Mistress of the Court by Laura Purcell

mistress of the court
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Orphaned and trapped in an abusive marriage, Henrietta Howard has little left to lose. She stakes everything on a new life in Hanover with its royal family, the heirs to the British throne. Henrietta’s beauty and intelligence soon win her the friendship of clever Princess Caroline and her mercurial husband, Prince George. But, as time passes, it becomes clear that friendship is the lastthing on the hot-blooded young prince’s mind. Dare Henrietta give into his advances and anger her violent husband? Dare she refuse?

Whatever George’s shortcomings, Princess Caroline is determined to make the family a success. Yet the feud between her husband and his obstinate father threatens all she has worked for. As England erupts in Jacobite riots, her family falls apart. She vows to save the country for her children to inherit – even if it costs her pride and her marriage. Set in the turbulent years of the Hanoverian accession, Mistress of the Court tells the story of two remarkable women at the centre of George II’s reign.

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Publisher and Release Date: Myrmidon Books Ltd, September 2015
RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: Hanover (1712-1714) and England (1714-1735)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

This absorbing novel revolves around the lives of two early 18th-century women – Princess of Wales, later Queen, Caroline and her devoted servant Henrietta Howard. (A note of explanation to our loyal readers. This book is not an historical romance of the type we frequently review here. True, Henrietta Howard was King George II’s mistress, but theirs was hardly a romantic relationship.)

At age 16, Henrietta, orphaned and responsible for her young siblings, sought the help of distant relatives the Earl and Countess of Suffolk. Ultimately she married their younger son, who turned out to be “wrong-headed, ill-tempered, obstinate, drunken, extravagant and brutal.” Henrietta’s small fortune was tied up in trust for her children, and Charles’s drinking and gambling forced them to move into increasingly squalid accommodations. Henrietta came up with a clever plan: they would travel to the German state of Hanover and ingratiate themselves with the Elector, George Ludwig, heir apparent to Great Britain’s Queen Anne. To do so, however, they had to leave their six-year-old son Henry Howard behind with Henrietta’s brother. Charles agreed to go, primarily as a way of escaping his creditors.

Henrietta’s gambit worked, and soon she was one of the Women of the Bedchamber to Caroline of Ansbach, wife of the future George II, while Charles joined George’s staff. Henrietta was pretty, but not beautiful, witty, charming and intelligent, and she and Caroline formed a friendship of sorts.

Although he loved his wife, George believed that a mistress was a necessary accessory for a prince, so eventually, Henrietta became his mistress, with the full approval of Caroline, who wanted a lady of sense and discretion in that role. It might also be said that the prince wanted to demonstrate that he was not fully under his wife’s control, even though everyone at court knew that she was the power behind the throne.

George was not any woman’s idea of an appealing lover. He was short and stocky, with the bulging Hanover eyes, and moreover, he was moody, bombastic, controlling, and prone to sputtering fits of rage. He considered himself something of an accomplished lover, however, and liked to regale his wife with minute descriptions of his conquests. There is nothing in this book to suggest that Henrietta was especially fond of him, but she knew that he offered her some protection from her brutal husband.

After the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the entire court packed up and moved to London, where they lived under the tyranny of King George I, who began the Hanoverian tradition of treating one’s children abominably. Those abominations are far too many to discuss here, but Henrietta stayed loyal to George and Caroline throughout. Unlike other royal mistresses in history, Henrietta did not exert political influence or get rich from her position. She did receive a stipend from George, but she had to give most of that to her blackmailing husband to keep him quiet. George did give her some gifts, making sure that Charles couldn’t touch them.

It is a sobering reminder of the status of women in the 18th century that when Henrietta left Charles for good, she had to persuade him to sign a “deed of separation,” relinquishing dominion over his wife as though she were a piece of property. In retaliation for her revolt, Charles turned their son Henry against her, with the result that Henrietta and her beloved son never were reconciled. Charles was so awful that even his own brother couldn’t stand him, and he left his unentailed estate to his sister-in-law, with Charles getting only the title and not much more.
After more than 15 years as mistress to the man who was now King George II, Henrietta was tired and ailing. She suffered from hearing loss and severe headaches, possibly the result of Charles’s beatings. Her relationship with the Queen was strained as political factions tried to bring Henrietta into their camps. Her status as countess after Charles became Earl of Suffolk entitled her to a promotion to the position of Mistress of the Wardrobe, which actually meant that Henrietta had fewer duties and could spend more time away from court. Finally, she was able to negotiate her departure from court duties, including the role of mistress, although despite her decades of loyal service the King and Queen were not gracious about it.

With the inheritance from her brother-in-law and a generous gift from the King, Henrietta bought land on the Thames near Twickenham and commissioned the construction of Marble Hill House, a little gem of a Palladian villa. Henrietta lived there for several years before falling in love with and marrying the Hon. George Berkeley, son of the 2nd Earl Berkeley in 1735. By all accounts he was kind, loving, and honest, and they had 11 happy, but too short, years together. After his death Henrietta retired to Marble Hill House, where she died at the age of 78.

Henrietta’s remarkable life is vividly portrayed in Laura Purcell’s historical novel, and she takes no great liberties with the historical facts. Had I not previously read Lucy Worsley’s Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court however, I would have hard a difficult time believing how wretched court life could be. Henrietta and other high-born ladies were nothing more than personal servants, performing the hard and sometimes demeaning work of taking the Queen through her daily dressing routine. Court life was stultifyingly formal and largely boring and miserable for everyone involved. Kensington Palace was cramped and drafty and far from splendid, although the periods spent at Hampton Court sound lovely. Granted the ladies and gentlemen of the court were better fed and clothed than the masses, but their lives at court do not sound the least bit glamorous or romantic.

Henrietta Howard, however, was able ultimately to emerge from this life in triumph and distinction. She counted among her friends Alexander Pope (she is generally supposed to be the model for Chloe in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock), Jonathan Swift, and playwright John Gay (best remembered for The Beggar’s Opera). Her Marble Hill House was widely acclaimed and became the model for English Georgian villas and even American plantation houses. It still stands today under the ownership of English Heritage, where visitors can experience some of the finer aspects of Georgian life.

Laura Purcell is a superb storyteller, and this book is an excellent way to learn more about this period in history. I plan to go back and read her well-received first book Queen of Bedlam, the story of George III’s Queen Charlotte, and I look forward to more volumes in her Georgian Queens series.

Marble Hill House (photo courtesy of English Heritage)

Marble Hill House (photo courtesy of English Heritage)

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