Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New Review: Judith James' The King’s Courtesan - Great Restoration Romance

This is a sequel to LIBERTINE’S KISS as Elizabeth Walters and William de Veres, the hero and heroine of that tale, are married in this one-but it can also be read as a stand alone. The story opens in London in the fall of 1651, as Charles Stuart, previously named King of Great Britain and Ireland, is in his early 20’s and has been defeated by Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Wales. Charles has fled to France where he will live in exile for the next 9 years.

Hope Matthews, whose mother runs a brothel, is fourteen when she watches Cromwell’s returning forces. Ever the dreamer, she sees a young officer on a black horse and imagines him her gallant rescuer. Soon thereafter, he becomes her rescuer indeed when she falls to the street in front of him. She decides she has found her true love, but her mother has other plans for her. That very day, Hope’s virtue is sold to the highest bidder.

Eleven years later, in 1662, Charles II has been restored to the British crown. By this time, he has several mistresses, including Hope—and that is really the beginning of the story. Captain Sir Robert Nichols Baronet at 35 is a jaded soldier, living only for revenge for the death of his sister Caroline. He has returned to Cressly Manor, his home, and to the life of a country gentleman, when he receives a letter telling him his manor and lands are forfeit to the king for his fighting for Cromwell. But the king is about to marry and all that will change. Needing a place for his lowborn mistress Hope, the king tells Robert he can keep his lands if he’ll marry her providing the king with a cover for their relationship. Robert agrees to save his lands, thinking he’ll keep it a marriage in name only.

As always, James tells a good story with a complex plot. No one captures the heart of a troubled man better than she does. Or makes us believe one can pick up the pieces of a broken life. She writes exceptionally well and her historical details enrich the story. She shows us Nottingham and it’s delightful. Her characters are well developed. In this case, the hero is a troubled war vet who is haunted by the ghosts of his past. The heroine has a sweet, gentle spirit. She became a kept woman largely because she was forced into it.There are some winsome secondary characters, including the de Veres. I enjoyed this installment though not as much as her first book, BROKEN WING (2008), which still remains my favorite. 

In her “Afterword,” James tells us the character of William de Veres was based on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. It is his poetry that we read in this tale, just as we did in LIBERTINE’S KISS. I thought it was most clever of James. A great historical touch.

Like LIBERTINE’S KISS, some of the story takes place in the court of Charles II. In history, Charles II sired a dozen children, none legitimate. He had 7 mistresses and James’ description of the animosity between them is likely very accurate. It is certainly believable. When Charles finally did marry, he had a barren wife. The irony of that must not have escaped him. He believed in God and may have seen it as a judgment on his life. He had no heirs. This story is, by the author’s note, based on Nell Gwyn, one of his mistresses, who gave birth to two of his illegitimate sons, though Hope Matthews in the story gave him no children. I thought James portrayed Charles well, not sparing us the sordid side of his life. (As a side note of interest, Princess Diana descended from one of Charles' illegitimate offspring, and if Prince William is named king in future, he will be the first descendant of Charles II to reign as King of England.)

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