Today we are happy and proud to have Susan Holloway Scott guest blogging with us. Susan is not only a kick-ass historical fiction writer but a Book Smuggler Favourite: we have reviewed and loved her books The King’s Favorite and The French Mistress. Upon learning she had a new book coming out – her fourth about a royal mistress – we had to invite her over to talk about it.
The Countess & the King
Historical fiction isn’t often smuggled in here, so I’m overjoyed that Ana and Thea have invited me back to talk about my newest novel, released today. Besides, of all the bookbloggers I’ve “met” on-line, they’re two of the very few I’ve also had the opportunity (and the pleasure!) to meet face-to-face-to-face –– which makes me doubly happy to be here today.
The Countess & the King is my latest book to tell the story of a royal mistress, the real-life Katherine Sedley (1657-1717) and James II of England (1633-1701). This is my fourth book about a royal mistress, and by now I’ve probably heard every snarky comment that could be snarked about mistresses. Even with a book set in the past, they’re going to be hot, and they’re going to be trouble. What more is there to know?
Actually, with Katherine Sedley, there’s much, much more. Katherine didn’t have royal blood, or a family with notable talent or power. She wasn’t a great beauty, nor did she ever have the power to change history. But she was fascinating, funny, unpredictable, and always determined to go her own way – not something most 17th c. ladies would dare to do.
Katherine was born the only child of privileged teenaged parents who weren’t much more than children themselves. In another time period, their families would have likely exerted a steadying influence, and seen that the young family followed a responsible path through life. But Katherine was born just before the grim Puritan ways of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate were replaced by the much merrier ones of Charles II, restored at last to his throne. With the king’s return, wealthy young aristocrats like the Sedleys flocked to join the free-wheeling court.
Respectability was out of fashion; exuberant excess was the new style, and young Sir Charles became a well-known libertine, famous for drunken debauchery. His young wife, however, remained at home, sinking deep into madness. Against such a background, Katherine’s upbringing reads like Hollywood tabloid-fare. Her father treated her more like an amusing pet than a daughter, taking her with him to playhouses and taverns and introducing her to his notorious friends. She was both adored and spoiled, and learned how to drink, swear, and tell off-color jokes, and was equally comfortable with actresses like Nell Gwyn and with the king himself.
Despite this childhood, Katherine’s future wasn’t entirely lost. With her father’s connections and his large fortune, she should have been primed for a splendid dynastic marriage.
Except, however, for a few sizable stumbling-blocks. First, Katherine was considered shamefully plain. In a court that prized languid, voluptuous beauties, she was pale, thin, and angular, with heavy brows and a wide mouth. She was also intelligent, her wit quick and sharp. (Her first portrait as a teenager, by Sir Peter Lely, shows how she didn’t fit the fashionable ideal.)
Most of all, she had no wish to wed and give control of her life to a husband. From her own mother to the queen herself, the court was full of neglected, lonely wives, and Katherine was far too independent for that. She had her own fortune, and was determined to choose her own loves. The first two men she gave her heart to very nearly broke it by choosing prettier women to wed instead, and another gentleman whom she rejected proved to be a fearsome enemy at court.
But finally Katherine found a man who appreciated her: James Stuart, Duke of York, and heir to the throne of England. (His portrait by Lely is here, too.)
Katherine didn’t care that James was married, or that he was much older, or that the rest of the court regarded him as a poor second in comparison to his brother the king. James found her witty and outrageously amusing and beautiful, and Katherine gleefully gave herself over to the role of a royal mistress. Her second portrait here (by Godfrey Kneller) from this time shows her unadorned elegance, her expression seemingly bemused by her good fortune.
Even as a prince’s mistress, Katherine couldn’t be conventional. She delighted in the scandal she caused, enjoying every moment of it. But the carefree days were short-lived. James had always been a polarizing figure at court, and before long his religious beliefs made him a politically dangerous one as well. Katherine was thrust into the intrigue, torn between her royal lover and England itself, and her cleverness was valuable not for amusement, but for survival. When Charles suddenly died and James became king, Katherine’s position at court grew all the more perilous. The last portrait (by the studio of Godfrey Kneller) shows her soon after James has been crowned, and after he has made her Countess of Dorchester.
Formally posed on the edge of a gilded bed, lifting aside the bed curtain in a royal mistress’s welcome, her earlier merriment has vanished. Instead she appears reserved and self-contained, as if she already knows the difficult choice before her, a choice that will determine both her fate, and that of The Countess and the King.
Many thanks to Ana and Thea for having me here, and congratulations to them for making the BBAW short-list AND being recognized by USA Network. Totally deserved!
I hope you’ll also stop by my blog with fellow author Loretta Chase, where we discuss history, writing, and yes, even the occasional pair of great shoes: Two Nerdy History Girls
Thank you Susan, a pleasure to have you around again!
We have ONE copy of The Countess and the King to give away! The contest is open to EVERYONE and will run until Saturday, September 11, 11:59PM (PST). To enter, leave a comment here. We will randomly select the winner and will announce it on Sunday in our weekly Smugglers Stash. ONE entry per person please. Good luck!