Not that long ago, I posted on Wife to Great Buckingham, a novel by Hilda Lewis. (You can look here to find some brief comments on her book about Queen Isabella, Harlot Queen–look for “Portraits of the She-Wolf” in the February/March 2007 issue.) I enjoyed Harlot Queen, but found Wife to Great Buckingham to be tedious, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read Wife to Charles II, a 1965 novel that, like Harlot Queen, has recently been reissued by Torc, an imprint of Tempus Publishing.
Wife to Charles II, naturally, is about Catherine of Braganza, and is told in the third person. Most of the events are seen from Catherine’s point of view, though occasionally the narrator will report on events at which Catherine wasn’t present, such as the goings-on at Parliament, or listen in on a conversation between other characters.
This novel could have stood some judicious cutting, I think, particularly in the first half. Charles II takes a new mistress. Catherine is bothered by it and talks to her ladies about it. Charles II takes another mistress. Catherine is bothered by it and talks to her ladies again. Catherine frets about her inability to carry a child to term and wishes that Charles paid her more attention. After a while, this becomes wearying to the reader as well as to Catherine. Only with the arrival of the Popish Plot does the novel pick up its pace.
Lewis’s prose style, though not what I’d call purple, takes a bit of getting used to. It’s quite dramatic, and sadly, it’s also devoid of humor, which is a liability as far as historically witty characters such as Charles II and Nell Gwyn are concerned. On the plus side, Lewis makes us share Catherine’s and Charles’s frustration and anger as the so-called Popish Plot holds the nation in thrall. There are some good set pieces here, such as the trial of Stafford and Charles II’s deathbed.
The most fully realized character in this novel is Charles II himself, who for all of his faults comes across as being genuinely likable. Catherine herself is done well, her flashes of spirit saving her from the thankless role as put-upon wife. The rest of the characterizations are less than successful, and in some cases border on caricature. The only thing vivid in Lewis’s presentation of Titus Oates is his physical description. Other villains in the novel, like Shaftesbury, don’t even get that much. With the exception of Nell, who’s curiously colorless, Charles II’s mistresses are depicted as so hateful and greedy that it’s impossible to understand what Charles sees in them, other than good looks. We certainly don’t see any of the charm they must have exuded. Monmouth is another character who should have been interesting, but wasn’t. We never get a hint of his motivations for acting as he does.
So should you read this novel? I liked it more than I disliked it, but I’d have to say on the whole that it’s a mixed bag. I enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between Charles II and Catherine, and I give Lewis points for not glamorizing Charles II’s adultery at the expense of making Catherine into a shrew or a cipher. Lewis also depicts the terrors of the Popish Plot period with verve and outrage, and her Charles II is well rounded and sympathetic. I just wish Lewis had found a way to champion Catherine’s cause without sacrificing the complexity of her other characters.