Experience might teach readers not to judge books by their covers, but in the case of Marci Jefferson's debut novel, GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN (St. Martin's Press, February 11), readers have no need for caution. The gorgeous cover, which reproduces a contemporary portrait of the novel's protagonist, Frances Stuart, bespeaks with fitting perfection the sumptuous tale within.
The novel recounts the story of Stuart (1647-1702), mistress to King Charles II of England and model for Britannia, the personification of the realm that graced England's coins for decades. Despite her prominence during Charles's reign, Frances is a figure heretofore little examined in historical fiction. Jefferson depicts "La Belle Stuart" during the prime of her life, from her coming of age as a Royalist refugee at the French court of Louis XIV to her sudden widowhood at age forty. She surrounds Frances with a cast of convincing historical characters and sketches with clarity a political situation hazy, at best, to most American readers. Yet Jefferson's novel is more than a fictionalized biography set against a carefully constructed evocation of Restoration England. Like the best works of historical fiction, the novel projects the protagonist's inner life onto the broader political stage. Frances's struggle for autonomy mirrors that of England, determined to escape foreign entanglements and avoid an undesired imposition of the Catholic faith. The turmoil and soul-searching that accompanies Frances's attempt to reconcile her personal happiness with the good of the kingdom makes her plight a fascinating one.
Jefferson gives this "mistress of the king" story several interesting twists. First, Frances does not choose the role; it is thrust upon her by Louis XIV, who intends to use her as a way to keep Charles friendly to France, and by Charles's mother, who believes Frances can persuade her son to restore Catholicism to England. Frances, however, cannot comply with these demands: a secret that threatens to ruin her family necessitates that she remain free from scandal. She travels to England determined to befriend and influence Charles without becoming his mistress, a goal she soon discovers will satisfy neither Charles nor her own heart. Jefferson further complicates Frances's mission by establishing a friendship between her and Charles's Portuguese bride, Catherine of Brançaga, who arrives without a word of English and innocent of the ways of Charles's licentious court. Frances takes Catherine under her wing and develops a true respect and fondness for the foreign queen, making her decision on how far to pursue a relationship with Charles all the thornier. Third, Charles, an inveterate womanizer, considers Frances his pure and noble angel. Frances fears that if they consummate their relationship, Charles will lose the one thing that challenges him to be a better man. Frances knows her personal happiness lies in Charles's arms, but loyalties, politics, and the needs and expectations of others thwart her at every turn. Despite painful sacrifices, she never abandons the struggle to conform the desires of her heart with the realities of her situation.
Ultimately it is freedom, rather than love, that Jefferson's Frances -- reluctantly worldly, refreshingly loyal, spunky yet surprisingly wise -- seeks, the freedom to determine her own fate. A freedom for which England, of whom she serves as emblem, likewise searches. The Frances who withstands the pressure to conform in the final scene of the book is a far cry from the young girl forced to assume a role from which she shrinks in the opening chapters, and the reader who accompanies her on her journey to independence understands and appreciates the depth of the change.
Just as her protagonist escapes limits imposed from without, Marci Jefferson succeeds in slipping the restricted expectations that so often shackle debut novelists. If this first book, with its thoughtful characterizations, vivid settings, well-paced plot and subtle symbolism is any indication, Jefferson stands poised to become a definitive voice in the world of historical fiction. Accomplished and thoroughly satisfying, GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN glows with a luster that persists long after its striking cover falls closed.
************Return tomorrow to read my interview with Marci and enter to win a complimentary copy of GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN, along with a special gift!