Scandalous Interview and Giveaway with Susan Holloway Scott
Scandalous Women is pleased to have Susan Holloway Scott back to talk about her newest release, THE COUNTESS AND THE KING. I have been a huge fan of Susan for years, starting with her colonial set historical romances written by her alter-ego Miranda Jarrett. I loved her her first historical fiction novel THE DUCHESS, about Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, but I have to admit that my favorite is COUNTESS AND THE KING. Katherine Sedley is a delightful heroine, the type of woman that you can see yourself having a good gossip with but who would also be a loyal friend.
Welcome back to Scandalous Women, Susan! I can’t tell you how excited I was to read THE COUNTESS AND THE KING, about Katherine Sedley and James II. What led you to Katherine Sedley?
I’m glad to be back! “Scandalous Women” seems like quite the proper place for my heroines. I’m not sure that I was led to Katherine Sedley, so much as she grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. She kept turning up in research for my earlier books – she’s the heiress that John Churchill’s parents would much rather he’d wed instead of Sarah Jennings, and the young girl dancing jigs in the moonlight with Nell Gwyn at Epsom – and the more I read of her, the more intrigued I became. My editor was leery, because Katherine is such a relatively unknown historical figure, but I kept insisting she’d make a great book. And she did.
Yes, I kept thinking of them as a misguided Hollywood father and daughter, too – the child as amusing companion or pet to the father instead of a daughter. In Sir Charles’s sort-of defense, he wasn’t much more than a child himself when Katherine was born, and teenaged fathers don’t always show the most mature judgment with their children. On the plus side, I think Katherine and Sir Charles had an unusually close father-daughter relationship for the time, and they shared things that they enjoyed – the theatre, books, sense of humor – that were of a more intellectual basis than most 17th c. fathers would share with their daughters (or any women, for that matter.) He also gave her much more of a choice in choosing her future husband, again very rare for the time, especially since Katherine was a substantial heiress.
On the bad side (and it’s pretty bad), Sir Charles was a dreadfully indulgent father by the standards of any era. The places he took his daughter and the company that he shared with her would probably be considered a form of abuse today, or at least extreme negligence. It’s surprising that I found not protest by anyone in the family or court about how Sir Charles was raising his daughter, but I suppose that must just have been the “way of the world” in 1660s London. I’ve also wondered if perhaps someone might have spoken up if Katherine had been a more-valued son – though then most likely he would have been shipped off to school instead.
I was very interested in what happened to Katherine’s mother. Historians now seem to think that she wasn’t mad at all, that her ‘madness’ might have been caused by mercury laden medicines that she was given. How do you think that her parents’ marriage affected Katherine’s attitudes towards love and marriage?
I find those new “revelations” about Lady Sedley both sobering, and very sad. (Also sad that it took 20th c. women historians to discover what their male counterparts had accepted for 300 years.) There are letters by Lady Sedley from her confinement abroad to various cousins in London, begging them to believe that she isn’t mad as her husband claimed, and begging, too, to return to London. It certainly puts a different cast on jolly old Sir Charles. I was also fascinated by how he seemed to believe that having his wife “put away” was as good as having been widowed, because he seems to have had no compunction at all about remarrying – even though at this time, English law considered bigamy an offense punishable by death.
I have to think that Katherine was affected by both her mother’s madness and disappearance from her life, and her father’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards it. How could she not? She certainly seemed very reluctant to marry herself, waiting until the advanced age of forty before she finally did so. In the world that Sir Charles showed to her as an impressionable adolescent, the mistresses had all the fun, while the wives were shuffled off to the country to breed while their fortunes were squandered by their husbands. She said that it didn’t seem like a good bargain to her, and she was right.
Katherine was rather unusual in a royal mistress, known more for her wit than her looks. Do you think her life would have been different or better if she had been born beautiful?
My guess is that the ridicule that she faced for her lack of beauty (at least beauty by the standards of her time – in her portraits, to modern eyes she looks quite attractive) must have sharpened the edge of her wit. Still, I doubt she would ever have become the standard, lolling court beauty of the time. She was too smart and too quick for that, and if her enemies couldn’t have attacked her for her “plain” face, then I’m sure they would have found something else about her to mock.
Katherine and James seem to be unlikely lovers, Katherine being a Protestant, outspoken and witty, and James the opposite. Yet there is little doubt that he loved her? What do you think drew the two of them together?
Based on James’s earlier mistresses, Katherine was his physical “type”: he seemed to have preferred thin women, and didn’t care as much about their beauty as their personalities. (His brother, Charles II, teased James about how his mistresses were so homely, that they must have been chosen for him by his priests as penance.) Not quick-witted himself (again, Charles teased James about always being a few steps behind), James admired Katherine for her devastating wit, and her ability to defend herself in any verbal battle. Doubtless she said many things at court that he could only wish he’d said first. She was also loyal to him as a man, not just a royal prince, and I think he responded to that as well. She didn’t romanticize him or gloss over his flaws (her most famous observation about James was that she wasn’t sure what he saw in her: it couldn’t be for her beauty, for she hadn’t any, and it couldn’t be for her wit, because he hadn’t any himself to appreciate it in her), but she seemed to have loved him for what he was.
