Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess of Castlemaine and King Charles II
Having previously provided a fictional memoir of Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough (Duchess, an Editors’ Choice), Scott brings to vivid life another of the 17th century’s most notorious, brazen, and powerful females. If anything, Royal Harlot is an even more assured, nuanced, and colorful portrait of a woman and her age.
Well-born Royalist Barbara Villiers, stifled by Cromwell’s Puritanical regime, wastes no time shedding her useless virginity. Her first passion, the faithless libertine Lord Chesterfield, uses her voluptuous body and teaches tricks she will later put to good use. Enter Roger Palmer, a gentleman working in league with those aiming to place the exiled Stuart king upon his rightful throne. Serving as her husband’s courier, Barbara travels to Holland to personally deliver money to King Charles. Their first meeting, followed immediately by their first coupling, is combustible.
After the King’s restoration, Barbara’s barely compliant husband is ennobled and she becomes Lady Castlemaine. As His Majesty’s premiere mistress she reigns supreme, even after her royal lover takes a queen. Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s consort, is heartlessly mocked and disdained—neither her redeeming qualities nor the many miscarriages she suffered while her husband dallied with bad Barbara are mentioned here.
In her intriguing portrayal, Scott tempers Barbara’s rapacious sexuality while presenting a Charles who seems far less frustrated with her tempestuousness than the historical record indicates. And although the real Barbara was better known for her ambition and avarice than her maternal devotion, the novelist incorporates her motherhood to good effect.
Among this novel’s many strengths are Scott’s impressive depiction of time and place, her evocation of the Restoration-era mindset, the exuberance of the period, and her sure, succinct presentation of complex historical events. The reader can well believe that this is a memoir penned by a woman who—in reality—was clearly too busy living to ever write one!