An accomplished author of over 40 historical novels and novellas, Susan Holloway Scott is one of the finest writers in the genre. Her best-selling novels are a delight to read and take you back into time not only thrilling you with romance, intrigue, scheming, and plotting, but also giving readers a delicious history lesson as well. The main focus of her recent novels have been 17th-century England mainly focusing on the reign of King Charles II, his many mistresses, and his pleasure-filled court.
Scott’s novels focus on the many fascinating women that filled the heart and bed of King Charles II. In “Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess of Castlemaine and King Charles II” the focus is on Barbara Villiers Palmer, the ambitious, calculating, and power hungry unpopular mistress of the king. “The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II” is the story of Nell Gwyn, the witty actress who charmed on the stage and charmed the king. “The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth and King Charles II” focuses on Louise de Keroualle, the unpopular French mistress of King Charles II. All these novels pay tribute to the women that made the life of King Charles II enjoyable, pleasurable, amusing, and even at times, difficult.
Scott also has written another historical fiction novel based on a prominent historical figure in that time period. “Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill” is the story of the Duchess of Marlborough who was a great friend to Queen Anne I and had great ambition.
Scott’s latest novel called “The Countess and the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester and King James II” available on September 7th is the story of Katherine Sedley who becomes the mistress of James, Duke of York, heir to the throne and eventual King James II.
Scott lives with her family in a book-filled house outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She also is the writer of two weblogs called “From the Notebook” and “Two Nerdy History Girls”.
You write primarily about the 17th century court of King Charles II. How did you become interested in this time period? Why does this area of history interest you so much?
Scott: I can answer that first question in two words: Forever Amber. In middle school I discovered a well-worn copy of that book (a long-ago bestseller and last classic by Kathleen Winsor) in my local library, and discovered Charles II and the Restoration at the same time. I’ve been fascinated by both ever since.
And how could I not love England at its very merriest? Coming on the heels of a horrific civil war, a regicide, and the puritanical protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the reign of Charles II (1660-1683) is a writer’s delight. Called the Restoration in honor of Charles’s return to the throne, this period has much in common with other permissive eras that follow a repressive period (think the Swinging Sixties and Roaring Twenties of the 20th century.) An entire generation of English aristocratic children had grown into adulthood during the Civil War, and many who would once again form the ruling class were rootless, wild, and often undereducated. Once Charles returned from exile in France to take his father’s crown, 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.
What do you believe were King Charles II’s strengths and weaknesses as king?
Scott: For most of his reign, Charles was a monarch popular with his people, and with good reason, too. Tall, athletic, witty, intelligent, and charming, with a tragic history that gave him a romantic air of melancholy, Charles was in many ways a model king. He was kind and tolerant by nature, self-deprecating instead of proud, and leaned more towards forgiveness than vengeance. He was sympathetic towards even the most humble of his subjects, and moved freely among them, walking each day in St. James’s Park. He did have flaws: he would have much preferred to have been an absolute monarch rather than having Parliament nipping at his heels, he much preferred hunting to diplomacy, and he had a king-sized libido that led to a queen, several official mistresses, and informal bedmates by the dozens, and produced nearly a score of recognized royal bastards.
But to the Englishmen he ruled, Charles was their much-loved and very human king, and at his death the country was plunged into grief-stricken despair. If there had been political approval ratings in the 17th century, Charles’s would have been off the charts. He unified a country torn by civil war, restored its economy, and placed England firmly on the world stage.
King Charles II was famously notorious for his many mistresses. You write about the three main mistresses in your various novels. Barbara Villiers Palmer, Nell Gwyn, and Louise de Keroualle each had different ways they attracted the king. What do you think was the attraction of each of them to King Charles?
Scott: I agree with historian and biographer Antonia Fraser, who suggests that Charles’s three most prominent mistresses each offered different things to Charles at different times in his life. Barbara was the uninhibited wild-child of his early reign, appealing to him as a sexual adventuress. Nell’s saucy wit made her a kind of court fool, delighting Charles as she dared to skewer the stuffier members of his court even as she was his “country lass”, happily fishing and skinny-dipping with him at Windsor. Louise became the perfect bonne femme of his later years, representing not only the hospitality but also the French opulence and elegance that he’d always envied in the court of his cousin, King Louis XIV.
In “Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess of Castlemaine and King Charles II”, Barbara Villiers Palmer, the Countess of Castlemaine is portrayed as having enemies throughout the court and is disliked by many for her power. She is not a likable person by any means. Do you believe there was a softer side to this complicated woman? What are some of her more positive traits?
