Today I'd like to welcome Susan Holloway Scott back to Reading the Past to talk about her latest novel, The Countess and the King, which recounts the dramatic early life of Restoration-era royal mistress Katherine Sedley. While Susan's most recent biographical novels focused on mistresses of Charles II – Barbara Palmer (Royal Harlot), Nell Gwyn (The King's Favorite), and Louise de Keroualle (The French Mistress) – Katherine was closely associated instead with the Merry Monarch's brother, James, Duke of York, who ascended the throne in 1685 as James II.
Although she was born the only daughter of a wealthy family – her father is one of the king's dearest friends – Katherine is known simply as "Miss Sedley," for she bears no title herself. A woman of average looks amid a sea of great beauties, Katherine develops a talent for bold repartee at a young age; while this makes her popularity rise at court, it also earns her others' enmity. The relationship between Katherine and the Duke of York puzzles other courtiers, who can't fathom the attraction between a plain-faced Protestant commoner and the king's unpopular, Catholic, and less charismatic younger brother. But opposites have a way of attracting, and Katherine stands by him during a period of intense political and religious turmoil in England.
I enjoyed being able to observe the Restoration court through a different set of eyes; Katherine has a unique perspective on her lover, James II, who hasn't exactly gone down in history as the most popular or successful monarch. Katherine makes for an appealing heroine, and I can imagine her clever banter (the girl has quite a mouth on her at times!) was as fun to write as it was to read. I couldn't resist asking Susan about this aspect of Katherine's character, as well as her research methods, the historical background, and details on other personalities who played significant roles in the courts of Charles II and James II.
The Countess and the King was published by NAL in September ($15.00, 384pp), and the publisher has provided me with a spare copy for a giveaway. (Thanks!) I hope you'll enjoy the interview, and please read to the end for details on how to win yourself a copy. Because I've managed to squeeze this interview in on the last day of September, I'm also making this my entry for the letter S in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge (S is for Sedley or Susan – take your pick).
Katherine's barbed, ribald wit is especially shocking when you consider her youth. You don't hear much about the children who grew up around Charles II's bawdy Restoration court, which made me wonder if her childhood was unique in that respect. Was it? How did you go about researching such a topic?
Researching Katherine’s childhood – and, really, her entire life – was a challenge. There has never been a full-length biography written about her, nor have her letters been collected and published. If she kept a diary or journal, it has been lost. Like most women of the past, Katherine remains defined by the men in her life, and as a result, most of my research began with them: her father, poet, dramatist, and courtier Sir Charles Sedley; her most famous lover, James II; and the various other gentlemen who were her friends, enemies, and suitors. It’s a true testament to the strength of her personality that when she does appear in their letters, diaries, or biographies, she often quite steals the scene.
While I don’t doubt that 17th c. folk loved their children as much as modern parents do, the pattern for English aristocrats was to have their offspring raised by nursemaids and tutors, often in the healthier country. Yet because Katherine was an only child with distracted parents, it seems that her education and supervision were scattered at best. While few noble-born girls received much schooling (even the royal princesses, Mary and Anne, were woefully undereducated), Katherine’s haphazard upbringing, and the unusual freedoms that her indulgent father granted her, were considered quite scandalous at the time. And a good thing, too. If people hadn’t been shocked, they wouldn’t have written about Sir Charles’s wicked small daughter, and she would have been entirely forgotten 300 years later.
Everything I read about the relationship between Sir Charles Sedley and Katherine as a girl reminded me of certain Hollywood versions of parenting: the child as an amusing accessory, a sidekick rather than a daughter, a pet to be carried about rather than a child who needs discipline and guidance because, really, I’m too cool to be a real father. By the time Sir Charles remarries (bigamously, but that’s another story) and becomes that most tedious of creatures, a Reformed Rake, it was much too late for the wild adolescent Katherine to become a meek and dutiful daughter. Instead Katherine continued to act up (and out) for the rest of her life – perhaps unconsciously hoping to regain her father’s attention, or perhaps simply behaving as he, too, had as a younger man. I agree that Sir Charles’s disapproval of Katherine’s place as a royal mistress did seem hypocritical, but more likely I suspect that he didn’t wish her hurt; he’d seen court politics first-hand, and knew all too well the perils of dallying with kings.
All of your previous Stuart-era heroines make appearances in The Countess and the King, though some don't make the best impression! Katherine finds Sarah Jennings (later Churchill) to be an odious woman, for example. Have you ever discovered new things about your previous heroines in the course of writing about them from a rival's perspective?
But I do enjoy the changing points of view with each book, and how it affects the story. As you noted, the Sarah Jennings in The Countess & the King is a very different animal from the one who’s the heroine of Duchess – but then the Katherine Sedley in Duchess isn’t nearly as charming as she is in her own book, either. *g*
You've made it easy for readers to picture Windsor Castle, the Palace of Whitehall, and their multitudes of richly decorated rooms. Do you do any of your research on site? With regard to Whitehall -- which I understand burned down (for the most part) in 1698 -- did you find it any more of a challenge to re-create in fiction?
Alas, I’m not one of those fortunate writers who can afford to travel for research – kids in college take care of that! On the other hand, many of the places that my 17th century characters visit are very different today, or, like Whitehall Palace, have been lost entirely. Charles II spent most of his reign repairing and remodeling the interior of Windsor Palace into an English version of Versailles; by 1800, almost all of his efforts were gone, obliterated by successive remodeling. Even the modern Thames is a much-changed river from what it was during the Restoration. So while I do study modern photographs and videos, I rely much more on contemporary drawings and descriptions of buildings and places to create an accurate version of the past.
Monmouth is one of the more maddening personalities in 17th c. England, and also one of the most tragic. I suppose he could also be called another victim of bad parenting. The illegitimate son of the teenaged Charles Stuart and his mistress Lucy Walter, Monmouth was born while his father was in exile. As soon as Charles was restored to the throne, he brought the boy to court, made him a duke, and gave him an heiress for a wife. Charles continued to spoil Monmouth, always excusing his often outrageous behavior and forgiving him even when his misbehavior reached the point of treason. It didn’t help that Monmouth wasn’t very bright, nor that he could be easily led by others. Charles sadly understood this, too, and even indulgent royal fathers have their limits. I suspect that after Monmouth’s involvement in the Rye House Plot to assassinate both Charles and James, his banishment would have been last, even if Charles had lived longer. Monmouth had simply gone too far, and when his less tolerant uncle James became king, his foolish ambitions cost him his life. (One of my favorite historical novels tells Monmouth’s story: The King’s Touch by Jude Morgan.)
I don't want to ask if any of your royal mistress heroines are your favorites (an impossible sort of question to answer!) but are there any whose dialogue you especially enjoyed writing?
You’re right: it would be impossible to choose one lady over another. But I will admit that I’ve really enjoyed writing the dialogue for the ones known for their wit and bawdy humor: Nell Gwyn in The King’s Favorite, Barbara Palmer in Royal Harlot, and Katherine Sedley in The Countess & the King. The Restoration was a great time to be clever. Charles II liked to be amused, and he enjoyed – and admired – smart, funny women. I loved the challenge of incorporating their surviving quotes with my own sense of these women, and creating dialogue that I hope was worthy of them.
Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to reply to my questions! For readers who'd like the chance to win a copy of her latest novel, simply leave a comment on this post. Deadline is next Friday, October 8th. This giveaway is open to international readers.