Sian Norris dissects the problems behind mistress narratives in historial fiction, and explains why Maeve Haran’s The Painted Lady doesn’t fall into the typical traps
As a big fan of historical fiction, I was looking forward to reading Maeve Haran’s The Painted Lady, which tells of the life of Frances Stuart, famous for refusing to be the mistress of Charles II.
I first came across Frances in the original bodice-ripper, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, where she appears as a rather simpering and silly woman who refuses Charles’ advances, not out of virtue and honour, but out of her distaste for sex. Next to the fiery and fierce Amber, Frances unfortunately comes across as a little boring, so I was really interested to see how different Haran’s take on this character would be.
The book begins in Paris, where many cavalier families had ended up after the Civil War, Charles II included. It is here that Frances experiences her coup de foudre with the Duke of Richmond, who she cannot marry since – as in so many historical novels – he needs to marry for money and she simply doesn’t have enough.
It is also in Paris that Frances’ great beauty also catches the eye of the King, and soon enough she is on her way to London and court, where she is the centre of attention and the object of the King’s attraction. Will she resist his advances? Why does she resist his advances? Will she and the Duke of Richmond ever find happiness? The big questions posed by the novel seem limited to these; but if you love historical fiction like I do, you will probably want to follow Frances’ journey to find out the answers.
Along the way, we meet the nasty and scheming Duke of Buckingham, who seems to spend all his time plotting others’ downfall for his own amusement. His cousin, the wickedly fascinating rival for the King’s attention, Barbara Palmer, is also a central character, and is forever trying to get rid of Frances either by complaining about her or trying to trick her into having sex with the King. Queen Catherine, Minette, Rochester – the whole cast of Restoration favourites – play across the page, whilst Frances Stuart stands grand and beautiful at the centre, a player but also a canny observer, and hero of her own battle to resist the King and find true love.
Her story spans the period of war with Holland, the plague, the great fire, and the comet that spelled doom for the Stuarts across the sky. Just like Forever Amber, the episodes of the plague and the fire are some of the most exciting in the book, as they are in history.
As a feminist, it is always interesting to see how women are portrayed in historical fiction. While some writers, notably Philippa Gregory, have strong feminist messages in their books, others like Jean Plaidy are bound by sexist conventions that don’t allow women in the stories much self determination at all. Luckily, Haran is closer to Gregory when it comes to writing strong female characters. However, Frances is a tricky character to write for a contemporary woman to understand, and it is here that Haran is most impressive.
Frances refuses to have sex with a man she doesn’t love (the King) for social gain and, as readers, we respect her for standing up for her bodily autonomy. The whole concept of royal mistresses is an interesting one for readers of historical fiction, or history in general, when we consider what it means for consent. Can a woman truly consent when her entire social standing, family fortune and ‘prospects’ are dependent on her saying yes to a king? This is the issue that Philippa Gregory so beautifully delineates in The Other Boleyn Girl. In her much loved novel, Mary imagines herself in love with the King, but as their relationship palls, she cannot refuse to have sex with him and must continue working as his mistress in order to secure a future for her children, as well as to keep wealth and status being awarded to her family. In this scenario, where she can’t say no, consent is meaningless.
Historical fiction has a tendency to romanticise mistress culture and paint it as desirable and sexy, as opposed to recognising it for what it is: a financial contract for sex where consent, as we understand it, can never really be given. In this context, women are reduced to sexual commodities; if they refuse to enter this economy, they remain destitute, and if they give in to it, they risk being discarded and finding themselves ‘tainted’ and therefore unmarriageable. As Frances’ story shows, a woman is given little choice in the matter as Charles threatens to rape her if she doesn’t consent. So when we question what the role of mistress really means, had she given her consent under this social pressure, she would not really have been consenting at all.
Whilst Forever Amber portrays Frances’ celibacy as part of what she sees as her honour and disgust for sex, Haran’s Frances is much more subtle. She is a sexual woman, who feels intense physical and sexual desire. She just doesn’t feel it for Charles, and she refuses to be his mistress because to do so would be to betray the way she feels about herself and her sexuality. Unlike Barbara, who is very sexual but sees sex as a means to get what she wants, Frances wants to own her desire and her body; guarding her virginity isn’t about preserving honour and eligibility, but about desire and love. This subtle difference lifts Haran’s Frances from being the one dimensional and asexual beauty, famed in history for refusing the King, to being a woman of intense intelligence, emotion and feeling who is selective and empowered in her sexuality. It’s hard not to like her and it does give the book a feminist angle in its portrayal of a self-determined young woman surviving in a world pitted against her.
Haran is brilliant at writing dialogue and vividly brings the female world of the Queen’s Court to life. The scenes between Barbara and Frances are superb, and capture the rivalry between the two women perfectly, and Haran is fantastic at portraying women’s friendships, loyalties and conversation. Frances’ friend Mall is also a well-imagined character whose own personal journey is as interesting as the main plot. One misgiving perhaps is that Haran doesn’t quite capture the atmosphere and world of Restoration London as well as she does the lives of the women. However the chatter, fashions, passions and laughter, as well as the rivalry, gossiping and rumour of the court are vividly portrayed through Frances’ keen observation and witty humour.
Fans of historical fiction with a feminist angle will enjoy this book – a great romp through a fascinating period of history, with a strong woman at its heart and a fulfilling end.