Wife of Charles II, by Hilda Lewis

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to get more grounded in 17th/18th century English history: the Stuarts and the Civil War, specifically. I freely confess that that period bores me. I don’t have a sense of the personalities, it takes effort to get into the literature (Milton is my particular bane: I’ve tried several times to read Paradise Lost and haven’t gotten more than about 200 lines in), and  Ionly have a general sense of the major events. (I should probably note that my “general sense” when it comes to English history is still more specific than many people’s.) I understand that – and why – people find this period so interesting, but I usually don’t. And I’ve felt bad about this: there’s an entire two-dynastic gap in my otherwise encyclopaedic knowledge.

So when I ran across this (ever-so-imaginatively titled) book, I couldn’t pass it up. Historical fiction is generally an accessible way into a time period, especially when you’re interested in the personalities of the time; I can always go back and pick up more objective facts later. And this book does a very good job. It almost makes me want to read up on the Civil War and the Stuarts (certainly more than I did before), and I’m definitely likely to pick up more by Hilda Lewis if I find it (sidenote: lived most of her life in Nottingham!)

Briefly, the book is about Catherine of Braganza, princess of Portugal and wife to the restored Charles II. It brings her to life fairly clearly (although, as she wasn’t overly political, there isn’t a lot to delve into) and easily moves through the various legal and Parliamentary issues of the time. It puts a very complicated time into a fairly clear chronological pattern, from a personal, slightly uninvolved perspective.

Catherine is an interesting character. Charles is most known for his mistresses and illegitimate children, so the perspective of his (childless) wife brings inherent conflict into the story. One of the interesting things about their relationship is that Charles could easily have divorced her – childlessness was a valid cause for divorce/annulment, especially for nobility – but he never did. He even went out of his way to proclaim her as his wife, even when they’d been married for years and he was under a lot of pressure to find someone new.

It was a good gateway into the Stuart era for me. It wasn’t quite enough yet to send me on a full-blown Stuart binge, but it’s certainly gotten me closer to understanding the period.

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