Was Jane Lane really Charles II's mistress? No one knows for sure, but what is known is that in the troubled years following the English Civil War, she risked her life to help Charles II, defeated at the Battle of Worcester, flee the country. Gillian Bagwell reimagines their relationship with insight and conviction: like Jason and Marie in The Bourne Identity, Jane and Charles find passion in the most dangerous of situations, where their only safety lies in trusting each other. Once they separate, the tension increases, as Jane, waiting to hear if Charles has reached safety, realises she has been implicated in his escape and may have to flee herself. Despite the pace of the first half of the book, it feels solidly researched, with a rich sense of place and atmosphere. The horselore in particular seemed very authentic - everything you might want to know about riding pillion is here!
Unfortunately, once past the halfway mark, the narrative drive which has built up rapidly dissipates as Jane moves from the centre to the fringes of the action. The topography of her continental exile is much less vividly portrayed and her life as a lady in waiting - about which not much is known - doesn't offer the requisite material for compelling fiction. I would have been quite happy to skip this part of her life and continue the story on the eve of the Restoration.
The final section has some of the most powerful and emotive scenes in the book as Jane has to come to terms with what she has given up for her king - and the realisation that she is only one of many women in his life. She tries to help Lucy Walter, one of Charles's early mistresses, now on a downward trajectory, while Barbara Palmer is glimpsed at a ball, triumphant in ice blue, at the beginning of her volatile liaison with Charles. Another of Jane's close friends is the ambitious Anne Hyde, a commoner royal mistress (of the future James II) who sets her sights on marriage. Jane's fate is different to all of them, and she herself has to determine the end of her story.
I can recommend The September Queen as a fast-paced, sensual chase and a tribute to a courageous woman who made her mark on England's history.
Review copy provided by the publisher.