Louise de Kéroualle, Charles II’s French mistress: a discussion with Susan Holloway Scott
Every time I visit the Getty Center in Los Angeles, I pay a visit to the splendid portrait of Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, by Sir Peter Lely. I knew of my countrywoman Louise, royal mistress, French agent in London and one of the 17th century’s famous beauties. However, when I read Susan Holloway Scott’s The French Mistress, I got a more personal look at this fascinating woman. Now Susan has kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions, and she tells me she will take yours as well.
Before The French Mistress, you wrote historical novels about Lady Castlemaine and Nell Gwynn, both mistress of Charles II of England. Whence this interest in these fallen women?
I suspect Louise de Kéroualle would have been very offended to be called a “fallen woman”! I was more intrigued by the idea of women with power at the Court than the racy concept of mistresses. In 17th century royal courts, the role of the king’s mistress was a prestigious one. These women had the king’s ear (among other things!) and with that confidence came a great deal of power. They often acted as the king’s unofficial hostess, receiving important politicians and international diplomats in their quarters so that the king might meet them on a more informal basis. They often became involved in political negotiations, and it was expected that they accept bribes of money and gifts for the use of their influence. They were rewarded with titles, lands, and wealth for their services, and their children by the king were ennobled. Away from the Court, ordinary Englishmen hated them as a drain on the king’s finances and clergymen denounced them as strumpets, but in London they were celebrities, and people crowded after their carriages for a glimpse of their famous beauty.
While being a royal mistress wasn’t a semi-official post at the English Court as it was in France, where Louis maintained maitresses en titre, these women still were important in a way that few others of their time were. Dozens of women passed through Charles’s bed, but the overwhelming majority of them are now faceless and forgotten. The royal mistresses were different. Seventeenth century women couldn’t serve in Parliament, the military or the church, or the diplomatic corps, or attend university. The only path to power for an ambitious woman of the time was through a man, whether as a wife or as a mistress. The four 17th century women I’ve written about – Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, Nell Gwyn, and Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth – each relied as much on their wit and intelligence to achieve and maintain their success and power as they did on their beauty and sexual favors. The least “successful” of the group was Nell, but then she had many other attributes that made her an interesting heroine to me.
You use American spelling in the novel. That was a dilemma I encountered for Mistress of the Revolution, and I convinced my (or I should say our) publisher to humour me in keeping the British spelling. Are you ever tempted to use the British spelling?
To be honest, it’s never occurred to me, any more than I’d insist on archaic spellings that were in use in the 1660s. Yes, I want my books to be historically accurate, but when my publisher is based in New York, publishing for American readers, I’d have to say the American spelling is the way to go. In the editions from my English publisher, it’s the English spelling.
Henriette, Duchesse d’Orléans, sister to Charles II and sister-in-law to Louis XIV, is a very important character in the first part of The French Mistress. Do you think you will be tempted to go back to her in another novel where she would be the heroine?
Henriette is one of the 17th century’s truly tragic figures, and ample proof that being born a royal princess never guarantees happiness. It’s interesting how often the delicate Madame appears in novels, but always as a secondary character, never as the heroine. Her life is so short and sad that it would be quite a challenge to fictionalize. But never say never….!
Louise, your heroine and narrator, believes Henriette was poisoned. This makes complete sense from a historical standpoint because many contemporaries, in both France and England, were convinced of it and blamed the foul deed on her husband or his lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine. Yet the autopsy might also point to generalized tuberculosis. What is your personal opinion?
Whenever a famous person of the past died suddenly, the first conclusion that everyone jumped to was poison. It’s a grand and dramatic accusation to make, and in an era before CSI-style investigations, it was often difficult to prove otherwise. It was also a reasonable possibility; wise kings had someone else taste their food first. Louise definitely believed Henriette was poisoned, as did Charles and most of both the French and English Courts. But because the princess’s death could have led to an enormous international incident, Charles finally and officially accepted the explanations for his sister’s death. His grieving for her was very real, however, and so deep that many of this friends feared for his sanity – though his sorrow was to be one of the first shared bonds between him and Louise.
