Since I’ve begun writing historical fiction, I’ve crossed over into a writing-world where nearly ALL the characters are based on real people. I won’t go into every one of the challenges of that kind of research in this blog; I’ll save that for another day. But to my surprise, one of the unexpected ones was having the appearances –– the “beauty”, as it were –– of those characters already determined for you by their portraits. And that beauty doesn’t always agree with contemporary conventions.
Just as most modern-day professional beauties –– fashion models and Hollywood actresses –– would have found little favor in a past that favored the more lushly appointed, it can be hard to look at three-hundred-year-old portraits with modern eyes and see the same thing. My next book, ROYAL HARLOT, is a fictionalized biography of Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland. She was the most prominent mistress of King Charles II, and one of the baddest bad-girls in English history, which makes for a most entertaining heroine, if not perhaps the best girlfriend you’d call in a pinch. Barbara was universally regarded by her contemporaries as the most beautiful woman in 17th century England. Crowds would gather wherever she went, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Every head would turn when she entered her box at the theatre, and even happily-wed diarist Samuel Pepys made a point of walking by her house on laundry-day, just so he could see her lace-trimmed smocks hung out to dry and fantasize like mad.
Like most famous beauties of the past, Barbara was painted repeatedly, and her portraits by Sir Peter Lily are among the most enduring “images” of the Restoration. But her beauty hasn’t traveled well through the centuries. Sure, Alexander Pope wrote “Lely on animated Canvas stole/the sleepy Eye that spoke the melting soul”, but today those bedroom-eyes look, well, kind of burned-out and druggy, and the double-chins that were so celebrated among Restoration beauties seem matronly –– especially considering that most of these paintings were done before Barbara’s thirtieth birthday.
As a history-nerd, this didn’t bother me. I am up to the challenge. But the marketing folks at my publisher were scared to death, and as a result you won’t find Barbara’s face on the cover when the book hits stores on July 3. Instead we’ll be counting on readers to supply their own mental image of what the most beautiful woman in England looked like –– even if it’s not close to the 17th century truth.