One of the many things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is seeing how different authors choose to interpret the same historical events and people. This is the second novel I’ve read about Frances Stuart, one of the prominent figures at the court of Charles II, and as I remembered being disappointed in Marci Jefferson’s Girl on the Golden Coin, I was curious to find out how Margaret Campbell Barnes had approached the same subject in this novel from 1963.
Lady on the Coin opens with Frances Stuart (or Stewart, but I have gone with the spelling used by Barnes) and her family in exile in Paris where they have been living since the Royalists were defeated in England’s recent civil war. In 1660, the monarchy is finally restored and Charles II, to whom Frances is distantly related, takes the throne. After saying goodbye to her close friend, Henrietta – Charles’ beloved sister, ‘Minette’ – who has married the brother of Louis XIV of France, Frances returns to England to join the household of the new queen, Catherine of Braganza.
With her appealing combination of beauty, enthusiasm and youthful innocence, Frances soon finds herself with many friends and admirers at court, and Charles himself is one of them. Although she enjoys the attention, Frances has no desire to hurt Catherine, so she does her best to resist the King’s attempts to make her his mistress. As she comes under more and more pressure to agree to his demands, a rumour begins to circulate that he is planning to make her his wife should anything happen to Catherine. A chance of escape arrives when she falls in love with the King’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, but there will be more obstacles to overcome before they can find happiness together.
I found this book better written and more satisfying than Marci Jefferson’s. Although the two are very similar in terms of plot (I suppose there’s a limit as to how much could be written about Frances Stuart, after all), I felt that Margaret Campbell Barnes did a much better job of forming a compelling story from the material available and giving her characters depth. Frances is portrayed as frivolous and immature, but she also has a kind heart and I couldn’t help liking her, as did most of the people around her. I say ‘most’ because her popularity at court earns Frances some enemies as well as friends and puts her at the mercy of those who wish to manipulate her for their own ends, such as Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, the King’s mistress of many years.
Later in the novel, when Frances’ relationship with Lennox begins to develop and she has some important decisions to make, we see a stronger, more serious side to her character. I don’t know enough about the real Frances or Lennox to be able to say whether their relationship has been romanticised here, but I expect it probably has; he is described, by his own admission, as a gambler and heavy drinker, but these problems seem to be brushed aside very easily once he and Frances get together. I did find their romance quite moving, though, and much more interesting to read about than the King and his mistresses!
Frances Stuart’s story is played out during an eventful period of history, but important events such as the plague, the Great Fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch Wars seem to pass by in the background without having much of an effect on the life of our heroine. It’s probably true that Frances would have been very insulated from the outside world by her position at court, but I would still have liked a better balance between her personal story and the wider history of the period in general.
Now, you may be wondering why the title of the book refers to the ‘lady on the coin’. Well, one of Frances Stuart’s claims to fame is that she was apparently the model for Britannia, appearing on a commemorative medal produced after the war with the Dutch and then on various British coins until as recently as 2006.
Lady on the Coin is the second book I’ve read by Margaret Campbell Barnes; the first was Mary of Carisbrooke, which told the story of Charles I’s imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books and the next logical choice is With All My Heart, her novel about Catherine of Braganza.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.