Personally I don’t believe Henriette was poisoned. Always in fragile health, the pattern of her last illness seems to have been too lengthy for poisoning, and the medical evidence surrounding her death seems to rule against it. I say “seems” because after 300 years, it’s very hard to know for certain. I’ll leave it to the medical historians who love puzzles like this!
It is impossible not to draw a parallel between Henry VIII and Charles II. The latter had given hope of an heir by his queen, Catherine of Braganza, and knew that his brother would not be able to keep his throne for more than a few years. He clearly anticipated the succession crisis that did ensue. Yet he refused to divorce Catherine. Do you think he was ever tempted to do so?
I’m sure he was. How could he not be? Unlike Henry, Charles had fathered numerous healthy sons with other women; he knew the problem was with his queen, not him. But though Charles had repeatedly sinned against his wife with many, many other women, he seems to have drawn the line at divorcing her, no matter the consequences. He believed that they were joined by God, and he would not tolerate any discussion of dissolving their union. During the Popish Plot crisis, when Catherine and her household were under personal attack for being Catholic, Charles fiercely defended his queen even at the risk to his own crown. He respected Catherine as a pious, honorable woman, and regarded her as a friend. In his way, I believe he loved her (though I also believe Charles was one of those men who can be in love with several women at once.) Certainly she loved him dearly, no matter how much suffering his infidelities brought her. Like so many marriages, royal or ordinary, that might outwardly make little sense, this husband and wife seemed to have come to some sort of understanding over the years.
In your novel, the French ambassador once tells Louise that Charles II is ruled by his- let’s say nether parts, since we are more prudish than our 17th century ancestors. Is this your opinion of this monarch?
There’s no question that Charles liked women, and that women liked him. He liked them as friends and companions as well as partners in bed. But he also had a very hard time refusing anything to his favorites, finding it much easier to give in to their requests than to face their tears or wrath. This gave him the reputation of being ruled by women, and drew scorn from his enemies and exasperation from his supporters (though the ladies never seem to have objected.)
But when it came to actual ruling, Charles was definitely his own man. Louis XIV, the French king sent Louise to Charles hoping she could sway him to support French interests, and countless baubles and bribes were given to all of the major mistresses in the hope that they would influence the king. In the end, Charles generally paid their sweet voices very little attention in important matters. Behind his charming manner, Charles was a very clever ruler, much given to secretive double-dealing and complicated plots, and perhaps it suited him to have foreign ambassadors believing he was being led about by his … nose.
Louise at one point wonders “Would the pleasure of being a royal favorite lessen the humiliation of being called a whore?” How do you think she answers this question at the conclusion of the novel?
Early in her relationship with Charles, Louise worried a great deal about her dishonorable status. She had been raised as a pious Catholic lady with a convent education, and though she could understand the obligations of Court life, those same obligations weighed on her conscience. She resisted Charles’s seduction for over a year, and while the English courtiers jeered at her reluctance and accused her of cunning, I think her reluctance was probably quite genuine.
Yet in time, she clearly came to terms with her status, or perhaps rationalized it to herself. She was Charles’s favorite for more than a decade, and during those years she believed herself to be much more than an ordinary mistress, almost a wife and never a whore. To be sure, the coarseness of the word always offended her; she was very conscious of being the gracious French lady among so many crude English. But she worked hard to become indispensable to Charles, both in his dealings with France, and as the island of calm and civility in his turbulent life. She knew he loved her, and that he also loved their son. She also saw herself as the important link to his eventual conversion to Catholicism. A mistress can never feel entirely secure, but it does appear that the more Louise loved and trusted Charles, the less she worried about being called his whore. So yes, to her the emotional rewards were well worth the humiliation. And then, of course, there was also the astounding amount of loot she managed to receive – the gold, silver, paintings, furniture, tapestries, and jewels – that required her own treasure-ships to haul off to France after Charles’s death. Considerable compensation in that!
You have a close interest in colonial America, and you often take the readers of your blog to Williamsburg. What attracts you to Restoration England?
