Title: The King’s Mistress
Author: Emma Campion
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “History has not been kind to Alice Perrers, the notorious mistress of King Edward III. Scholars and contemporaries alike have deemed her a manipulative woman who used her great beauty and sensuality to take advantage of an aging and increasingly senile king. But who was the woman behind the scandal? A cold-hearted opportunist or someone fighting for her very survival?
Like most girls of her era Alice is taught obedience in all things. At the age of fourteen she marries the man her father chooses for her, dutifully accepting the cost of being torn from the family she holds so dear and losing the love of her mother forever. Despite these heartbreaks Alice finds that merchant Janyn Perrers is a good and loving husband and the two settle into a happy life together. Their bliss is short-lived, however, unraveled the dark day a messenger appears at Alice’s door and notifies her of Janyn’s sudden disappearance.
In the wake of this tragedy, Alice learns that her husband kept many dangerous secrets–secrets that result in a price on her own head and that of her beloved daughter. Her only chance to survive lies in the protection of King Edward and Queen Philippa, but she therefore must live at court as a virtual prisoner. When she is singled out by the king for more than just royal patronage, the stakes are raised. Disobeying Edward is not an option, not when her family is at risk, but the court is full of ambitious men and women, many of whom will stop at nothing to see her fall from grace. The whispers and gossip abound, isolating Alice, who finds unexpected solace in her love for the king.
Emma Campion paints a colorful and thrilling portrait of the court of Edward III–with all of its extravagance, scandalous love affairs, political machinations, and murder–and the devastating results of being singled out by the royal family. At the center of the storm is Alice, surviving by her wits in this dangerous world where the choices are not always of her own making. Emma Campion’s dazzling novel shows that there is always another side to the story.”
Thoughts: “To the winner go the spoils” – Nowhere is this popular phrase more true than with historical accounts of events. Emma Campion masterfully captures the truth behind this phrase with her daring “what if” account of Alice Perrers, infamous mistress of King Edward III. While certain liberties are taken with various relationships and popular rumors of the era, this in no way detracts from the overall story. Ms. Campion creates a detailed picture of the life of a woman at court, with all its privileges and dangers, making Alice, King Edward and all the rest come to life again.
The historical details in The King’s Mistress are par excellence. Ms. Campion goes into great detail to discuss lodgings, wardrobes, meals, music, and other activities with which people occupied their times during the 1300s. It is one of the few novels through which a reader can get a clear understanding of what it meant to serve the Queen versus a merchant’s wife. Some might feel that the descriptions of fabrics and threads and everything else used to make gowns are tedious and repetitive. Yet, when one realizes that in the 1300s, all there was to do was sew, garden or ride horses, the focus on sewing is completely understandable. Based on today’s standards, the day might be boring, but based on standards back then, sewing a beautiful gown was worthy of respect and pride and one’s skill. The fact that Alice is so skillful at sewing only proves how talented she was, while showing off how easy it was for her to gain popularity among the royal family.
Alice herself is a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, she has tremendous business sense and is able to maintain her husband’s merchant business and properties long after his death. Yet, she does not display the same political or emotional savvy. She ignores repeated warnings about her precarious position and what steps she should take to minimize the risk to her property, to her family and to herself. Should she have known better? I cannot help but think that politics and business are so irrevocably tied together that someone with such a good head for business would have been able to avoid the political minefield in which she eventually found herself. Yes, the emotional aspect is hard to ignore and uses neither logic nor business sense, but, as presented by Ms. Campion, Alice had ample opportunity to protect herself better than she did. While Alice is an amazing character, this was the one niggling pause for concern that exists for me with her story. The two sides of her character just do not blend well; it is almost as if she were two different people.
At its heart, The King’s Mistress is not only about Alice but also about all women throughout history. Women had no choices when it came to their lives. They were forced to marry whom others deemed worthy. They had no rights under law. When it came to dealing with the royals and Court, it was quite often a literal case of being damned by society for certain actions versus being punished for treason or for breaking the law on the other. This naturally leads one to ask how many other “notorious” women throughout history were just unfortunate innocents trapped by royal obligations and the law?
In spite of my concerns about the consistency of Alice’s character, The King’s Mistress is an excellent addition to the historical fiction genre. Lovers of historical fiction will find much to admire, and readers of women’s studies will find much to analyze. Alice is the symbol for repressed women everywhere. Through Alice’s tale, Ms. Campion is able to present a cautionary tale about the limited power of women throughout history and the “other side” of the story about famous women.
Thank you to Random House for the advanced reading copy!