Book Review: Girl on the Golden Coin
Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press 2014
Ravishingly beautiful Frances Stuart, the main character is Marci Jefferson’s wallopingly good debut novel Girl on the Golden Coin, is growing up at the Court in Paris in the 1660s under the domineering omnipresence of Henrietta Maria, the former queen consort of England’s King Charles I, now simmering in exile since her husband’s decapitation by Cromwell in 1649. The restoration of her son Charles to the throne has done very little to temper Henrietta Maria’s long-stoked indignation about the sequence of events that brought her to where she is:
“Henry the Eighth of England severed from Rome to take up with that heretic, Anne Boleyn, and Protestants have wrongfully triumphed ever since.” She looked past me, remembering. “Pope Urban hailed me as savior to oppressed British Catholics. I did everything I could to turn England back. Some” – and here I could see she meant to say King Louis – “may say my efforts caused the civil wars that ended in my husband’s beheading.” She eyed me. “The English think they have the right to choose how to worship God! They denied the absolute right of kings, their mistakes brought bloodshed.”
That passage appears early in Girl on the Golden Coin, and its personal immediacy gives you an accurate idea of Jefferson’s skills; she imbues her characters with such life so surely, with such deft skill at detail, that as the pages go by, it becomes more and more amazing to remember this is her first published novel. You feel at all times like you’re in the hands of a seasoned pro.
The Restoration offers open-ended opportunities for ravishingly beautiful young women with connections at the London Court, as Henrietta Maria herself mordantly observes when characterizing her son, the newly-crowned King Charles II: “He is an easy man. Merry. Malleable. Prone to attach himself to any sort of woman, even the self-seeking sort. He is so forgiving, you see, he hardly notices a woman’s flaws.”
The flaws of the women gathered around Charles II quickly become the focus of the novel, as they tend to do in all writings, fiction and nonfiction, about the so-called Merry Monarch. The vibrant personalities and exotic behaviors of these female satellites of the King were star attractions of the Court, as any reader of the diaries of Samuel Pepys will recall; when young Frances goes to Court, it doesn’t take her long to be engaged in sexy banter with Charles, who predictably gushes at her beauty, as in the quick scene where she asks him about his extensive collection of art:
“Do you have anything by the Italian masters? Nothing is more beautiful.”
“You are wrong.” He grinned, and I wasn’t sure if he was flirting or teasing, but I found myself grinning back. He lifted his hand and traced the bone of my cheek with the tip of one finger. “I’ve never seen more beauty than I do here,” he whispered. “So pure. Your face reminds me of the Virgin Mary in a drawing I have by Raphael. I grant it to you! I’ll deliver it myself.”
All this flirting of course happens right under the nose of Charles’ actual queen, Catherine of Braganza, a political bride from Portugal who adores her royal husband but is hopelessly out of her depth in the snake-pit of the licentious Court – a Court presided over by Charles’ foremost mistress, Lady Castlemaine, who’s secure enough in her hold over Charles to risk mocking the queen to her face. In Jefferson’s fictional conception, such mockery touches Frances Stuart’s heart (“Queen Catherine, who knew little English, laughed as if Castlemaine had told a joke. Poor wretch didn’t realize she was the joke”), and our author tells such a winning story overall that we can indulge her urge to make a heroine out of a young woman who was in reality a standardly avaricious buffoon. That fictional Frances gives us a good clear window through which to view all of Jefferson’s other wonderfully-drawn characters like George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, a favorite of the King just as father had been to the previous king, as Henrietta Maria acidly recalls:
“You speak to me of a queen’s dignity? I, who endured my husband’s affair with that other Protestant Villiers? He granted his lover a title; first Duke of Buckingham. That ravenous snake. So you see, I’m weary of that family crowding the English royal bed.”
And it’s a small consolation that life at Court does eventually coarsen young Frances, especially when she herself gains the pre-eminence her rival Castlemaine once enjoyed. The scenes between these two steadily increase in sharply-turned dramatic tension:
If Castlemaine wasn’t talking, she was pacing. I sat enough for both of us. The windows, closed against autumn’s first chills, let in enough light to embroider a nightdress. Thread, fabric, and needle flew through my hands. In the days we’d kept vigil for our grieving king, I’d nearly finished it. “My lady, your pacing is quite irritating.”
“How can you sit so calm?” she snapped.
“If you are anxious for the reason I think, then shouldn’t you be a bit nicer to me?”
“To what end? You hate me, I hate you. If he marries you, he’ll banish me to the country.” She wrung her hands as she crossed the chamber again and again. “You wouldn’t really make him send me away, would you?”
“Of course.” I viciously snapped a thread.
The general outlines of the Girl on the Golden Coin will be familiar to anybody who’s read the thumbnail popular histories of Charles II’s reign, but more importantly, the opulent skill of the storytelling will remind readers – favorably – of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. That’s not a bad showing for anybody’s first solo on the stage of historical fiction. Let’s hope for more from this author.