Girl on the Golden Coin delves into the life story of Frances Stuart, a poor relation of the English royal family who hasn’t garnered as much attention from novelists as her flashier contemporaries at Charles II’s licentious court.
Her story begins in France, where she and other royalist exiles were living during the English Civil War. By 1661, King Charles has been restored to his throne, and Frances has become the good friend and lady-in-waiting to Madame, an English princess who married the Sun King’s younger brother, who prefers his male favorites to his wife. Gifted with a pure, ethereal beauty, Frances attracts the attention of Louis XIV of France himself, who offers her his heart and offers to make her his mistress.
Frances’ personal values make her a sympathetic character, and a rarity at Fontainebleau Palace. When she turns King Louis down, she receives her marching orders: cross the channel to England, entice Charles II into her bed, and persuade him to ally with France – and nudge him toward Catholicism. If she fails, a devastating secret involving her family’s heritage may come to light, throwing her family into disfavor and ruining her and her sister’s hopes for good marriages.
Over at London’s Whitehall Palace, Charles II warmly welcomes his distant cousin, and after she takes her place as maid of honor to his Portuguese queen, the atmosphere swirls with intrigue. As Frances and the king grow close, courtiers petition her to act on their behalf, and his official mistress Lady Castlemaine strikes out in jealousy. Frances must keep many goals in careful balance, following the wishes of King Louis and keeping her virtue while acknowledging her own desires.
That she manages to navigate treacherous waters while safeguarding her family’s interests and retaining the king’s respect is a testament to her strength of character. Charles II, likewise, is depicted as strong-minded and lusty yet appealingly vulnerable – a side of him that few but Frances ever get to see. Because the story is told from Frances’ viewpoint, the larger political arena, involving the tenuous ties between France and England and possible war with the Dutch, remains in the background, but readers can see how these forces shape everyone's actions.
The prose, full of richly described attire and furnishings, acknowledges readers’ intelligence with deliciously subtle conversations among the many players. There’s no need to be daunted by the large cast list at the beginning, since everyone’s personality and position comes into clear focus. Fans of high-stakes court intrigue should be more than satisfied with this tale about a Scotswoman of honor and courage.
Girl on the Golden Coin is published today by St. Martin's Press in hardcover ($25.99, 336pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.