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Posted on 30 May 2024 in Fiction | 0 comments

LAUREN CHATER The Beauties. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Set in 17th-century London, Lauren Chater’s new novel brings together a royal artist, a young woman’s quest and the real-life Anne Hyde. 

What do you do if the king invites you to share his bed but you find the idea repulsive?

A wave of nausea ripples through her stomach. She clenches her jaw and swallows, trying to stop the bile rising into her throat. Forcing herself to smile, she inclines her head – not quite a nod, but not a flat refusal either.

The king is Charles II, restored to the English throne after the Cromwellian Interregnum. His favourite mistress, Lady Castlemaine, is in ‘a delicate condition’, he tells Emilia. She is expecting his child and has barred him from her bed, thus causing him ‘restless nights’ and leaving him ‘vexed’ and ‘in a quandry’. 

‘Perhaps you, Emilia, are the answer?’

The trouble for Emilia is that she has tried to attract the king’s attention in order to help her husband Robert regain his estate and titles. These were confiscated when the king’s agent accidentally discovered that Sir John Lennox, Emilia’s elderly and increasingly vague father-in-law, had briefly kept his eldest son, William, hidden, before realising he was a traitor to the Crown and a thief.

Unlike his brother, Robert Lennox had fought with the Royalists and had longed for the day of the king’s return. Now, as Emilia tells the king, the loss of his peerage, his home, and the deaths of his parents, have forced him to take menial labour wherever he can find it, and he is deeply depressed. She, too has found work, serving food at a roadside tavern. 

Emilia had written about their new lives to her childhood friend, Arabella, who is a successful actress in London, and Arabella had written back sending some money and urging Emilia to join her in London so that she can try to get the king to grant Robert a pardon: ‘The king has done so for a few others,’ she tells her.

Arabella is sure that Emilia’s beauty will catch the king’s eye if she joins the other commoners who wait daily in the king’s receiving rooms at Whitehall Palace. Robert, who has become morose and increasingly distant in their relationship, is so desperate for money that he agrees to this plan.

Arabella dresses Emilia for her first visit to the Stone Gallery at Whitehall, and weaves white ribbons into Emilia’s distinctive hair, which one artist who wanted to paint her portrait described as ‘the same colour as a frozen waterfall’.

‘What if the king doesn’t notice me?’

Arabella scoffs. ‘Then he’s blind.’

‘What if he’s too busy?’

‘Then we’ll return tomorrow.’

The room is crowded with petitioners. ‘Emilia is aware of the wall of bodies at her back, the hot breath of strangers on her neck’, and some of the petitioners are ‘plagued by illnesses and deformities’. The king does notice her but is called away before she can speak to him. So, for many days she returns, but the king is always busy elsewhere. Only by chance, at a rehearsal of Arabella’s latest theatrical performance, does a real meeting take place; and so Emilia’s dilemma begins. How can she avoid answering the king’s question?

The first chapters of The Beauties span the years 1662-65 and tell of Emilia and this beginning. Chapter 3 jumps to ‘Henry. London 1665’ and introduces ‘Henry Greenhill. Aged twenty-six’ and ‘the principal assistant at the Covent Garden studio of court artist Peter Lely’. 

Henry is an exceptionally skilled artist and Lely trusts him ‘to complete the portraits commissioned by the king and by courtiers and nobles’. He has worked hard to attain this position, but due to his intervention over non-payment by a professional engraver, Lely is furious with him and demotes him in favour of his rival, artist Mary Beale. Henry must take over Mary’s job of looking after the 12 young apprentices and ensuring they are ‘fed, clothed and behaving themselves’. He must also supplement the weekly lessons they have with Lely by instructing them on the ‘basics of painting portraits and landscapes’.

Mary is abrupt and unfriendly towards Henry and Henry is dismayed at this role reversal. The way he deals with this situation, and his eventual meeting with Emilia, form the second theme of this book.

Chapter 4, rather confusingly, jumps back in time to 1654, before the Restoration of the king and the return of the royal family, including James, Duke of York, to England. In this chapter, we meet Anne Hyde as a youthful lady-in-waiting to Charles’s young widowed sister, Princess Mary, whose court-in-exile is in the Hague in Holland. Anne Hyde’s life forms the third, very important, strand of this book. 

Tying these three themes together is art. In particular, the commissioning of a series of portraits of the most beautiful women at court. These portraits have come to be known as ‘The Windsor Beauties’, and they are still part of the British Royal Art Collection.

As a young wife Emilia had taken up painting and was deeply interested in art. With the loss of the Lennox estate, she had to give up this occupation, but her skills become useful when she helps to support herself while living with Arabella in London.

Henry is drawn into Emilia’s life when Peter Lely gives him the task of painting Emilia’s portrait. It is a slow and frustrating business because Emilia has told the king that she will only agree to accept his offer if he adds her portrait to those of the Windsor Beauties, and then only when the portrait is finished. Emilia is determined to delay this moment for as long as possible, so she is evasive and uncooperative with Henry, who incurs Lely’s wrath when the king’s agent demands progress. 

Anne Hyde is the woman who commissioned the Windsor Beauties portraits. Lauren Chater creates a fascinating life for her, since historical records have failed to do this. Anne tells her own story from her time as a pleasant, rather naïve girl favoured by Princess Mary and learning hard lessons about the perfidious nature of charming court gallants, to being the subject of court ladies’ slurs as ‘an immoral woman of inferior birth, a climber of the worst sort’. Hers is life full of fascination, complexity and uncertainty, as befits the woman who eventually marries James, Duke of York, the second-in-line to the throne, and becomes Duchess of York.

Theatre, too, has a rich and colourful presence in The Beauties. Arabella is one of the leading actresses in the Duke’s Theatre, but her employment is terminated when she becomes pregnant. However, she and Emilia begin to work with the charismatic Winifred Duncan, who is establishing an all-female theatre company.

This new and ambitious venture includes the restoration of the old London Fortune Theatre by five women who have learned from their carpenter father:

how to measure and cut the beams of wood he used in the foundations of other people’s houses … how to hammer nails and remove them, how to construct furniture, how to scribe to ensure the beams fit tightly together and bore the loads they were assigned.

Eventually, Emilia, too, is employed to restore and paint scenic backdrops. 

Henry, meanwhile, has begun to enjoy teaching the apprentices, especially one boy, George, who has a similar impoverished background to Henry’s and shows exceptional talent. Mary, however, makes him aware that the fate of ‘the entire studio’ depends on him completing the portrait of Emilia for the king, who is becoming increasingly impatient.

For Emelia, Arabella and Henry, the outbreak of plague in 1665 temporarily resolves their problems.

Henry stays in London to look after the boys. Emilia sees the streets ‘jammed with people … some carry trunks, others wheel barrows piled with assorted belongings’, and when she finds the Fortune Theatre deserted, Arabella tells her:

‘Everyone has left. The king himself has fled Whitehall. The plague hasn’t reached all the parishes yet, but it’s only a matter of weeks before everyone succumbs to it. Winnie has gone to arrange our passage to the countryside. Her cousin has a house there.’

By the time Emilia and the theatre group return to London, everything has changed. Emilia’s dilemma still exists but there is new potential for her to avoid its resolution.

The Beauties is an enjoyable romantic history in more ways than one. Romance, love, sexual liaisons and dilemmas abound, but these are all part of the richness, romance and rivalries of courtly life. Lauren Chater sets her scenes and paints her characters and their various lives, thoughts, emotions and problems with the discerning eye and skill of an artist inspired by the painter of the Windsor Beauties.

Lauren Chater The Beauties Simon & Schuster 2024 PB 384pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy The Beauties from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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