Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Guest Review - - The Countess and the King

The Countess and the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester and King James II
By Susan Holloway Scott
Publisher: NAL
Release Date: September 7, 2010

The Countess and the King is Susan Holloway Scott’s fifth book set in Restoration England with its dissolute court and its political and religious intrigues. This book, like the others, takes a woman who is a minor note in historians’ accounts of the period and brings her to life in vivid detail, enabling the reader to understand the experiences that shaped her, the choices she made, and the strengths and weaknesses that defined her.

By any account, Katherine Sedley was a fascinating woman. She was the daughter of Sir Charles Sedley, a wealthy rake, sometime playwright, and member of the “Merry Gang,” a group as famous for their debauchery as for their wit. Her mother, also Katherine and the daughter of an earl, suffered from delusions, imagining herself the Queen of England and insisting that she be addresses as “Her Majesty.” Scott’s choice of a first person narrator gives the story immediacy and power. The book opens with the young Katherine, not yet ten, leaving her home and mad mother, who was soon after taken to a Catholic convent in Ghent, and entering the libertine world of her father.

Scott reveals the strong bond between Charles Sedley and his daughter, his beloved “Kattypillar,” but the baronet is alternately a cautious and careless father. The child who is not quite ready to part with her favorite doll soon becomes part of a “giddy world of pleasure and amusement and debauchery.” Plain even as a child, she distinguishes herself from the beginning by her wit and her willingness to speak what others would leave unsaid. After three years with her father, she describes herself in terms that struck this reader as poignant:

It is said that the habits established in youth are the hardest to break as the years pass, and certainly that was the case with me. My father’s indulgence gave me much freedom and little guidance, and like the fledgling bird that tries to fly too soon to flutter unformed wings, my first attempts to act beyond my tender years were often not sweet. I told unseemly jests, I swore when I lost at cards, I laughed too loudly, and my ever-sharpening wit was much more suited to one of Father’s libertine friends than a brash, ungainly girl of thirteen.

Katherine’s “five golden years” with her father end when he takes Ann Ayscough as his common law wife, a relationship that angers his daughter on her mother’s behalf as well as her own. Not surprisingly, the libertine’s daughter and the newly fashioned Lady Sedley, who desires to reform her husband’s profligate ways, have a stormy relationship. Thus, when an unexpected meeting with the Duke of York leads to a call from Charles II that Katherine join the court as a friend to the Duke’s bride, she welcomes this new stage of life.

Her years at court lead to heartbreak, scandal, and power. She survives an unhappy love affair, an aborted engagement, and the stratagem of enemies and eventually becomes the mistress of the Duke of York. Shortly after he is crowned James II, he creates Katherine, Baroness of Darlington and Countess of Dorchester. Scott’s portrayal of Katherine’s years at court captures the flamboyance, the machinations, the alliances, and the betrayals of the second Stuart court. By allowing Katherine to tell her own story, Scott gains the reader’s sympathy and admiration for this woman who refuses to conform to the limits her world would have forced upon her, a woman, the antithesis of all her world considers beautiful, whose wit and will enthrall a royal, whom she views first as a conquest but comes to love and understand as a man and as a monarch.

The Countess and the King is historical fiction rather than historical romance, but it offers conflict and romance aplenty to satisfy historical romance aficionados. It lacks a conventional happy ending, but Scott provides an afterward that assures the reader that Katherine found happiness and that she remained a spirited original throughout her life. If you ever sat through a history class that left you yawning, I recommend this book as the perfect antidote. It will show you history as exciting and alive and human. As for me, I’m not sure what Scott has in store for her readers next, but I am sure that I will be journeying with her back into 17th century England or whatever other slice of history she chooses to mine for her fiction.



  1. This sounds like a fascinating book and I loved the review. It certainly made me interested in checking her out, being a long time fan of Margaret George and Irving Stone.

    I'm a little confused though, is there a reason you kept switching between "Catherine" and "Katherine" in your review?

  2. I'm glad you liked the review, Daz. My apologies for the Katherine/Catherine usage and the confusion it created. My only reason is my faulty proofreading. The Countess's name appears as "Catherine" in some sources. That happened to be the spelling with which I was already familiar. Scott uses "Katherine." I'm certain her choice is the more historically accurate, but in my enthusiasm for the book, I reverted to the spelling more familiar to me. I thought I had corrected my slips, but clearly I missed a couple. I hope you won't let my error keep you from reading this marvelous book.

  3. Great review, Janga! I've never read this author. Sounds like I need to give her a try.

    My book club is in the process of choosing the books we'll be reading over the next four months. In your opinion, would THE COUNTESS AND THE KING be a good book club selection?

  4. PJ, I think THE COUNTESS AND THE KING would be an excellent book club selection. It lends itself not only to discussions about Katherine Sedley, her father and his circle, and James II and the historical period but also to conversations about larger issues such as the role of women, father-daughter relationships, religious conflicts, and so on. Questions for discussion are included in the book,

  5. Great! Our library doesn't have it (no surprise there) so I've added it to my Amazon list.


  6. I'm reading the King's Favorite by Scott, and I'm loving Nell Gwyn's story. Although everyone keeps telling me the end is heartbreaking, but then what woman of the streets story isn't heartbreaking for that time? It was a tough time for women period.

  7. This sounds like a intriguing book, Janga. I will definitely have to add it to my list. Wonderful review!

  8. It sounds interesting. It would definitely be better than sitting in History class to learn about this time.

  9. Monica, I remember how excited I was when Susan first began talking about writing Nell Gwyn's story at Word Wenches. Nell appears in THE COUNTESS AND THE KING too. She befriends the young Katherine.

  10. Thanks, Gannon. "Intriguing" is a great word for the book, given all the things going on at court. :)

  11. Andrea, I had some great history teachers, including one as an undergrad who was so good that he had to chase us out of class to make room for the next group scheduled for the room. But I also had a couple that are memorable only for how many hours I slept in their classes. History via historical fiction reads is MUCH more engaging.

  12. As someone who didn't like history in school but loves it now, this book sounds right up my alley. Thanks so much for this terrific review, Janga!!

  13. Janga, thank you so much for your wonderful review! I'm so glad you enjoyed Katherine's story, and the historical background as well. Your review made my day!

    I'll answer the Katherine/Catherine question - it IS confusing. In those good old days before standardized spelling, people pretty much spelled as they pleased, and names were especially open for interpretation. I've seen Katherine Sedley's name spelled both ways, and I imagine both are considered "correct." But since she signed her own letters Katherine-with-a-K, I decided to let her guide me. :)

  14. What a wonderful review. It really makes me want to read this book. i am putting it on my gotta get list.