Scott: Born to a noble family, Barbara Villiers took her first lover at 15, married at 18, and became Charles’s lover the following year. Following his Restoration to the throne, she was the unofficial queen of his bawdy, fun-loving court for nearly a decade, amassing enormous power and wealth along the way. She was feared for her political influence, acclaimed for her beauty, audacity, and wit, and damned from pulpits for her legendary amorality. Despite her long attachment to Charles, neither of them could stay faithful to the other, and like him, Barbara had scores of lovers, from rope-dancers to actors to high-born lords. She was a lousy wife, but an excellent friend and mother, devoted to her six illegitimate children (all of whom survived to adulthood, a rare achievement indeed.) She was clever and did what she pleased, whatever the consequences – very rare for a woman of her time, and even more so for a royal mistress. She possessed a wicked sense of humor, and by all contemporary reports, she could be great fun and excellent company. After their own fashion, I think Charles did love her dearly, and she him: their version of a love story, a friendship, an alliance. They really were two of a kind.
“The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II” is your novel focusing on actress, Nell Gwyn. The novel shows a strong and sweet relationship between King Charles and Nell. Why do you think the relationship was so strong and uncomplicated between King Charles and Nell?
Scott: Despite her low birth (she was likely the illegitimate daughter of a soldier and a camp-follower/prostitute), Nell truly believed she was fated to love the king. Yet Nell’s scuffling life and childhood made her tough beyond her years, and when, as one of the most popular actresses of her time, she finally caught the royal eye, she was wise enough not to tumble into his bed at once. She was already a success in her own right; she could afford to withstand Charles’s considerable royal charm. For a woman who cheerfully called herself a whore all her life, Nell was not promiscuous, especially not for the wanton times in which she lived. Only four men can be documented as having shared her bed (though many others claimed to have done so), and none of those four were chosen on impulse.
The king was no exception. Nell became Charles’s friend long before she was his lover, and remained his friend until his death. Charles expected his friends to entertain him; he was a clever, restless man, easily bored and with little patience for tedious company. Nell’s audacity, humor, and boundless energy captivated him, and they both enjoyed decidedly un-royal pastimes like swimming, fishing, and long walks in the country (though just like many modern city-dwellers who don’t have driver’s licenses, Nell was terrified of riding horses, one of Charles’s great country passions.) While Nell seldom meddled in politics, she did often say things to Charles that were so outrageously frank that she would surely have been banished from Court if she’d been a man. Her mimicry and sarcasm could be so sharp that it might have been viewed as subversive, especially coming from a common-born woman. But Charles delighted in her honesty, especially when it was worded to make him laugh. She dared to say many of the things that, as king, he likely only could think. That, along with her boundless loyalty and love for him, earned her his love in return.
In “The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth and King Charles II” we meet Louise de Keroualle who is portrayed as sweet, with a big heart, and very emotional and prone to tears. Many in history regard her though as haughty, proud, power hungry, and even cruel. Why did you go with this different approach and portrayal of Louise?
Scott: Royal mistresses live in the public eye as much for their political relationship to the king as for their sexual connection. Louise de Keroualle, being a Frenchwoman from the French court, was feared by most Englishmen for how she might influence their king, and that fear quickly turned to hatred. She represented the triple-whammy of evil: she was French, she was Catholic, and she appeared to have an unnatural hold on the king. As a result, Louise was subject of vicious personal attacks and lampoons in the press of the time, many of which have come down to us in history books as fact rather than slander. All of Charles’s mistresses except for Nell suffered from this fate; Nell, as the mistress who gained the least politically and financially, has evolved into something of an impish popular saint. In all these cases, I tried to go back to contemporary sources, and sift through the slanders to find the real woman buried by “history.”
I’d known something of Louise after writing my previous two books about her rival-mistresses (Barbara in “Royal Harlot” and Nell in “The King’s Favorite”), and though some of Nell’s witty attacks had made me feel a little sorry for Louise, it wasn’t until I’d begun researching her background in France that I developed an empathy with her. I hadn’t realized how she spent her life as a constant outsider. She had a difficult relationship with her parents, she never quite fit in at Louis XIV’s court, and she made virtually no true friends at the English court. The only one whom she seemed to trust was Charles, and the only other person she loved was their son –– who, sadly, did little to return his mother’s devotion. Learning that Louise never married nor became romantically linked to any other man, remaining constant to Charles’s memory for the remainder of her long life –– she outlived Charles by fifty years! –– seems especially poignant. That was the version of Louise I chose for “The French Mistress”.
Have you considered novels on any of the other illustrious mistresses in the life of King Charles II? Who interests you the most?
Scott: While literally hundreds of women passed through the royal bed, there were really only three royal “mistresses” (Barbara, Nell, and Louise) who had lasting places in Charles’s bed and heart. Never say never, but for now I don’t believe any of the other ladies lingered long enough to support an entire book. But you never know….!
You’ve also written about Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the beloved friend of Queen Anne I in “Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill”. What do you believe was Sarah’s power over Queen Anne?
