Was Jane Lane really Charles II’s mistress? No one knows for sure, but what is known is that in the troubled years following the English Civil War, she risked her life to help Charles II, defeated at the Battle of Worcester, flee the country. Gillian Bagwell reimagines their relationship with insight and conviction: like Jason and Marie in The Bourne Identity, Jane and Charles find passion in the most dangerous of situations, where their only safety lies in trusting each other. Once they separate, the tension increases, as Jane, waiting to hear if Charles has reached safety, realises she has been implicated in his escape and may have to flee herself. Despite the pace of the first half of the book, it feels solidly researched, with a rich sense of place and atmosphere. The horselore in particular seemed very authentic – everything you might want to know about riding pillion is here!
The sky was pearly gray, and a light blanket of mist lay over the fields that stretched away on either side of the road. The calls of sparrows and wrens echoed in the crisp morning air and a breeze stirred the drifts of brown and golden leaves. The horses’ hooves sounded dully on the muddy road, but Jane was grateful that no more clouds threatened overhead, and it appeared they would have a fine day for their travels.
…As the horses quickened their pace, Jane realized that she had never ridden pillion behind anyone but her father or one of her brothers. She was grasping the little padded handhold of the pillion, but to be really securely seated, she needed to hold onto the king in front of her. What to do? Surely she could simply slip her arms around the royal person, uninvited? The king seemed to sense her quandary, and turned his head over his shoulder to speak low in Jane’s ear.
“Hold tight to me, Mistress Lane.”
The sudden pressure of his back agianst her shoulder, the warmth of his breath, and the low rumble of his voice sent a tremor through Jane.
“Yes, Your – yes, I will, thank you.”
She reached around him with both arms and held fast. Her lower body was facing sideways, but of necessity her right breast was pressed against the king. Dear God, she had never been so close to a man before, she thought.
Unfortunately, once past the halfway mark, the narrative drive which has built up rapidly dissipates as Jane moves from the centre to the fringes of the action. The topography of her continental exile is much less vividly portrayed and her life as a lady in waiting – about which not much is known – doesn’t offer the requisite material for compelling fiction. I would have been quite happy to skip this part of her life and continue the story on the eve of the Restoration.
The final section has some of the most powerful and emotive scenes in the book as Jane has to come to terms with what she has given up for her king - and the realisation that she is only one of many women in his life. She tries to help Lucy Walter, one of Charles’s early mistresses, now on a downward trajectory, while Barbara Palmer is glimpsed at a ball, triumphant in ice blue, at the beginning of her volatile liaison with Charles. Another of Jane’s close friends is the ambitious Anne Hyde, a commoner royal mistress (of the future James II) who sets her sights on marriage. Jane’s fate is different to all of them, and she herself has to determine the end of her story.
I can recommend The September Queen as a fast-paced, sensual chase and a tribute to a courageous woman who made her mark on England’s history.
Thanks to Gillian Bagwell and Caitlin at Berkley for providing me with a review copy of The September Queen.
Lots of September Queen giveaways are on now or coming up soon – check out the blog tour details here.
Update (August 2012): The September Queen has now been released in the UK under the title The King’s Mistress.