Sign up for Karen's newsletter about forthcoming books and other interesting stuff

The Beauties by Lauren Chater

I’m a big fan of Lauren Chater’s work, and count Gulliver’s Wife among my all-time favourite pieces of historical fiction. So when I saw she had yet another novel published, I bought it straight away. The fact it’s also set in one of my favourite periods – the Restoration, with a look back to the years that Charles II and his family and supporters were in exile in Europe – was a bonus. Written from three different points of view, and using the commission of a series of portraits of famous court beauties as its central concern, this novel paints a vivid picture of the times and the constraints placed on women whether high-born, or not. It also examines the way “beauty” as a commodity, or something to be appreciated, and used as currency (by both the possessor and others) functions socially, psychologically and emotionally. How “beauty” can both open doors and limit women’s opportunities – and in a period when they had so few.

Enter Emilia, the beautiful wife of the heir to the Lennox earldom, Robert, who watches their future prospects crumble when King Charles is restored to the throne. Due to circumstances beyond her control, Emilia is forced to not only fend for herself, but make a terrible and potentially compromising choice.

Then, there’s Henry. A brilliant artist in his own right, he works with and for the great portraitist and court artist, Peter Lely, finishing his master’s works, and teaching new apprentices, all while trying to avoid being competitive with Lely’s other protégée, the talented Mary. But when the commission for the Beauties series is given to Lely’s workshop, and Henry is an integral part of their completion, he’s no longer able to view his art, the subjects they paint, and his king, in quite the same way.

Finally, there is Anne Hyde. Born a commoner, her father’s loyalty to the Stuart line sees the family fortunes rise and consequently, Anne’s position in the exiled court as well. But it’s when her heart is captured by someone not deemed appropriate for the likes of Anne Hyde, that prejudice and class differences rear their ugly head and those she thought her friends, prove her staunchest enemies. Anne too must make a choice: allow others to decide her fate and destroy her happy future, or do what no woman is supposed to and make her own fate and, worse, defy the status quo.

While physical beauty and appreciation does play a large role in the novel, it deals with so much more, particular women’s subordination, resistance to that, and the struggles they endure to be viewed as more than physical objects, but thinking, feeling humans. Anne Hyde’s trajectory was of particular interest as her relationship with the man who would one day, briefly, be king, is little known and history (as it so often is with women who dare to step outside the boundaries imposed upon them) has been unkind to her (ha! More than unkind). Lauren seeks to offer an alternate narrative to the primary one, presenting a woman who chose to pursue happiness and, having achieved it, however fleeting, sought to turn a mirror of sorts back on other underestimated and controlled women and offer them the chance to do the same; to see themselves through other eyes.

The prose is exquisite, the story held me from start to finish. If you love historical fiction and especially the Restoration, I can highly recommend this gem.

Signup to Newsletter