Happy birthday Henrietta!

16 June 2012

Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orleans, Nocret, c1660. Photo: National Gallery of Scotland.

It’s the birthday of my heroine, Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orléans today, which is nice. I feel like I should have some cake in her honour or something. Instead, here’s an excerpt from The Brightest Star, my novel about her, where she talks about her birth:

My poor little mother was on the run from Parliament’s forces when I was born. Sickly, exhausted, frantic about the fate of her husband and other children and massively pregnant, she was forced to seek refuge in the west country city of Exeter and gave birth to me there in a rickety little house close to the centre of town. Mam was so thin and unwell that she fully expected to die in childbirth and in her despair and anxiety even wrote a will and instructions for her burial.

She was also worried sick about the coming baby for I was born a month too soon and was very small, silent and weak when I eventually made my precipitous appearance on a bright June morning eleven years ago. However, to Mam’s surprise and profound relief, we both survived the hideous ordeal of my birth and all was well for a time.

‘I knew that you would be the last of my children,’ she told me once, her dark eyes staring intently into my own. ‘My enfant de bénédiction and little good luck charm. It seemed incredible to me that we should both have survived despite all the odds being against us and in a way that made you all the more mine in a way that your brothers and sisters could never be.’

Mam’s happiness was to be short lived though as when I was just a few weeks old, the advancement of Cromwell’s troops meant that she had to pack up her things and leave again to seek safety with her own family in France. She wanted to take me with her but due to my small size and feebleness, she was reluctantly persuaded to leave me behind with my governess and nurses in Exeter. There I remained, safe and snug in my borrowed wooden crib and with no idea that my mother had been forced to disguise herself and creep away in the dead of the night and that Cromwell’s troops were preparing to lay siege to the city.

Too late to help his wife, my father arrived in Exeter a month later and insisted upon having me baptised in the nave of the beautiful cathedral in front of a small crowd of loyal witnesses. My name was to be Henrietta in honour of my poor Mam. He stayed just a few more days before he too had to leave like a thief in the night to rejoin his armies. I never saw him again.

When I was reunited with my mother in Paris two years later, she paid for several Masses to be said in honour of my safe arrival. She also gave me a new name: ‘Henrietta-Anne’, to honour my aunt Anne and thank her for her great kindness to we poor exiles. I’ve been Henrietta-Anne ever since, although very few people call me that. It hardly trips off the tongue, does it?”

Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orleans. Photo: Royal Collection.

I’ve been fascinated by Henrietta’s story since I was a very little girl, ever since reading my grandmother’s copy of Margaret Irwin’s superb novel Royal Flush, which tells the story of her life from childhood until her tragically early death at the age of twenty six. It’s a remarkable tale really and one that requires very little embellishment, which is handy for me as I strive to write about her myself.

There’s so many facets of Henrietta’s tale that draw me in from her own loveable and witty personality to her family’s rather tragic and glamorous dark sparkle to the wonderful array of people that she was closely associated with: Louis XIV was her brother in law and alleged lover; Louise de la Valliere, Athénaïs de Montespan and Louise de Kerouaille were her ladies in waiting; Barbara Castlemaine was her brother’s mistress and so on. Speaking as a novelist, it is seriously amazing to be able to write about such an array of personages in one book and, honestly, the courts of Louis XIV and Charles II are like the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to florid and fascinating historical titbits.

Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orleans and her husband Philippe, Nocret, 1670. Photo: Chateau de Versailles.

Right now, I’m not really sure at what point in Henrietta’s life I am going to end this novel – for a start it’s written in the first person and I rather dislike it when such books end with the character’s death as it’s not always done very well and I’d hate to make a hash of it. My personal feeling is to end on a high perhaps as she sails away from England for the last time, secure in the love of her brother Charles II and flushed with success after playing her part in bringing about the Secret Treaty of Dover between England and France. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s all in the future so for now I’ll leave you with a happy birthday Henrietta and a glass of PIMMS (what finer drink for a rainy summer afternoon in the west country?) raised in her honour.

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