Life in the Time of…Lady Diana de Vere
By Margaret Porter
|Margaret with Lady Diana de Vere’s portrait, Hampton Court Palace|
You’re probably familiar with the expression “May you live in interesting times.” A blessing? Or is it a curse? My novel’s main character experienced extremely interesting times, from a novelist’s perspective. Because in England the last quarter of the seventeenth century was a period plagued by an unpopular foreign war, constant political strife, legislative power plays, debates about separation of church and state, religious strife, and so much more. Sound familiar?
The people of Lady Diana de Vere’s world are people in power—kings, aristocrats. But their positions and their fortunes are precarious. Their security and safety are never assured. As the daughter of the Earl of Oxford and Diana Kirke, Diana was the descendant of many generations of courtiers and was expected to follow them into royal service. While serving as maid of honour to Queen Mary II, she became acquainted with her future husband—Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, the son of King Charles II and actress Nell Gwyn.
The upper classes tried to place their wives and daughters in the royal court, as lady of the bedchamber or maid of honour to the Queen. It gave them proximity to eligible gentlemen rich, powerful, and/or titled men. It was a means of promoting family interests, and quite a few courtiers inherited positions held by their parents or grandparents. A queen’s lady-in-waiting often became the king’s pampered mistress. By giving birth to a royal bastard, she was ensured of financial support for her lifetime. Families with sons wanted to snag a rich heiress. Families with daughters wanted a higher title and a strong connection to a wealthier or more powerful family. True love had little to do with aristocratic marriages. Lady Diana would not necessarily have expected a close or loving relationship with a suitor or a husband.
|Queen Mary’s plants at Hampton Court, as Diana would have seen them.|
Another reason court service was a desirable career for a well-born woman—it ensured an annual salary, room and board, and sometimes even a generous dowry. She wore pretty clothes and received ample attention from male courtiers. She also gained material goods—gifts from the sovereign might include jewellery, lace, clothing, and valuable mementos. On a queen’s death, her clothing and possessions were distributed to those who had served her.
The disadvantages were just as numerous. Salaries and stipends came irregularly and were often in arrears. Providing the monarch with aristocratic companionship was an arduous duty. One had to stand for hours on end, attain perfection in dancing and manners, assist at the royal toilette and robing, determine which visitors were welcome and properly introduce them. Those who had no taste for dalliance fended off predatory libertines, intent on seduction. Those who dallied with courtiers ran the risk of an unwanted pregnancy. An ordinary bastard hadn’t the cachet of a royal one.
What was Diana de Vere really like?
|Discovering an unknown portrait of Diana as Duchess of St. Albans|
I wish I could know with absolute certainty. I’ve walked past the spot where she was likely born. I’ve stood in the royal chapel at Windsor Castle where she was most definitely laid to rest. I know more about her portraits than any human on the planet. I’ve read many accounts of her written by others. I know she liked flower gardens, and that her horse-loving husband bought a mare for her, so she must have enjoyed riding with him. But the only direct communication I had from Diana herself comes in the words of her last will and testament—words she composed several years before she died, as she distributed her money, property, jewellery, and other treasures to family members.
Both the real Diana and my fictional Diana are more virtuous than her mother, who was very much a court lady and courtesan of the Restoration era—her morals, or lack of them, reflect that. I wonder whether the scandalous Lady Oxford served as a cautionary example to her daughter? Diana came of age during Mary II’s reign and was probably influenced by the devout, charitable, and garden-loving queen she served. In the reign of George I, she was Lady of the Bedchamber and Mistress of the Robes to Caroline, Princess of Wales—a highly intelligent woman, with great interest in science and art. If these women found her compatible, she must have shared their qualities to a large extent.
Diana was famous for being beautiful, from childhood until the day she died. But she also had the management skills required to run a duke’s household as a young married woman, and later in life, a royal household. Seven years after her death she was held up as an excellent example of womanhood, who, “by a Life spent in piety and good works, became the greatest character of the present, and a pattern for future Ages.”
Even more telling, she was, a star at her own son’s funeral. Lord James Beauclerk died in the late 18th century, after serving nearly 40 years as the Bishop of Hereford. The cleric who gave his eulogy took a brief detour to praise Diana, who by that time had been dead over three decades.
that great and good lady, the late Duchess of St. Alban's, whose memory will be ever precious among us, sweet as honey in the mouths of all that speak of her, and as music at a banquet of wine in the ears of all that hear of her . . . so bright an example, and so eminent a pattern of piety and good works . . . Of this Duchess Fame speaks highly. She was charitable to the utmost of her abilities. She searched for objects on whom she might bestow her fortune. She supported a dignity worthy of her high birth; yet was of so condescending, so affable, and so courteous a disposition, that she engaged and won the hearts of all who were admitted into her presence. Of her beauty little need be said. View the portraits of her at Hampton-Court and other places.
When writing about an individual who lived so many centuries ago, absorbing her world through research is essential. Immersion into the “life”—collecting biographical facts—helps to create an accurate portrayal. Just as important is immersion into the “times.”
Margaret Porter is the author of A Pledge of Better Times and eleven more British-set historical novels for various publishers, including several bestsellers, award-winners, and many foreign language editions. She studied British history at universities in the U.K. and U.S., and afterwards worked in theatre, film and television.
A Pledge Of Better Times
“Porter’s ambitious novel of 17th-century England is brimming with vivid historical figures and events . . . rigorously researched and faithfully portrayed.” ~ ~ Publishers Weekly
“The remarkable figure of Lady Diana de Vere stands at the center of Margaret Porter’s sumptuous, wonderful new novel.” ~ ~ Historical Novels Review
A sweeping tale of ambition, treachery, and passion incorporating 17th century historical figures, royalty, and events.
For generations Lady Diana de Vere’s family loyally served England’s crown. But after King Charles II’s untimely death, her father firmly opposes James II’s tyranny. Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St. Albans—the late king’s bastard son by actress Nell Gwyn—also rebels against his newly crowned uncle’s manipulation.
Political and religious turmoil bring revolution and yet another coronation before Charles returns to from war to claim his promised bride. As companion to Queen Mary Stuart, Diana has followed her de Vere forbears into royal service. She expects Charles to abandon his military career after marriage, but he proves unwilling to join the ranks of the courtiers he despises and mistrusts.
In palace corridors and within their own household the young duke and duchess confront betrayals, scandals, and tragedies that threaten to divide them. And neither the privileges of birth nor proximity to the throne can ensure their security, their advancement—or their happiness.