James II has usually been portrayed as one of England’s worst kings: a tyrant, a religious fanatic, a bigot and more. But recently historians have taken a kinder view, that he’s been unfairly compared to Charles II, and that he was a good king just at the wrong time. Do you agree?
My feeling is that he was the wrong man for the job. He had good qualities – he was a very hard worker, he was physically brave, he was loyal to his friends, and once he converted to Catholicism, his commitment to his new faith was complete. But he was also inflexible, dogged, self-centered, and certainly not as intelligent as his older brother. He believed that he was divinely appointed to be king, and that Parliament and the rest of England should bend to his will, without any compromise from him. He also lacked Charles’s personal charm and charisma, and the gift for political machinations and back-stairs politics, all useful in a king, and in the end the very qualities that might have served James well as, say, the captain of a ship in his much-beloved navy, proved disastrous when he became king.
I was intrigued by the friendship between Katherine and Louise de Keroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth. What do you think they both got out becoming allies as it were?
Louise was much more interested and involved in politics than Katherine. I think that with James as Charles’s heir, Louise was shrewd enough to see in Katherine a useful ally against a possibly unpleasant future. She might also have hoped to use Katherine as a way to keep James on course towards her dream of returning England to the Catholic Church (which staunchly Protestant Katherine would never share.) I also suspect she saw Katherine as simply a friend, another royal mistress who would understand what her complicated life entailed and wouldn’t judge her for it. Katherine liked Louise, and regarded her as a friend, and again, I’m guessing it was because of their shared places at court. Katherine had almost no women as friends: her caustic wit and unpredictable behavior likely scared them away. Beautiful, elegant Louise must have seemed like the coolest of the cool girls to Katherine, everything she wasn’t herself, and also one of the few others at court that she felt she could trust. An unusual friendship, to be sure, but it’s easy to see how it could have developed.
Unlike most women in the 17th century, Katherine was an heiress in her own right, and her father gave her the freedom to choose her own husband rather than trying to choose one for her. Yet Katherine still chose to be a royal mistress. Do you think that Katherine’s fortune helped or hindered her?
I think Katherine’s fortune gave her rare independence. Because she was financially free, and free, too, of having to find a husband for protection, she could do what she pleased. So yes, especially given her personality, that fortune was a true blessing!
This is your fifth book set during the reign of Charles II. Is there anything that you discovered about Katherine or the period that you couldn’t include in the book?
I would have liked to have continued Katherine’s story through the Glorious Revolution and James’s removal from the throne, and her late marriage. But once she breaks with James, the information about her becomes teasingly thin. There simply weren’t enough facts to be able to continue the story, and what I would have written would have become a whole lot more fiction than history. So, sadly, I chose to end the book where I did. But isn’t it fun to speculate what the later relationship was between Katherine and, say, John and Sarah Churchill?
One of things that I love about your novels is how vividly you bring historical figures to life. What are the pitfalls of writing about historical figures? And what do you see as the advantages?
I’ve always enjoyed the research side of writing historical settings, finding that single elusive little fact that brings the past to life, and rescues it from being dry old history. With characters based on historical figures, that research goes one step further. What can I discover about them will make them accessible to modern readers? How can I take the facts of their lives and weave them into a compelling story? The hard part, of course, is not to let research overwhelm story-telling. Research can do that in a non-fiction book, but in a novel, it’s deadly.
What is your writing process? How much research do you do before you start? Do you use the internet to research? Do you do an extensive outline?
I have a rough idea of where I want to go before I start, but I’m not sure I should dignify that as an outline. I concentrate more on thinking about the characters; like cat lovers and dog lovers, writers tend to be either character-driven or plot-driven, and I definitely fall into the character-camp. As for research, while I do some background study into the time period, I tend to research as I write, finding what I need for the story. This is the only way I can keep from being entirely swallowed up in research and only writing a book every decade. And yes, yes, yes I LOVE the internet for research! I was once a pure library-and-books researcher, but now more and more original source material is being put on the internet and being made easily accessible, day or night. I love being able to read a 17th century book from a rare book library in Oxford whenever I need it, and I like even better to be able to download a pdf of it onto my iPad. Very cool. True, the visceral connection that comes from actually touching a book from the past is lost in the electronic version, but I’m willing to trade that for the accessibility.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on an entirely different project that’s still set in Restoration England, but that’s more a historical novel than another fictionalized biography. I can’t really say more just yet, since not even the title’s set, let alone a publication date, but I will promise that it will be well worth the wait!
Susan has graciously agreed to giveaway a copy of the book. Here are the rules: This giveaway is only available to American and Canadian readers. The giveaway is open from today until 12 p.m. on Thursday, September 23. The winner will be announced on Friday, September 24th.
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