Title: The September Queen
Author: Gillian Bagwell
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 389 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 wobbly stars
I have tremendously mixed feelings about this book. The 3-star rating is sort of an average, which is why it’s wobbly and rather blurry around the edges. There are things I liked about it better than that, and there are things I disliked it on the level of a 2-star book.
The September Queen is the story of Jane Lane, who played a critical part in helping Charles Stuart, who would become Charles II, escape from England following his defeat to Parliamentarian forces at the Battle of Worcester. During their flight, Charles and Jane become lovers. Most of the book takes place during the Interregnum, an under-represented period in historical fiction, but the events cast their shadows both forward and backward, as the narration reveals what came before and the nuances of the political struggle, and as most readers inclined to pick up this book probably know that Charles does, in fact, reclaim the throne of England. (Hope I didn’t just spoil the 17th century for anyone, there).
So, we begin with Charles about to make what would be his last great stand against Cromwell’s forces, through the eyes of a well-bred girl from the local gentry. I was inclined to be on Jane’s side from the start.
I have come to the great age of five and twenty, and but one man has stirred my heart, and that came to naught. An old maid, her eldest sister, Withy, would say.
What is wrong with me? Jane wondered. Why can I not like any man well enough to want to wed him? It is not as though I am such a great prize. Pretty enough, I suppose, in face and form, but no great beauty. Witty, and learned, but those features are of little use in a woman, of little use to a man who wants a wife to be mistress of his estate and mother to his heirs.
What if there will never be someone for me?
I empathize. As the book went on, though, it got a bit harder for me. Jane wishes for adventure and gets far, far more than she bargained for — and in that sense, her story rings as a cautionary tale. And she loses herself in the bargain. She falls desperately in love with Charles while helping him escape and spends the rest of the book mooning over him, despite not seeing him for years at a time. Years. Years during which she lives a celibate life, shuffled between the courts of his relatives, while Charles is out doing pretty much everyone he encounters, occasionally dropping Jane a line to let her know that he’s going to give her some money someday. It’s a terribly uneven relationship, and it paints Jane in a pretty pathetic light. I do appreciate that, eventually, at the end, she tells Charles just what he’s done to her. She forces him to own up to that, and it’s a very powerful moment. But this flicker of self-awareness and empowerment comes far too late in the story, and she backs away from it pretty quickly.
As I read more books about the Interregnum and Restoration (the period appears to be growing in popularity, perhaps as authors and readers both realise that it has a whole lot more sex appeal built right in than the Tudors did), the overwhelming message seems to be one that reinforces the importance of female fidelity, while casually shrugging off male philandering. If you really love him, this model says, it doesn’t matter how many other women he’s seeing. He’ll value you for staying true even when he ignores you for years at a time. That’s how you know that your love is pure, and that you’re superior to all those other avaricious/libidinous whores. Since so much of Jane’s story is a historical blank, I would have loved to have seen Bagwell take some more exciting risks with it — give her a love affair with someone else, some other dashing Cavalier in exile, rather than just swallowing her feelings for ten years and enduring like a good little neglected cast-off. Instead, she ends up in emotional paralysis for a full decade and for most of the book — and that’s both frustrating and a little boring to read. Ultimately, it made it much harder for me to like Jane as a character. I lost respect for her, more and more so as the book went on and she shied away from every opportunity to assert herself. I would have liked to have seen some show of spirit from this woman that Bagwell so clearly wanted us to believe was intelligent, capable, and special. Perhaps this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for Barbara Palmer, even though in many ways she really was a nasty piece of work. She was a fascinating study in contrasts, vivacious and temperamental, kind and cruel, extravagant and exuberant, envied and detested — and she, at least, didn’t allow Charles to hold her to a higher moral standard than he held himself to. Perhaps some historical novelist will take up the challenge of Barbara soon — I would find it a tremendously welcome change from the narrative of pathetic, doomed fidelity.
Other things I disliked were more on the side of technique. Jane is, emotional paralysis aside, a little too perfect. Everyone adores her, from men she spurns to half the princesses and queens in Europe. Though she undoubtedly has trouble in her life, she has no personal enemies whatsoever — or even personal rivals. She never encounters most of those she competes with for the king’s affection, or encounters them only briefly and at a distance. Not only is it rather unbelievable, it makes the story a little dull in places. I was aching for something — anything — by way of actual conflict. In the first half of the book, we at least get the excitement of evading Cromwell’s army, but in the second half of the book? Nada. Even Jane’s conflicted feelings about Charles mostly take place at a distance, and when her cousin and then her brother find out about her affair, their anger with her lasts less than two pages. This utter lack of personal conflict gives the book a rather meandering feel, without a real drive, particularly since the exciting historical events happen at such a distance once Jane is removed from the immediacy of Charles’s story.
My other major criticism is of pacing. The first half of the book takes place in a matter of days; the latter half over a decade. That alone makes for a somewhat odd read. There are ways in which I feel this book might’ve been better if it had been more of the first and hardly any of the second. Even within each half, though, there are definite pacing oddities, and for the first hundred pages or so, the book seems very uncertain what it wants its mood or even its genre to be. The story doesn’t flow particularly well.
Overall, this is a very sad book, I think. The reader knows from the start, if she knows anything at all about Charles II, that the romance is doomed. Honestly, I’m surprised that in the thorough peppering of Shakespearean quotations (appropriate in places, annoyingly intrusive in others), Bagwell resisted the urge to refer to Charles as “one who loved not wisely but too well” — which is (taking the quote removed from original context) how I’ve always thought of him. Bounteous with his affections, not a drop of malice in him — but utterly faithless, incapable of loyalty, and very much an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of man. And so I find Jane’s story very sad — and not in a moving or cathartic way, just in a vaguely dissatisfying way. Charles ruins her life, flat-out. Not only does he tear her from her home, her family, her country, her friends, not only is he the direct cause of dire misfortune for her, but he steals her heart and never gives it back. It makes him seem tremendously selfish, among other faults. He strings her along for ten years, knowing he can’t promise her fulfillment but unwilling to let her go. She loses a decade to him, and, despite the ending (which I’m trying very hard not to spoil), I never got the sense she ever really breaks free of his influence. Which I think is more tragic than anything else that happens to her.
So, really, I don’t know how to recommend this book. If you don’t mind being as conflicted as I was, or if you just plain like the Restoration that much, it’s worth the read. I do commend Bagwell for taking on such a little-known heroine. It was a treat to read a historical novel without an awareness of the major details of the story; I mean, though I knew she couldn’t end up with Charles, I didn’t know what would happen to her, if she would marry eventually and who, where her travels would take her. I got to find all of that out as I went along, which is almost never the case for such a thorough history geek like me. (And I somehow mastered the urge to get on the DNB and spoil myself, which is even more impressive). I did also enjoy the sexy bits — while they lasted. One of the many genres The September Queen tries on in those first hundred pages is straight-up romance novel, and those are actually some of the best bits (not least because they seem to have the strongest sense of intention). As I stated at the beginning of the review, this book averages out to 3 stars… but just barely, and that mostly on the credit of taking on an obscure character. After having enjoyed The Darling Strumpet so much, this one rather let me down.