Orphaned and trapped in an abusive marriage, Henrietta Howard has little left to lose. She stakes everything on a new life in Hanover with its royal family, the heirs to the British throne. Henrietta’s beauty and intelligence soon win her the friendship of clever Princess Caroline and her mercurial husband, Prince George. But, as time passes, it becomes clear that friendship is the last thing on the hot-blooded young prince’s mind. Dare Henrietta give into his advances and anger her violent husband? Dare she refuse?
Whatever George’s shortcomings, Princess Caroline is determined to make the family a success. Yet the feud between her husband and his obstinate father threatens all she has worked for. As England erupts in Jacobite riots, her family falls apart. She vows to save the country for her children to inherit – even if it costs her pride and her marriage. Set in the turbulent years of the Hanoverian accession, Mistress of the Court tells the story of two remarkable women at the center of George II’s reign.
With Mistress of the Court, Laura Purcell continues her fictional exploration of the lives of some of the less frequently written about historical figures of the Georgian era – namely, its women. In Queen of Bedlam, she tells the by now familiar story of the madness of King George III from the point of view of his wife and daughters, and now, she has turned her attention to an earlier era, to the first days of the Hanoverian monarchy and the court of King George I.
Focusing on the lives of two very different women, Ms Purcell brilliantly exposes the hypocrisy, the intrigue and power-struggles of the early Georgian era and describes, in vivid detail, the opulence and the squalor, from the gorgeous silk coats and ridiculously wide pannier hoops worn by the courtiers to the lack of cleanliness or medical understanding and the rat-infested, dank corners of the outwardly magnificent residences occupied by the royal family, their retinue and multitude of servants.
Well-born and married into an influential family, Henrietta Howard is living in poverty, subject to the whims of the drunken husband who regularly beats and abuses her. She has just one hope of improving her lot, which is to somehow make her way to Hanover, where the name of Howard is sure to open doors at court. Queen Anne’s health is failing and the Hanoverian succession has been assured; if she can find a place at the Elector’s court at Herrenhausen, then she believes her troubles will be over.
Little does she realise that she will be exchanging one set of troubles for another.
When her husband Charles discovers her plan to travel overseas, he is furious. But his own circumstances are such that he needs to get out of England, so he agrees to the scheme. Leaving their young son behind with her brother, the couple arrives in Hanover where Charles insists that it’s up to Henrietta to carry out her plan to secure their futures.
Henrietta is fortunate to attract the attention of Caroline of Ansbach, wife of the Elector’s son (who will eventually become King George II). Caroline is a lovely, intelligent and politically astute woman, already adept at managing her mercurial, ineffectual husband; and Henrietta’s demure manner and generosity of spirit very quickly see her rise to a position of favour in the Princess’ retinue. When Queen Anne dies and George I ascends the throne, the court moves back to England, enabling Henrietta to return to her homeland in relative comfort. But even then, she is not to be allowed to live her life in contentment or security; Charles continually threatens to force her to return to him and cruelly prevents her from seeing their son Henry, something which causes her constant pain.
This is a fascinating period of history and one about which I didn’t know a great deal before. One thing I did know was the fact that George I and his son never saw eye-to-eye (a situation which repeated itself with each successive George!) and that the younger man felt as though he was being continually snubbed and overlooked by his father. This was mostly because of his resentment of his son’s popularity; the king’s British subjects did not take kindly to their new, German monarch and the clever Caroline had quickly realised that his peoples’ disapproval provided the perfect opportunity for her husband to ingratiate himself with them. The king went to extraordinary lengths to humiliate his son, and Ms Purcell weaves such instances into her story with skill and relish, painting a superb picture of the rivalry between the men and shining a clear light upon the political machinations and manouevrings of the two opposing camps.
But the real meat of the story lies in the relationship between Henrietta and Caroline, and in the way the author highlights the differences and similarities between them. On the outside, they would seem to have little in common; Caroline lives in luxury, surrounded by servants, married to a man who dotes on her (even though, as was common at the time, he kept a mistress), whereas Henrietta is a brutalised young woman, struggling to feed her child while wondering all the time if her husband’s next blow would kill her. Yet as the story progresses, it becomes clear that in spite of their differing circumstances, both are nonetheless bound by the restrictions imposed upon them simply because they are women, and both have been cruelly deprived of the company of their children by men who wish to control them. When, to serve her own purposes, Caroline forces Henrietta to make an impossible choice, their relationship is irrevocably changed – but even then, Henrietta continues to serve her mistress faithfully, maintaining her dignity and serene demeanour in the face of insult and derision. Yet the reasons behind Caroline’s actions are completely understandable and easy to sympathise with, making it impossible to see her in a bad light. In the end, these are women living in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances doing what they have to do to survive, and it makes for a thoroughly gripping story.
Ms Purcell’s writing style is straightforward and easy to read, and the amount of research that has gone into the creation of this story is impressive. Mistress of the Court is one of those books that combines the best of both worlds, being both entertaining and informative as it tells a sometimes difficult story in an unsentimental and engaging manner. I was hooked from the very first page and, even as I recognised the difficulties of Caroline’s situation and felt for her, I was rooting for Henrietta to get what she wanted; namely to be able to live an independent life on her own terms with, hopefully, a man she could love. This is a terrific piece of historical fiction and I’m looking forward to reading more from this talented author.