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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Royal Harlot

****½ The Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess Castlemaine and King Charles II by Susan Holloway Scott. Historical fiction.

I read this for the Cherry Forums Book Club (discussion here--you can tell how far behind I am), but since I'd read and enjoyed her previous book, I knew what I was getting into.

This is the story of Barbara Palmer, notorious mistress of King Charles II of England.

I had a terrible education in history--which is not to say that I had trouble with it in school--I got As in it, just like everything else. But it was deadly dull. In my small-town high school, history was the class taught by the two-hatted teachers: American history was taught by the football coach, European history by the basketball coach... you get the idea. It was rote memorization of names and dates that I promptly forgot after each test. I was so bored with it that I steered clear of the subject in college, mystified by why anyone would choose such classes. My interest slowly developed from living here in Europe, where history is everywhere, and has grown since my kids are all fascinated by history--they've had great teachers.

All of which is just a long-winded way of explaining that before picking up this book, I had no idea who Barbara Palmer was.

You can also tell that I don't read fictionalized biographies often, because I was surprised that Barbara's character wasn't sugar-coated, or made to seem noble and wise. Nor was she vilified, as she had been in life.

It's a clear, fascinating, readable account of an ambitious woman who married for respectability and had a long-lasting affair with the king for power and friendship, and maybe love.

Unlike Sarah Churchill in Scott's previous book, Barbara wasn't all that interested in politics. She was interested in Barbara. And then when she had children, she was interested in their welfare and future prospects.

Barbara's actions were viewed as wicked and immoral at the time, and even from a modern perspective, they're not by any means admirable. But seeing the very real woman behind the actions--a very ordinary woman, even if she was celebrated for her beauty, full of both strengths and faults--was quite thought-provoking.

I don't think I'll start looking for books in this genre, or researching the time period, but I will definitely be buying The King's Favorite next July.


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