From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Hello, Harlot!

Monday, July 02, 2007

My second historical novel, Royal Harlot, follows the life and career of Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland (1641-1709), and the most famous/infamous mistress of English King Charles II (1630-85.) and one of the most independent women in history.

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, andCrop_charles_w_orb 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.) 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. But Barbara did what she pleased, with whomever pleased her, and she didn’t give a fig for what anyone else thought.

To judge from contemporary diaries, it seems that at least half the men in 17th century London were fantasizing about her at any given time. And from the way she and Charles took over my writing-life for nearly a year, I’d have to say her power to fascinate is still strong after three hundred years.

As delighted as Barbara would be today to see her story in so many bookstores, I’m sure she would be horrified by her cropped, faceless portrait on the cover. I’ve mentioned here before that while my publisher wanted to use a real portrait of her, they felt that her much-vaunted beauty wouldn’t hold much appeal to modern readers. Tastes change. What was hot in 1660 ain’t necessarily so now, and today Barbara’s much-praised “languid eyes” look more drugged than seductive.

Yet Barbara understood the power of image in a thoroughly modern way. She knew her power lay in her extraordinary beauty, and she knew, too, that the more people who could see her and therefore appreciate that beauty, the more power in turn she’d have as a public figure.

Early in her relationship with Charles, she sat for artist Sir Peter Lely. He adored her beauty, and paintedBarbarawhite_dress004_2 her repeatedly, becoming so bewitched by her that other sitters complained he’d given them Barbara’s eyes. In addition to seeing his portraits of Barbara hung in Palace, Sir Peter also commissioned and sold inexpensive prints of the portraits. Soon Barbara’s face became as ubiquitous as Paris Hilton’s is to us, with prints hanging in taverns and barracks all over England, as well as in the parlors of people who wished to be fashionable.

But Barbara’s portraits weren’t simply pretty pictures. Seventeenth-century portraits often showed their sitters in allegorical poses, as goddesses or Biblical figures, and Barbara, knowing how Charles delighted in clever jests, took care to have Sir Peter pack her portraits with all sorts of hidden meanings. For her first major portrait in 1661, she posed as the repentant prostitute and saint Mary Magdalene, in the wilderness with her long hair unbound (and a revealing, silver silk-satin dressing gown clasped with jewel brooches, but what else does one wear, really, for repenting in the wilderness?)

Barbara, of course, was neither saintly nor penitent, which her contemporaries would have understood at once. Yet they also would have understood the other, more subtle, implications of the painting –– that if Barbara were the Magdalene, then Charles, as the leader of the English Protestant Church, could also be likened to Jesus Christ –– that seem unsettlingly irreligious today.

But Barbara went further. In 1665, she had Sir Peter paint her without jewels, in the modest blue and red robes of the Virgin Mary. (Here's the link to see it.) In her arms is the baby Charles Fitzroy, later Duke of Cleveland, her first illegitimate son with the king. She is also visibly pregnant. As lovely a painting as this is, it managed to be simultaneously blasphemous and yet flattering to Charles (who liked it very much), while also presenting Barbara and her son as part of the Stuart royal dynasty. Charles was increasingly sensitive to the fact that his wife had yet to give him a much-needed heir, and he was reassured by this visible proof of his own potent virility. At the same time, the picture was a calculated jab at Charles’s Catholic queen. Catherine of Braganza, showing Barbara as the fertile (very fertile) Protestant Madonna, and a more suitable consort to an English king. (For more about this painting, read the article on the site of the National Portrait Gallery.)

The 1667 portrait on the cover of Royal Harlot is another calculated allegory, designed to make everyone talk. This time Barbara appropriates the queen’s own patron saint, posing as St. Catherine of Alexandria with the saint’s palm-front and the wheel of her martyrdom. Her hand on the suggestive (!!) sword’s hilt represented her readiness to fight for her place at the king’s side, even to the point ofBettercoverbarb usurping the queen. Wearing decidedly unsaintly jewels (gifts from the king, natch), her voluptuous uncorseted body flaunts her obvious attractions (and the fact that she is again pregnant) in the face of the sallow little queen.

Barbara’s sly half-smile has a certain “what, can’t you take a joke?” feel to it that somehow makes the picture even more wicked. Did Charles see the joke, too, or had Barbara finally gone too far? Ah, you’ll have to read Royal Harlot, and find out for yourself…

Read the prologue for Royal Harlot, and learn how Barbara and Charles first meet.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home