THE KING’S MISTRESS by Emma Campion (Review)

The King’s Mistress is a biographical novel based on the life of Alice Perrers, “mistress” during his final years of King Edward III. It is reminiscent of Anya Seton’s masterpiece Katherine, even to the quotations from Chaucer at the top of each chapter and the presence of Chaucer himself throughout the novel, but that is not a bad thing. In fact it is a very good thing, and anyone who has read Katherine as often as I have will definitely enjoy this one, too.

For a start, Alice has received a constantly bad press from writers of both fiction and “historical fact”. But this author (Emma Campion, better known as Candace Robb) sets out to see everything from Alice’s point of view. And as Alice herself says, “When had I a choice to be other than I was?”

It is her father who arranges her marriage, when she is still hardly more than a child, to a sexy widower “twenty years her senior”.

Janyn was splendid in a deep jewel-hued jacket, leggings and hat, the latter ornamented with peacock feathers. From his neck hung a gold chain set with medallions of lapis lazuli. The sun had darkened his complexion. He looked glorious, as I imagined a lion might look. And as I approached I felt a sense of great power as his expression of impatience metamorphosed into a look of sheer delight, and then something darker, a hunger. As if he were a lion and meant to devour me. Yet I did not fear him. I felt I shone in his presence. I came alive.

It is her husband who is under the patronage of the Queen Mother, Isabella, the She-Wolf of France, and so Alice too comes, willy-nilly, under the old queen’s aegis.

It is the old queen who places Alice in the royal court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, when Alice’s husband Janyn is murdered..

And it is Queen Philippa, now an invalid, who literally pushes Alice at her ageing but still very virile husband, the King, Edward III.

Queen Philippa too noted my weight loss and that I looked as if I were not sleeping. She listened to my explanation with sympathy. She shared with me her own reason for melancholy: that she had so much pain in her pelvis she would never bear another child, and that she and the King now lived as brother and sister, not husband and wife […]

I had heard previous speculation from the women waiting on Her Grace that her riding accident had ruined her for sexual pleasure, and that shortly afterwards her courses had stopped. However, I had never heard her speak of this herself. I felt honoured by her confidence, sad for her, and unsettled by a sense that she was absolving me from guilt. The new gowns, this confidence …

Of course, she soon has many enemies. How could she not? And all the jealousy and bile finds expression in the writings of Thomas of Walsingham, a monk who seems to have had a lot in common with the oh-so-religious woman-haters who still hold sway in many parts of the world today.

Alice Perrers at the deathbed of Edward III

I loved it, and identified with Alice completely. What more can I say?