Love’s Labours

Valerie Pearl

In her first line, Antonia Fraser describes her book as ‘a labour of love’. Given her somewhat romantic view of Charles II’s many affairs of the heart and her warm sympathy for the King, it is a doubly apt admission. The book is much more, however, than an account written around the royal harem. It is a portrait drawn from the absorption of many sources. No biographer of the supposedly indolent yet Merry Monarch (rightly shown here to be more of a hyperactive melancholic) can avoid dealing in detail with his love-life, but none so far has had her skill at re-heating so many sauté’d dishes and making such an appetising meal of them. She serves up what seems to be every morsel ever written about her hero’s ‘sexual nature and exploits’ (as her meticulous index puts it, just above the item for ‘shoes, attention to’), from his initiation by his former wet-nurse when he was nearly fifteen, through his eight leading mistresses and 12 recognised bastards, down to the last relaxed years with the Duchess of Portsmouth. There is also some modern sauce. Charles may have been sexually, if unconsciously, attracted to his sister, Henriette-Anne, who was married to the sexually ambivalent brother of the French king.

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