Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orleans, Nocret, c1660. Photo: National Gallery of Scotland.
“No one notices me as I fight my way through the crowd to a mirror and slip in next to my brother James, who is grimacing down at his elaborate costume in dismay. Like Philippe and his handsome young men, he is playing the part of a fisherman and is decked out in an absurd blue tunic designed to look as if it is made from scales and decorated with profusions of crimson satin ribbons and feathers and little gilded fish that tremble with every movement he makes. On his head he wears a vast headdress of coral branches and white and pale blue feathers which coupled with his long red hair give him the wild appearance of a Celtic tribal chief.
‘Imagine fishing while wearing this,’ he hisses, turning this way and that and irritably tweaking the flamboyant feathers that encircle his slender waist. ‘I like how Charles always manages to get out of all this ridiculous chicanery.’ This is, of course, his real complaint. My elder brothers love each other fiercely but there’s a strong seam of envy running beneath all the hugging and amusing whisperings at the dinner table. Charles envies James for not being king, for not being the focus of Mam’s worries, schemings and, ultimately, disappointments. James envies Charles everything. He’d even willingly bear the brunt of being the one who always lets Mam down if only it meant he was the eldest and most important.
‘He’s the guest of honour,’ I say lightly, although I know that once James is in this grudging, awkward mood, it’s almost impossible to cajole him out of it. ‘It’s also an honour for us to be asked to take part in the ballet.’
James snorts and shakes out his auburn hair. ‘So Mam says.’
Philippe and his friends saunter past, rolling their sooty kohl rimmed eyes contemptuously over us as they go. One of them, a tall, good looking boy with long chestnut hair smirks back over his shoulder at me. ‘What a pity Anne-Marie couldn’t be here,’ Philippe is saying in that high pitched and slightly stilted way that means he intends to be overheard. ‘She would have made a marvellous Erato.’
I don’t think it’s a pity at all. Our cousin Anne-Marie de Montpensier, who is the daughter of Mam’s youngest brother Gaston, thinks a great deal of herself and although she offers our mother a certain grudging sycophancy for having been a queen when she herself has never even been a wife, she never fails to make it clear that I am not quite worthy of her attention.
On the other hand, it amuses me that Philippe talks as though Anne-Marie is indisposed in some way when in fact everyone knows that she has been banished in disgrace to her country estates for almost two years now for her part in the Fronde uprising and might never be allowed to come back to court. Despite my dislike of my much older cousin, I couldn’t help but be thrilled when I heard that she had climbed high up onto the ancient turrets of the Bastille dressed as a soldier with scarlet plumes in her hat and with her own hands fired a cannon at Louis’ forces led by brave Marshal Turenne.
There was a dreadful fuss at the time but now most of the court just shake their heads amusedly and smile at her ridiculous folly. ‘Isn’t that just like Anne-Marie?’ they say, rolling their eyes and pouting their cerise painted mouths in little pretend moues of disapproval. ‘When will she learn to think before she acts? Louis might even have married her one day if she hadn’t tried to blow his troops up.’ Even Turenne grins bashfully and looks not a little pleased when teased about the time a princess fired a cannon at him. ‘She fired very wide,’ he says to all the ladies as they sigh and flutter around him. ‘Perhaps I should give her lessons so that next time she can actually hit her target?’
If Anne-Marie were here now she’d be everywhere at once, striding smugly about the place with her blonde head held high and her shrill voice barking orders at everyone. She’d smile at James, who is the eldest brother of a king, albeit a dispossessed one, and therefore worth noticing then slide a small nod at me, whom she regards as a pathetic rival to her eminence as the most important princess at court. ‘They are going to put you in a convent,’ she whispered to me once at one of Queen Anne’s parties at the Louvre. ‘That’s what they do to poor princesses who can’t get a husband.’
‘She’s not so bad,’ James says and I see that he has noticed my clenched fists. I can’t help it; whenever I think of Anne-Marie I just want to punch something, preferably her face. ‘Besides, if Mam has her way, she’ll be our sister in law one day so we’ll all just have to get along, won’t we?’ For as long as I can remember, our mother has been plotting to marry Charles off to Anne-Marie, while blithely ignoring the marked lack of enthusiasm on the part of both parties.
I shudder at the thought of it. ‘It will never happen,’ I say. ‘Anne-Marie doesn’t like Charles. She says that he is too poor, too dark and too Scottish to please her.’ I begin to count the points off against my fingers. ‘Also his French is too bad, the English drink too much and she wouldn’t like Mam as a mother in law…’
‘And she is too Catholic to please him,’ James murmurs, turning away. ‘He’s no fool. He knows that if he marries a Catholic bride, as our father did and look how that turned out, then England will be lost to him forever.’
‘Too right,’ a familiar voice, warm as spiced rum on a winter’s evening says behind me and I turn with a squeal and hug Charles, who has come backstage with Harry beside him. ‘I fear I am destined to remain a bachelor forever as I don’t like the Protestant princesses from cold northern countries either.’
James laughs. ‘Cold hands, warm heart,’ he says, fanning his own heart with his long fingers.
