So my former student (I taught her nothing of what she knows.) has come forth with a second historical romance featuring Charles II of England. (See WW Friday, August 19, ’11 for comments on The Darling Strumpet.)
The first traced the life of Nell Gwynn, and I was mightily happy to spend some time with one of history’s most delicious wenches. This time, the subject is the lesser known Mistress Jane Lane. At curtain, we discover her at age twenty-five, reading in the garden and dreading the arrival of a devoted but ho-hum suitor. Jane, you see, longs for adventure and romance, but the staid Sir Clement Fisher will never fill the bill no matter how comfortable and kind a home he might provide. Still, she’s on the verge of old maidenhood, and she can’t stay out here in the country with her parents forever, can she?
She takes a walk, happens on a gypsy boy pleasuring himself. She’s intrigued, but declines his invitation to join him. She bathes for dinner, indulges in a little self-pleasuring of her own, so Gillian has prepared us well in a short time for the fact that Mistress Jane is ready to rock and roll if the opportunity arises. And arise it does.
In The Darling Strumpet, we met Nell Gwynn just before Charles II rode into London to assume his restored throne. In The September Queen, we meet Jane just as Charles is about to lose his first bid to wrest the rule of England away from Oliver Cromwell. The Battle of Worcestor turns into a disaster, and Charles flees into the countryside with the Protector’s minions hot on his trail, desperate to find haven in a Royalist household. Guess where his flight takes him.
So Jane gives her king cover while they–he disguised as her servant–make for the coast, trying to find a boat to take him to safety in France. On the way, the two follow their inclinations, with the usual results.
Charles escapes safely, then Jane’s complicity is discovered, and she, too, flees across the channel to join the English court in exile. There follow ten long years during which Jane continues to yearn for Charles and he continues to entertain her in his chambers whenever he happens to be in her neighborhood. In the meantime, he courts the French, then the Spanish, for help in regaining his throne. No dice. He also courts possible wives with money and power. No dice there either. He also beds sundry lasses, which activities get back to Jane, who is naturally distressed. He sponsors uprisings back home, all of which are scuttled by lack of capital and/or spies. Finally, Cromwell dies, the roundheads fragment into their constituent parts, and the royalists once again prevail.
Jane hopes for, assumes she will receive, a place in the new court. She knows she doesn’t have the money or station to be Charles’s wife, but she is willing to accept mistresshood, even though she knows she won’t be the one an only. You need to read the book to find out the rest.
Those are the facts. It could add up to a sad tale of a woman scorned and neglected and depressed. In the hands of a less skillful author, she might be a victimized, roundheeled doormat for a lascivious royal. But not Gillian Bagwell’s Jane Lane.
Most of the time Jane knows what she’s getting into and is willing to accept her situation. We may be angry with her for putting up with her treatment and mystified by her motives. (This aside from her available choices, which are severely circumscribed.) But she lives her pain and goes for the sweetness, which she knows means more pain, but staying put and comfortable isn’t her game. And that’s what makes her a sympathetic and admirable character, possessed of a kind of nobility that her royal lover doesn’t have.
September Queen is An entertaining read set in a fascinating period of history that I’m happy to learn more about. Bagwell’s artful weaving of Shakespeare throughout adds both substance and entertainment to Jane’s character and to the work as a whole. The afterword’s recounting of some of the research travels is entertaining, too. Altogether a fine piece of work.