I’ve written over forty novels under different names, and in the course of those books I’ve wandered over a variety of historical settings, from North Africa to southern Italy to colonial America, and time periods that range from the early 17th century to the mid-19th. Before I wrote Duchess, the first of my Restoration-set novels, I didn’t really know much at all about Charles II or his court. But the more I researched the period, the more intrigued I became. The Restoration and reign of Charles II (1660-1685) has much in common with other permissive eras that follow a repressive period. An entire generation of aristocratic children had grown into adulthood during the English Civil War and the Puritanical Commonwealth that followed it, and many who would once again form the ruling class were rootless, wild, and often undereducated.
With Charles’s return to the throne, traditional morality went out the window. There was considerable experimentation, not only in sexual behavior, but also in theatre, science, art, and music, even in fashion. It’s a fascinating time in which to set stories, looking forward to the humanist themes of the Age of Enlightenment, but still sufficiently medieval that traitors’ severed heads rotted on pikes on London Bridge.
As for the frequent blogs about Colonial Williamsburg (at www.twonerdyhistorygirls.com) yes, I freely admit I love the place, both for its dedication to history, its scholarly experts on everything 18th century, and its beauty. But my reason for using it so often as a backdrop for blogs is much more prosaic. My parents live nearby, and I can visit Colonial Williamsburg whenever I visit them. Blog-ly inspiration usually follows.
I find the cover art of The French Mistress both beautiful and interesting. Beautiful of course because of the gorgeous portrait of Louise by Sir Peter Lely. Interesting because dear Louise was able to keep her head, or at least part of it, no mean feat for a historical novel heroine. Did you have to fight for this? And do you think the headless trend is here to stay?
It is a beautiful portrait, and you have the advantage over me because you’ve seen the original at the Getty! Louise had her portrait painted many times, but this one by Lely, painted soon after she arrived in London, is my favorite. This was my first choice for the cover, so I was especially pleased when it was picked. I was less than pleased when they cropped away the top from her head in the final version. Still, Louise kept more of her head than most of the ladies do on historical fiction covers these days. To me, all these headless heroines are demeaning – as if the beautiful gowns and bodies are much more important than whatever lies in female heads. Why not show the faces, particularly if the art is a portrait of the book’s heroine? If the book takes place during a time of execution by beheading – during Tudor or Elizabethan times, for example, or during the Terror – then the headless cover-ladies make for a pretty ghoulish statement. But I’m only a writer, not a publishing art director: what do I know? The headless ladies wouldn’t keep appearing if they didn’t sell, and the bottom line is always, well, the bottom line.
Your next novel, The Countess and the King, will be published in September by NAL/Penguin. What can you tell us about it?
My next heroine has already made her appearance in The King’s Favorite as a ten-year-old girl, dancing jigs in the moonlight with Nell Gwyn. She now has her own book in The Countess and the King. Katherine Sedley (1657-1717) was the only daughter and heiress to the libertine poet Sir Charles Sedley, and Katherine followed his example by growing into a scandalous lady in her own right.
In a Court renowned for beautiful women, she was notoriously plain but wickedly witty, and she made her mark by her intelligence rather than her looks. Though her fortune made her much desired as a bride, she liked her independence, and refused to marry and lose control of her life and her money. Instead she chose to be mistress to Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York. But when her royal lover became King James II, Katherine was suddenly cast into a tangle of political intrigue in which the wrong step meant treason, exile, or death on the executioner’s block. As the risks rose, Katherine was forced to make the most perilous of choices: to remain loyal to her lover the King, or to England. Here’s the link to an except on my website: http://www.susanhollowayscott.com/books/countesspreview.htm
Many thanks for having me as your guest, Catherine!
And many thanks to you, Susan, for these thoughtful answers. I hope you will drop by again in a few months to discuss The Countess and the King.
FTC Disclosure: Susan and I are both published by the Penguin Group, and have the same editor at NAL. I received a free copy of The French Mistress, as well as a five-pound bound manuscript of The Countess and the King.