Charles pulls a face. ‘Cold hands, cold everything,’ he replies with an eloquent shiver. ‘Anyway, brother, you are close to missing your cue. Cousin Philippe and his dandies are making eyes at you to join them.’ He frowns, his generous mouth turning downwards. ‘Or maybe they are just making eyes at you.’
James blushes, gives his stupid headdress one last pat then saunters off to join the other young men. Philippe turns to greet him with an arch look and for the first time I am struck by how alike they are with the same long noses, heavily lidded dark eyes and sardonically curving red lips. I think that our redheaded Jemmy is the better looking of the two though.
‘I should go back and do my duty,’ Charles says unhappily. ‘Did you know that this ballet is four hours long?’ he whispers to me. ‘Four hours of prancing and screeching and God only knows what other horrors are still to come.’ He looks at Harry and gives a rueful little shrug. ‘Mam is in Heaven though – she keeps saying that it reminds her of the mummeries they used to perform at Whitehall when we were but twinkles in Our Sainted Father’s eye and before the damned war put a stop to such frolics.’
‘At last we have something to be grateful to the war for,’ Harry says drily and my brothers grin at each other before Charles pinches my cheek and strolls away back to his place beside our aunt. They always talk this way to each other – Charles says that if we don’t laugh every so often at the absurdity of it all then we might all just as well have died too…”
Excerpt from The Brightest Star, my Work In Progress about Henrietta Stuart, Duchesse d’Orléans.
Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orleans and her husband Philippe, Nocret, 1670. Photo: Chateau de Versailles.
A very happy world GIN day to you all! Unless you don’t drink GIN, in which case Happy Nero’s Suicide Day.
I’ve had loads and loads of emails and comments asking about the progress of my latest writing projects so I thought I’d just briefly fill you all in with how it’s going. After all, I originally started this blog so that I could talk about my writing but it seems to have gone off on ALL SORTS of tangents.
1. I am now about a third of a way through my novel about Henrietta Stuart, Duchesse d’Orléans. As you can see from the excerpt above, it’s still in the first person present and I think that’s how it is going to remain. I’m having a lot of fun with it though, especially when it comes to playing with the wonderful characters that filled Henrietta’s world both in France and England and also the immense absurdity of court life at the time. In the chapter I am currently writing, there is a LOT of fuss about the Grande Mademoiselle walking through a doorway in front of Henrietta at a court party.
2. I’m not writing about Henrietta’s granddaughter, Marie Adélaïde, Duchesse de Bourgogne at the present time but am vaguely considering a sequel involving her. Sorry, Marie Adélaïde fans!
Bust of the Dauphine Marie Antoinette, c1770, Petit Trianon. Photo: my own.
3. I have abandoned work on the The Secret Diary of a Princess: a novel of Marie Antoinette sequel for the present time as I wanted to concentrate on Henrietta and also The Ripper Book projects. I get emails pretty much every day from Maria Antonia fans wanting to know when the next instalment will be hitting their Kindles and hate to disappoint you all, but rest assured that I’ll be letting you know here if I resume work! The thing is though that although I felt excited writing about Marie Antoinette’s childhood in Vienna, I feel that her later life has been picked over so often both in fiction and non fictional works that I’m not sure the world NEEDS another novel about her. At least not from me. I think I’d rather write about Madame Royale, the Duchesse de Polignac, Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun or perhaps Madame du Barry, just to get a different point of view. In fact, I’ve been thinking about a book from ALL of these points of view so you never know…
HOWEVER, there will be a complete relaunch of The Secret Diary at some point later this year as I have commissioned a spanking new cover from the extremely talented Lisa Falzon, who did the much admired cover for Before The Storm. Lisa is apparently feeling inspired to create a Rococo masterpiece based on the works of Nattier, Boucher et al so I can’t wait to see how it turns out!
I’m also planning something similar for Blood Sisters as well as although I adore the cover, it’d be nice if they all matched, wouldn’t it?
4. I have a massive list of possible future projects across all sorts of periods and ranging from Elizabeth of Bohemia to Marguerite Blakeney to Madame Roland to Lucile Desmoulins to Princess Diana that I can’t wait to get started on. As with Before the Storm, I may well put it to the vote when I’ve finished The Brightest Star and let my readers decide which one I should tackle next!
Portrait of a Lady, Trinquesse, 1780. Photo: National Museum, Warsaw.
I’ve started thinking very seriously about a reworking of The Scarlet Pimpernel (I know it’s been done before but I like to give my own spin to these hoary tales) and this painting is just how I’ve always imagined Marguerite to be. Poor old Marguerite – it’s all very well to TELL your readers that she’s the brightest woman in all Europe, but how about SHOWING it?
On the plus side, last month was my first full month as a full time novelist and it was a blast. I can’t express how wonderful it has been to have the freedom to spend all my time working on my books. Or at least as much time as my children allow me – anyone would think they don’t want me to finish anything! I feel very VERY fortunate to be able to do this though and know that I owe it ALL to my readers (except for the one who took to Amazon to complain in the strongest terms that my book based on Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers was er clearly based on Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers) so thank you!
In the meantime, I know that leaving reviews on Amazon and Goodreads is a load of unbelievable hassle and tedium but if you could just ‘Like’ or give my books star ratings then that would also be very much appreciated!