By Emma Campion
Crown Publishing, 2010
The King’s Mistress is a story based on the life of King Edward III’s mistress, Alice Perrers. It follows her life from childhood to her first marriage, to her life at the court of King Edward and then life after Edward’s death at the mercy of a vengeful court.
Alice’s reputation has suffered much at the hands of scholars and writers of this period. She was much maligned and vilified. Alice was accused of being rapacious, power-hungry, deceitful, and even a sorceress. Campion sets out from the beginning of this book to rehabilitate Alice and tell another side to this tale. Campion skillfully manages to draw the reader into Alice’s complicated world of politics and court intrigue.
Campion portrays Alice in a favourable light casting her as a girl swept into a complex social circle that she was not raised in, and therefore, she is unused to playing the political game. She is alone, separated from her family and friends and left to navigate the difficulties and insular life of court on her own.
I was pleased to see this account of Alice and found myself agreeing with Campion in that women of this time did not have much “choice” in the matter, meaning, if the King chose her as his mistress, did Alice really have the choice to refuse him? Campion makes Alice’s character genuinely likable and the reader feels pity for her predicament without having the entire story be a ‘woe-is-me’ tale. While Alice’s actions were not commendable, it was a nice change to see Campion redeeming this character and going against the grain, questioning Alice’s usual perception amongst scholars. I found Alice’s character believable and the plot captivating.
The story begins with Alice as a young girl betrothed to a wealthy merchant whose family carries a terrible secret. She enjoys 4 years of wedded bliss before he disappears and Alice is moved to the court of Queen Isabella for her protection. Once at court, she captures the eye of King Edward and Alice is groomed to become his mistress. Does she have much choice in the matter? No, none really. Although Alice becomes a willing participant in the affair, she does show trepidation and does not jump headlong into the tryst to seek monetary gain or favour; she was wealthy already from her marriage to Janyn Perrers. For much of the novel, Alice constantly questions her position and keenly feels that she is being put beyond her proper place in court. She is in the Queen’s household to be protected from those who would harm her due to her ties with her husband’s family and has no recourse against the advances of the King. She continues to do what is best for her safety, and that of her family.
The book does an excellent job of highlighting the two extremes of royal patronage – wealth, popularity, and favour vs. hatred, jealousy, gossip and conspiracy. Alice must navigate through these dangerous waters for many years during her time at court and throughout the book, the reader really gets the sense that she is just barely keeping her head above water for much of this time. It is only later in life where Alice gets her freedom from the trouble the ties to the royal family have brought her. While she admits to enjoying royal patronage, it is obvious that the repercussions far outweigh the gains in being favoured by King Edward, and she knows that her enjoyment is precarious and on borrowed time.
The book moves at a steady pace and there are few, if any, dull moments. It is a quick and enjoyable read. Alongside Alice, there are many other interesting and colourful characters – Kind Edward, Queen Philippa, John of Gaunt and the young Geoffrey Chaucer to name but a few. Chaucer and Alice were contemporaries and moved in the same court circles, so Campion imagined the two as childhood friends for the novel. These characters help bring the novel to life. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and recommend it as a great summer read!
Here is our video interview with Emma Campion