny her illness only made me fear the more for her, and dread the worst: that her hateful husband, the painted sodomite Monsieur, was methodically poisoning her.
I feared for her, yes, for she was kind to me, yet I was not shocked. Monsieur did not love her as a husband should, despising her for not bearing him a male heir. He would freely justify whatever it pleased him to do, and his brother the king would forgive him. It was always the same with Monsieur. I’d learned long ago that in the court of Louis XIV, any wickedness, any crime, any perversion was possible.
Three years before, my parents had spent nearly their last sous to purchase this post for me at Versailles, so that I might catch the eye and heart of some great nobleman. As soon as I’d arrived, I’d realized the folly of their dreams for a splendid match. All around me were other ladies infinitely more beautiful than I, with far better blood and higher friends than I possessed as the daughter of the impoverished Comte de Keroualle. I’d no dowry beyond my beauty, and my father’s simple loyalty to the king promised no useful influence at court. As for myself, my dark hair and eyes were not to current taste, my manner in company too shy, my wardrobe so hopelessly provincial that the other maids of honor laughed behind their fans when I passed by.
To my shame, I’d attracted no suitors, not a single gentleman who’d been willing to overlook my relative poverty. Though my round cheeks and small stature made me appear younger, I was painfully aware of being nineteen years old in a world where sixteen was considered the ideal age for a noble bride, a world that scarce seemed to notice my existence.
But now, with this journey, I meant for all of that to change. I was weary of being overlooked. I could no longer afford to stand meekly, modestly, to the side while others seized the most glittering rewards. I’d resolved to wrest more from my life and my future. I had, in short, discovered my ambition.
“You’re quiet, Louise.” Madame reached out to take my hand. “And here I thought you were the bravest of the lot!”
“I’m not afraid, Madame.” I nodded solemnly, praying that my eagerness was not so transparent. I’d already taken the first step by making sure to be chosen to accompany Madame on her visit. Though I was full aware of the risks of what I’d planned next, I’d no desire that anyone else –– not even Madame –– know of them, too. “I was trying to imagine England, that is all.”
“England.” Her smile softened. “You will like it, I think. It’s a sweet, dear place, and now in the spring, everything will be lush and green and full of flowers.”
“It must be very beautiful, Madame.” Green and lush would be a pleasing change from grey and chill; now I was so cold, I doubted I’d ever feel my toes or fingers again. “No wonder you have missed it so.”
She smiled absently, lost in her own musings. “And the gentlemen, Louise! The English gentlemen all follow the lead of my brother, the most charming and gallant fellow in the world.”
I’d heard much from Madame of her brother Charles, the King of England, of how he was tall and dashing, his country’s savior after a tumultuous civil war. In her eyes, he was perfection as a ruler, a man, and a Christian.
But I’d also heard of how this king was a charming libertine led by his mistresses, like a heathen sultan with his harem. Several of Madame’s English ladies had known Charles before they’d come to France, and they regaled the rest of us with breathless tales of his prodigious appetites. Fascinated, I’d listened to every word. Our French king had mistresses, too. Truly, what monarch didn’t? For Louis love was another war to be waged and won, with his mistresses only more trophies to display at Versailles as beautiful tribute of his conquests. But to hear the English ladies, Charles relished and delighted in his women, and treated love as a dance meant to please both partners. If every English gentleman were like him, as Madame claimed, why, then England must be a rare place indeed.
“I’ll have to take care with you, Louise,” Madame teased. “My brother’s gentlemen will think you’re the most enchanting young lady they’ve ever seen. One look at your sweet face, and they’ll be lost –– lost! I shouldn’t wonder if you returned to Paris with a string of English hearts.”
“You are too kind, Madame,” I murmured, and dipped my chin with the show of modesty she expected of me, and far safer on the slippery deck than a curtsey.
“Not at all,” exclaimed Madame with the forced gaiety that her illness had given her. “At my brother’s court, you would be regarded as a great beauty, with poems written in your honor and your portrait painted by Lely. He has always preferred fair women with dark hair, and thus has set the fashion. And you speak English as well, Louise, which is a considerable recommendation.”
“With your assistance, Madame.” I’d actually learned the language as a child, from the English officers that were prisoners of war in our chateau, but it was only now that I’d realized the true usefulness of such a gift. “I am but a novice at true expression in that tongue.”
