Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Merry Monarch's Wife: Catherine of Braganza

Several of Jean Plaidy's historical novels have been re-printed in recent years, particularly the books in her "Queens of England" series. One recent re-release is "The Merry Monarch's Wife," (originally published in 1991) a biographical novel about Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II in the late 17th century. As with all books in this series, the story is told in first person by the queen looking back on her life -- along with the woman's repeated expressions of "if only" regret and how she might have done things differently. In each "Queens" book, Jean Plaidy features a character and basic story previously included in earlier series. For example, the "Courts of Love" Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine also is found in the first four books of the "Plantagenet Saga." Catherine of Braganza, the Merry Monarch's Wife, is also featured in the second book of the "King Charles II" trilogy (part of the overall Stuart Saga about the Stuart monarchs): A Health Unto His Majesty.

Through the earlier "King Charles II" series and this Queens of England companion book, Plaidy brings her great historical research to the interesting and romantic story of King Charles II and his merry England, the British Court of the Restoration Period. "The Merry Monarch's Wife" is a decent enough telling of the same story from the King Charles II trilogy, with some additional material specific to the life of Catherine before and after her marriage to Charles II. The many characters at court, including Charles' mistresses and extended family members, are sufficiently developed for a story that tells the details of life at court as well as the political events of the time, including especially the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. These novels about Catherine of Braganza bring out many interesting details about the tragic Queen, who introduced Britains to their (until recently) favorite beverage of tea, yet as a foreigner and Catholic was unpopular in her new country -- and in the end failed in the major duty of a Queen, to provide the country with an heir. Throughout, we see the young, naive and sheltered woman who was sent to a foreign country to become the wife of a promiscuous man who could not be faithful to one woman, and yet still loved Charles and clung to her position.

The story itself, as a part of the English Restoration, is one of marked licentiousness, the English extreme reaction against the preceding years of Cromwell's Puritan rule. Plaidy even included an author's note addressing this matter in the introduction to her King Charles II story -- an explanation no doubt needed in the 1950s -- along with her justification for what others' called her too favorable portrayal of Charles himself. This actual history shows the real depravity of mankind which as an overall society cannot yield to the holy and moral life desired by God, and bears out the Calvinist understanding that without God's work in the heart, man cannot conform to God's moral standards -- the underlying reason why Cromwell's Puritan England failed. Plaidy thankfully wrote in an earlier time and thus does not include the common vulgarity and gratuitous sex scenes so typical of many modern-day writers. Yet her telling of the story clearly states her own attitudes, as so aptly expressed in the Billy Joel song -- "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints / the sinners are much more fun."

Plaidy (real name Eleanor Hibbert) was near the end of her life and career when she wrote this 9th book in the "Queens of England" series; she died in 1993. As such -- and as noted by other reviewers -- these later books lack the quality of her earlier works. Yet many of her earlier works, some written in the 1950s and 1960s, are out of print and hard to come by. Three Rivers Press has re-released the later Plaidy works to re-introduce Jean Plaidy to a new generation, and hopefully they will see enough interest to also re-print Plaidy's earlier works.

1 comment:

Deborah Swift said...

Thanks for this post - this is not a Plaidy I have read, and now you have tempted me. I am very much interested in this particular period, so thanks for alertng me to it.