When I was in college, my personal dramas were clumsy and obscure. All they would do was confuse people, so I kept my strident affectations to myself.
I used to call myself Catherine of Braganza.
It wasn't because I was Portuguese.
It wasn't because I was Catholic.
It wasn't because I was married to an adulterer.
It was because I felt unwanted, awkward and ignored. I was pathetic. As she was.
Catherine came to England in 1662 to be married.
She sailed on the deceitful winds of political trafficking; she watched the contracts and alliances that bound her destiny sinking into the ocean that carried her: dim, melting promises.
She was plain, devout, modest – and the English court in the mid-17th century was no stage for such a dainty player. Cromwell was dead, Charles II was king, and the palace of St. James had become a harem of wives, whores and actresses. Dukes were pimps and their duchesses were willing and waiting toys.
Catherine had been raised in a convent. Her life had been quiet, almost servile. Yet one month after she had arrived, Charles' current mistress, Barbara Villiers, gave birth to a son. When she heard the news, the shocked queen was carried away in a swoon, overcome by a nun's condemnation. Yet for all of Catherine's well-bred protestations, it was Barbara, from a loyal but poor family, who lay bleeding in the royal bed.
The new queen was lost in a jungle of gossip and immorality. She was surrounded by languid, dissipated women: a demimonde circled around her, wearing gowns that receded from fragrant bosoms like silken tides, with hooded eyes that glittered with a constellation of sensuality.
The names of Catherine's competitors survive, evocative memories of a time when women decorated the court like cats – glinting, sleek, purring with danger:
Nell Gwyn – an actress at fifteen, and a beloved commedienne. She specialized in 'breeches roles': wearing male costume to show off her pleasing, hidden figure. She became the royal mistress at eighteen. On his deathbed, Charles pleaded, "Let not poor Nelly starve".
Moll Davis (according to Pepy's wife, "the most impertinent slut in the world") – was another royal choice taken from the theater. Moll was a clever singer and dancer; from the stage lit with candles, above the tiny cries of the orange girls, she was a tempting bundle of wit, garters and petticoats.
Louise de Keroualle was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine, with a face that was both innocent and captivating. There seemed to be no sin in her genteel prettiness. But her lips were voluptuous; and her eyes narrowed as if she was appraising the worth of a jewel, a gown, a man.
In total, these ladies – and others – bore the king eleven illegitimate children. Catherine miscarried twice – she was the king's 'barren queen'.
Many people have written about this world; one that teemed with such luscious enjoyment. But when I was in college, I chose to ignore it and spent my time pitying myself as well as pitying the sepia memory of Queen Catherine, one more outsider.