“You speak it enchantingly.” She was studying my face more closely, as if considering me for the first time. “I must take care with you while we’re in Dover, my dear. There are a good many rogues among my brother’s court who will regard you as a delicious sweetmeat, to be gobbled up in one bite. I would never forgive myself if any harm befell you.”
“Yes, Madame,” I said, and once again I was grateful that she was not privy to either my thoughts or my ambitions. Yet as I bowed my head in deference, a flash of white in the watery distance caught my eye, and I gasped with excitement just as the lookout in the in the crosstrees over our heads called out the landfall. “Forgive me, Madame, but look there! Boats, Madame, a flock of little boats coming towards us!”
“And land!” She made a wordless cry of joy. “Oh, Louise, that’s England, there, that dark shadow on the horizon. England, my England at last!”
At once the vessel seemed to jump to fresh life. The crew bustled to bring us safely into port, while Madame’s servants and attendants recovered sufficiently to join her on the deck, and be in evidence when we made Dover. This last bit of water seemed to tak e forever to cross, with the changing winds making us cross back and forth as the captain did strive to reach our destination. I feared my poor frail lady would expire from anticipation before we could arrive, she was in such a fever of excitement, and as the smaller boats from the port drew close to us in welcome, tears streamed unnoticed down her pale cheeks. I remained close at her side, blotting her face with her lace-edged handkerchief so she’d not look forlorn, but her single concern was to see her brother.
At last another sloop, larger than our own and flying a royal pennant, drew alongside us. This vessel’s deck was likewise as crowded as our own, but even among so many, one man seemed to make all others around him disappear. He was a head taller than the rest, dressed in rich but somber dark colors that made him seem taller still. His skin was dark, too, nearly as dark as the sailors who weathered their lives in the sun, his features strong and manly beneath his long, black hair. Even across the water I could sense the intensity of his presence and the power that lay behind the easy way he stood the deck, as if he’d been born at sea and not in a palace. Because this, I knew, was the English king, and never for a moment did I doubt it.
He did not wait until we’d moored to come aboard, or even for the sailors to throw a gangplank between the two vessels. Instead he jumped over the gap without hesitation, and rushed across the deck to Madame. He seized her in his arms, brother and sister reunited after so long apart. They laughed and cried and spoke over one another’s words, then laughed and cried again, and their happiness was so complete that all of us who witnessed it wept with them. But even in the English Channel, the protocol of a court ruled all, and at last Madame began to present her people to the king, each bowing or curtseying before him on the wet deck in order of rank and importance, as was proper.
My place would come next, near the end. I touched the small gold crucifix I wore about my neck for luck, and whispered a quick prayer to the Virgin Mother for guidance. I was determined to put aside my shyness and be brave. I would not falter. I pushed my hood back so my face would show, and licked my lips one last time so they’d not seem so chapped. I stepped forward and sank into the most graceful curtsey I could manage on an unsteady deck, my head bowed so deeply that all the king would see would be my glossy black curls, and the white nape of my neck.
“Mademoiselle Louise de Keroualle,” Madame was saying. “You must be kind to her, Charles. She is one of my favorite ladies.”
“Mademoiselle.” His voice far over my head was deep and rich, ripe with amusement. To my shock, he took my hand in his and raised me to my feet, a gesture of favor far beyond my station, and one that scattered all my bold resolutions into disarray. Though I now stood as tall as I ever would, he held my hand still, as if he’d no wish to let it go, as if he’d every right in the world to claim my hand and me as his prize.
“Made moiselle,” he said, addressing me in French. “If you are one of my sister’s favorites, then I am sure you must be one of mine as well.”
Daring greatly, I lifted my gaze to meet his. He was smiling, smiling at me.
And oh, may the Blessed Mother preserve me, my fate with him was cast. . . .
You can pre-order The French Mistress via amazon HERE.
Susan has also graciously provided us with a giveaway!
One lucky winner will receive a copy of Susan’s 2008 release, The King’s Favorite! To enter, leave a comment here. The contest will run until Saturday, December 27 at midnight (Pacific Standard Time).
Thanks again to Susan for the excerpt, and for the giveaway!
Next on Smugglivus: Meljean Brook