The King’s Mistress
I’ve always had a special affinity for historical fiction, more specifically, historical fiction about the English courts of medieval times. As someone who has never excelled in the complex maneuverings of office politics, I find the level of intrigue and skulduggery that existed then alternately fascinating and mind boggling. The stakes were pretty high; if you found yourself on the wrong side of history, you could end up imprisoned in the tower of London, or worse still, with your head dangling on a pike for all to see.
Until I signed on to review The King’s Mistress for the virtual book tour, I was unaware that Alice Perrers is one of the most despised villains in British history. Perrers has been reviled by her peers and scholars alike—characterized as a woman who used her beauty, sensuality, and cunning to take advantage of an aging king for her own material and political gain. Described as the world’s leading authority on Alice Perrers, Compton has set about revealing the truth of the matter with a fascinating text that both rehabilitates and humanizes her.
It’s no secret that the combination of intelligence, erotic allure, and beauty is a dangerous mix for women, and throughout history these women have both fascinated and repelled us as far back as Eve. Because this novel falls in the genre of historical fiction, Campion admits in her author’s notes to taking some liberties with the facts to breathe new life into Perrer’s story, but much of this voluminous novel comes from her extensive research on Perrer’s life and times.
When we first meet Alice, she is fourteen, and her beauty is already in full bloom. Her mother, an aging and discontented beauty, seems to view Alice as competition, yet resents her father’s decision to betroth Alice to a charismatic, wealthy merchant twenty years her senior. Alice fears leaving the comfort and safety of her family, but is excited to embark on this new chapter in her life. What she doesn’t realize is that her husband is withholding secrets that she will only discover once she is enmeshed in her own web of intrigue.
Suffice it to say, Compton’s sympathetic rendering of Perrer’s story presents her as a woman who finds herself in circumstances beyond her control, and forced to use her attributes to survive in a world where a person who appears to be your ally one day could turn out to be your enemy the next. Emma Campion has reimagined history into “herstory” in this beautifully written, riveting novel.