While we might not necessarily learn anything new here about the lives of these women, Porter’s engaging and well-researched book convincingly presents them as adding to both the glory of the king’s reign and its failings. Evelyn thought Charles would have been ‘an excellent prince … had he been less addicted to women’. One of the book’s strengths is Porter’s uncompromisingly impartial treatment of the king while discussing the lives of the key women in his life.
The story of Charles II’s sexual exploits is one of the most salacious in British history. It kept his courtiers in gossip for the entire reign and provided ample fodder for diarists. But this gossip is something Porter chooses not to focus on, despite a subtitle promising “sex and scandal”. Instead she provides a set of impeccably researched pen portraits of the women who dominated the king’s life. Providing a seamless narrative is a challenge for composite biographies, and Porter’s chronology is occasionally problematic, with overlaps and repeated events — perhaps not surprising, given that the mistresses overlapped. But allowing the women, not their “Merrie Monarch”, to take centre stage makes for an enlightening read.
There’s nothing radically new about most of her conclusions, although she does make a good case for reassessing Stuart, the one that got away, who was clearly more intelligent and more resolute than it is often claimed. At the heart of the book is the abiding mystery of the king, whose motives have divided historians and biographers since his death. Porter is stern with him, perhaps rightly. He is not a hero for the Me Too generation. Still, Charles II makes the private lives of our royal family seem tame by comparison, and the tabloids would have loved him.