Scott: The relationship between Sarah and Anne would be unusual in any era. The two met at court as children: Anne was a plain, shy princess who had lost her mother and was coping with a stepmother only a few years older than she was herself, while Sarah was brave, beautiful, poor, and ambitious. Anne immediately latched onto Sarah as being everything that she wasn’t, and Sarah returned the younger girl’s fierce loyalty, albeit with a bit of calculation. For many years, the friendship burned with a passionate fervor through their marriages and the births and deaths of children, and through Anne’s ascension to the throne. For Anne, who gave trust warily, the friendship was one of the few sure things in her life, and she clung to it desperately long past the time when Sarah had begun trying to push her away. The more irrational and temperamental that Sarah became, the more the desperate Anne showered her and Sarah’s husband with more rewards and honors, until, finally, the friendship tragically, and irrevocably, collapsed. Sarah’s greatest mistakes were overestimating her own power and influence over her friend to the point of taking her for granted, and also in underestimating Anne’s own resolve. As much as Anne loved Sarah, she loved England more, and as queen was determined to do her best for her country, even at the cost of her friendship with Sarah. There are many examples in history of two men as close friends and powerful political allies, but the story of Sarah and Anne is unique.
Your next novel, due out in September, is “The Countess and the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester and King James II”. What will it be about?
Scott: 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. Katherine Sedley was the only daughter and heiress to the libertine poet Sir Charles Sedley, and grew into a thoroughly scandalous lady in her own right. In a court filled with voluptuous beauties, she was plain and thin, and made her mark instead through her cleverness and wit. Though her fortune made her much desired as a bride, she refused to marry and let any man take control of her life. Instead she remained independent, becoming mistress to a king, wife to a general, and countess in her own right, remaining at the English court for nearly forty years and through five monarchs. Look for Katherine’s adventurous story in “The Countess and the King”, in stores on September 7.
Do you have any plans for future novels after that release?
Scott: Right now I’m working on a historical novel that’s quite different from the royal mistress books. I can’t reveal what it is yet, not until I have a firm publication date, but I promise it will be well worth the wait!
What other areas of history would you like to write about and interest you?
Scott: I’d love to return to Colonial America (I’ve written about two dozen books in that setting under another pen name), and eighteenth century England also appeals to me, as does the Italian Renaissance. But I’m such a history-nerd that, with time for research, I could probably enjoy writing in just about any time period.
What authors from the past and present do you enjoy or have inspired you?
Scott: Since I don’t wish to offend or slight any of my writerly friends, I’ll list my favorite authors no longer writing. In no particular order: Edith Wharton, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, George Macdonald Fraser, Anthony Trollope, and Patrick O’Brian.
Who is your favorite mistress of King Charles II?
Scott: Asking me to choose one of those ladies is like asking a mother to name her favorite child! They were three such different women – but I think of the three, I’d probably like to spend an evening at Whitehall Palace sitting beside Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland. I liked her for her wicked sense of humor and her unbridled passions, and her absolute lack of guilt. She seemed to have been completely uninhibited, and though I wouldn’t necessarily want or trust her as a friend, I loved writing her. I can completely understand why Charles found her so fascinating.
Besides the mistresses of King Charles II, who is your favorite historical person from that time period?
Scott: Probably John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. He was probably the baddest of the era’s bad boys, but he was also one of the most gifted. He was handsome, intelligent, well-educated, and blessed with a wickedly quick and clever wit. He was a poet whose work is still read today. Sadly, he was also cursed with a great many personal demons that ranged from alcoholism to religious guilt, and he died far too young from a lethal combination of drink and syphilis. But his complex if doomed personality makes him a fascinating personality, even three hundred or so years later.
Who was the better king: King Charles II of England or King Louis XIV of France?
Scott: Let’s put it this way: when Charles died, his subjects wept in the streets, and it was said that the country grieved as if it had truly lost a dear father. When Louis died, his people rejoiced. Is that answer enough? Not that I’m biased or anything!
Who ruled England the best: King Charles II, King James II, King William III & Queen Mary II or Queen Anne I?
Scott: That’s very hard to answer, since they each ruled in very different times, with different challenges. Of course James gets bounced at once from the discussion, since he’s generally regarded as one of Britain’s all-time worst rulers. Both the reigns of Anne and William & Mary (more specifically William, since during her short life, Mary was content to let her husband do most of the ruling) included long and costly European wars that exhausted the country, but also increased England’s growing prestige as a world power. They also oversaw the rise of Parliament, and the diminishing of the absolute monarchy in England. Charles, however, had to rule in tougher times that included healing an England torn by civil war, the Great Fire that destroyed a large part of London and the plague that killed many of his people – and juggling it all with very little money. So, for me, Charles was probably the most successful.
*A huge thanks to Susan Holloway Scott for this fascinating and detailed interview*
“The Countess and the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester and King James II” will be available September 7th.
For more information on Susan Holloway Scott: http://www.susanhollowayscott.com/index.htm
Susan Holloway Scott’s “From the Notebook” blog: susanhollowayscott.blogspot.com/
Susan Holloway Scott and fellow historical writer, Loretta Chase’s blog “Two Nerdy History Girls”: http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/