Marci Jefferson’s debut novel dazzles as she takes her readers into the seventeenth century courts of Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England. Amidst the backdrop of swaths of silk, sparkling gems, and elaborate makeup, Jefferson tells the tale of Frances Stuart, a distant cousin of Charles II, who has just been restored to his throne after the English Civil War deposed and executed his father, Charles I.
Frances, from a distinctly lesser branch of the Stuarts, fled England for France with other English Royalists during Oliver Cromwell’s reign. Frances’s mother serves the Queen Mother, widow of Charles I, mother of Charles II, and aunt of Louis XIV. While serving the Queen Mother’s daughter, Frances’s renowned beauty attracts the attention of the French king who begs her to become his mistress. But Frances’s morals, her loyalty to the Queen Mother’s daughter, and her own family secrets cause Frances to do the unthinkable and refuse him. Before long she is packed off to Charles II’s court, ordered by Louis to ingratiate herself with Charles, becoming his mistress and pushing him towards a favorable alliance with France.
Now a political pawn, torn between different factions (both the Queen Mother and Louis blackmail Frances, the first because she wants Catholic Frances to replace Charles’s powerful Protestant mistress Lady Castlemaine and the latter because he wishes to manipulate Charles for his own gain), and trying to protect a secret that if revealed, could ruin her family forever, Frances attempts to carry out her orders and keep her family safe. When she captures Charles II’s attention, Frances heads into dangerous territory. The king falls completely for Frances’s beauty, intelligence, and spirit. He gives her his heart, ultimately honoring her as the model of Britannia on the coinage of the realm. If she relents, becomes Charles’s mistress, and uses her position to promote the interests of France, Frances knows that will keep her blackmailers happy, but at what price? As she gets to know Charles, she sees a king who seeks religious tolerance for his subjects who is also an incurable rogue, but she gradually comes to love the man and hate herself for the duplicitous, manipulative role she must play. Frances realizes she is in an untenable situation – caught between the man she loves and the interests she has sworn to uphold.
Frances Stuart is an irresistible subject: loyal, brave, moral, caring, and smart. Most women would (and did) happily jump into the beds of kings, not really thinking through what lay ahead. Jefferson’s Frances is different in that she is drawn to the king, the power, and the wealth, but she fully accepts the consequences of her actions and plays the game on her own terms. In the notoriously ruthless seventeenth century courts of England and France, Frances is a rarity, a court flower, beautiful and smart, who manages to do things her way but loses her heart nonetheless.
A fascinating read, don’t miss this vivid portrait of a lesser known, but highly influential, Stuart woman. The descriptions of the clothes, jewels, makeup, and hairstyles enliven the story with glimpses into glittering court life, but it is Frances’s story that will keep you turning the pages, cheering her on to a happy ending of her own making.
Amazon link for the book is here.