In 1712, Henrietta Howard is in desperate straits. Tied to an abusive husband, and short on funds to raise their son, Henrietta takes the impulsive step to leave England, board a ship to Germany, and throw herself on the mercy of Sophia, Dowager Electress of Hanover, elderly heiress to Britain’s throne. She finds a sympathetic ear not only in Sophia but also in her grandson’s wife, Princess Caroline; the warm rapport between Sophia and Caroline is charming to witness.
When word finally arrives of Queen Anne’s death – alas, six weeks after Sophia’s own death – the royal party heads to London, where Sophia’s haughty son, now George I, is crowned king. However, Caroline’s protection has a price. Caroline’s husband George, Prince of Wales, decides to take a mistress. They have an affectionate marriage, but it’s what princes do. A clever woman with behind-the-scenes influence, Caroline knows of Henrietta’s discretion and agreeable nature. Rather than leave it to chance, she pressures Henrietta to take the role.
Through their alternating viewpoints, Purcell highlights the commonalities the two women share, as well as the shifting tensions in their one-time friendship. Loving mothers, both, they endure long-term separations from their sons and suffer the unfortunate consequences. From architecture to politics to women’s circumscribed roles, Georgian London comes into clear view.
Delightful little details bring the era alive, such as a scene in which Caroline’s hair is blasted with powder-blowers until her “buttery locks were curls of snow.” It all works to serve the storyline; the history-fiction balance is essentially perfect. The writing style is very approachable, too, making this a great read for royalty fans and also for newcomers to historical fiction.
Mistress of the Court was published by Myrmidon (UK) last year (£8.99 paperback, or $4.99 on Kindle, 448pp). The US paperback will be out in May ($14.95). This was a personal purchase – I'd preordered a Kindle copy after enjoying Purcell's Queen of Bedlam two years ago. This review previously appeared in the Historical Novels Review's February issue.