I’ve been a little quiet on the blogging front recently, mainly because my wedding is getting ever closer – less than three weeks now – meaning I’m spending far more time looking critically at flowers and cakes than typing merrily away. On the plus side, in an attempt to keep my sanity intact, I’ve been reading loads, and have developed quite the back-log of reviews.
My last post was a list of my planned summer reading, and I described one of the entries on it like this:
“Precisely because I love history so much, I tend to be slightly wary of historical fiction, but from what I hear, this Restoration-era novel about Lady Frances Stewart is both well written and well researched, as well as full of intrigue. And more importantly, the main character marries the son of the real-life Lord George Stewart.”
On that basis, of all the books I’ve read recently, The Girl on the Golden Coin seemed by far the most fitting to review, especially as I read most of during a trip to Oxford to meet with my wedding photographer (who incidentally took some amazing practice shots)
So did the book deliver?
THE GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN – MARCI JEFFERSON
Impoverished and exiled to the French countryside after the overthrow of the English Crown, Frances Stuart survives merely by her blood-relation to the Stuart Royals. But in 1660, the Restoration of Stuart Monarchy in England returns her family to favor. Frances discards threadbare gowns and springs to gilded Fontainebleau Palace, where she soon catches King Louis XIV’s eye. But Frances is no ordinary court beauty, she has Stuart secrets to keep and people to protect. The king turns vengeful when she rejects his offer to become his Official Mistress. He banishes her to England with orders to seduce King Charles II and stop a war.
Armed in pearls and silk, Frances maneuvers through the political turbulence of Whitehall Palace, but still can’t afford to stir a scandal. Her tactic to inspire King Charles to greatness captivates him. He believes her love can make him an honest man and even chooses Frances to pose as Britannia for England’s coins. Frances survives the Great Fire, the Great Plague, and the debauchery of the Restoration Court, yet loses her heart to the very king she must control. Until she is forced to choose between love or war.
On the eve of England’s Glorious Revolution, James II forces Frances to decide whether to remain loyal to her Stuart heritage or, like England, make her stand for Liberty. Her portrait as Britannia is minted on every copper coin. There she remains for generations, an enduring symbol of Britain’s independent spirit and her own struggle for freedom.
MY REVIEW- 3 STARS
I love history, and the Stuart period is a particular favourite of mine – and one that often tends to get neglected by novelists and film makers in favour of the Tudor and Georgian periods that bracket it. Charles II is probably my favourite English King, and I also have a soft spot for Louis XIV and his French court, so this book was really quite an easy sell for me. I was expecting sex, glamour and intrigue – and it’s fair to say it delivered on some of those points and less so on others.
This wasn’t just a general book about the Restoration court. It focussed firmly on the adventures of one woman, Frances Stuart, and as a result, it was always going to stand or fall by a combination of how interesting that character was in real life and how sympathetic and intriguing the author managed to make her. Despite the fact that I used to study history reasonably seriously, I’ve always been far more interested in individuals than in grand, sweeping narratives or battles, so I was all ready for the author to make me develop a massive girl crush of Ms Stuart. Sadly, she mostly didn’t deliver. I went into this book knowing a handful of things about the character – that she’d been a mistress of Charles II, that she was very beautiful and set the fashions of the times, and that she eventually married a character I’d better not name for fear of spoilers (*see footnote), but who I was very interested in hearing more about. By the end of the book, I didn’t feel I’d learnt that much more about her, or forged any kind of real connection.
It’s probably a bit unfair to compare what’s basically a classier than average historical romance with a modern masterpiece, but I couldn’t help contrasting this with my experience of reading Wolf Hall, which also looked at historical events through the eyes of a character who is usually in the background of traditional retellings of the period. By the end of that, I felt that I knew Thomas Cromwell better than my best friends and that I would cheer him on whatever he did. Here, I struggled to get any understanding of Stuart’s motivations or real personality. Did she want to sleep with the French King or was his pursuit stressful and relentless? How about the English King? Who did she want to marry? Her approach to life seemed to vacillate wildly from one moment to the next, and I never knew quite what outcome I should be routing for. To makes matters worse, it was never quite clear what King Charles saw in her apart from her extreme beauty – which is probably quite historically accurate, but makes for a dull read. Throughout, I felt far more interested (and on the verge of cheering for) Frances’ main rival, Lady Castelmaine, who was also beautiful, but who combined it with wit, intelligence and some entertaining scheming.
On the plus side, rooms, clothes and events were lavishly described, and I got a real sense of what life was like for the wealthy and titled in this period. Some of the romance was very sweet and although it was never particularly graphic, some of the sex was really quite hot – indeed it was more interesting because of both the characters’ and the author’s restraint.
The blurb, some of the internet buzz, and the gorgeously classy cover gave me the impression that this was going to be about more than just romance, and that as well as who was sleeping with who, the book would delve into the politics of the time. Despite a few token references to religious conflict and wars, it fundamentally failed to deliver on this point. I haven’t marked it down for this, as it’s no crime for a book not to be quite the genre I was expecting, but if you’re considering whether or not to read this, it’s worth bearing in mind that it is basically just a standard historical romance. Similarly, I disagreed with some of the author’s interpretations of historical events (if you ask me, Louis XIV loved Charles I’s sister, and Frances Stuart loved her eventual husband to the extent she’d defy the king’s wrath to be with him) but again, that hasn’t affected my score – the author had clearly done some research, and part of the fun of history is that people can reach very different conclusions from the same source material.
So, to read or not to read? If you enjoy historical romance and either like the period or are looking for something slightly different, you may well enjoy this. It’s glamorous, sexy and fun, and a fairly easy read. Just don’t expect much from the main character, or much historical context.
*That’s what I wrote in my Goodreads review. I think the not revealing Frances’ eventual husband ship has rather sailed as far as this blog post is concerned, so I’ll just come right out and say I did not like the author’s portrayal of Lord Stewart Junior one little bit, but that’s just because I irrationally wanted him to read like my completely made up portrayal of his father.