In this novel Alice Perrers, a merchant’s daughter who became mistress to the much older Edward III, tells her own story. Here’s what the fourteenth-century St Albans Chronicle has to say about her:
She was a shameless, impudent harlot, and of low birth…She was not attractive or beautiful, but knew how to compensate for these defects by her seductive voice. Blind fortune elevated this woman to such heights and promoted her to a greater intimacy with the King than was proper…
Quoted by Emma Campion in her Author’s Note to The King’s Mistress
Campion is unconvinced by this portrait of Alice:
I never found plausible the underlying assumption that she had so grossly manipulated the King – that a commoner had been any position to choose to be King Edward’s mistress and that she had somehow bewitched him.
I can’t argue with her decision to take a revisionist approach. Mistresses were often demonised and blamed for all the ills of the country: it was, in fact, one of their functions to be a scapegoat and divert criticism which would otherwise fall on the king or queen. And there is evidence that Alice has been maligned. But unfortunately, I felt Emma Campion went too far in her attempt to rehabilitate Alice Perrers. Her version of Alice is so bland I found it hard to take any interest in her. Campion goes to great lengths to exonerate Alice from any wrong-doing: for example, her first marriage to merchant Janyn Perrers is portrayed as a happy union, with Alice completely content with her domestic duties and devoid of ambition (although not business sense). This doesn’t square very well with her becoming the king’s mistress, so it is made clear both that her husband orders her to join the court against her will and that he is distancing himself from her. But Alice is also shown as feeling some attraction to King Edward – I think because a totally loveless relationship would have seemed distasteful. Then later on even Queen Philippa makes it clear that she approves of Alice becoming Edward’s mistress – in fact she all but throws her into his arms. The author makes every effort to put Alice in a good light but I felt it had the effect of leaching colour, conflict and plausibility from the story.
It takes Alice nearly 300 pages to reach the King’s bed and up till that point the plot is dominated by some cloak-and-dagger machinations which I didn’t find at all convincing. Unfortunately, the pace doesn’t pick up once she becomes a royal mistress. There is far more narrative than dramatisation and while I felt a good deal of the accounts of Alice’s movements, day-to-day activities, clothes and dreams could have been cut, elsewhere opportunities were missed. I’ll give an example.
fantastical costumes for Bella, particularly elaborate headdresses such as Edward and Philippa favoured for court festivities – birds rising from great nests, ships at full sail.
a large headdress depicting a pageant wagon on top of which a jester stood on his hands.
As to her reaction to the news of my carrying the King’s child, she seemed to see nothing wrong in it.
“I see that your skill in hawking and grace in dancing are but hints of your talents, Mistress Alice. Beauty and a mind for trade…hunting and dancing…what else should I know of you?”
I felt myself blushing under his regard and was glad that the light was dim and we were side by side, so that he could see little of me.
“Your Grace, I do not know what else I might tell you. I am little but what others wish me to be.” I regretted my words as soon as I’d uttered them.
The King drew in his legs and shifted on the bench so that he was facing me. He took my right hand, turned it over, looked at my palm and with one beringed finger traced the line that ran from between my thumb and forefinger to my wrist.
“So easily I touch you,” he murmured as he did so, “so recklessly I summon you, then tease you, and take your hand. How thoughtlessly I pluck your strings, as if you are but a lute.”
The intimacy of his touch and his voice, the suggestion of playing me like a lute excited me far too much for safety.
He let go of my hand, touched my chin, gently, oh, so gently, while looking into my eyes. I had not intended to look up, but could not prevent myself.
“Forgive me if I have made you feel so used, Alice.”
I did not trust myself to speak, my flesh burned at his mere touch.
“Do you forgive me?” he whispered.
“Your Grace,” was all I managed.