Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Mistress Moderately Fair by Katherine Sturtevant

In Restoration England, where King Charles II is on the throne, Margaret Featherstone, a big, plain woman in widow’s weeds, fights to hold her own as a playwright against the male competition in a world where women, and any talent they might possess, counts for very little. It’s a constant struggle for patrons to support her art and to gain the attention of the stage managers.

Enter Amy Dudley, a beautiful and ambitious actress whose cheek is marred by an ugly scar. Starring in one of Mistress Feathersone’s plays could win fame and accolades for both, but the secrets of her past could lead both of them to the gallows. Unable to find work because of her disfigurement, she seeks Margaret out and begs an audition. She speaks the lines just as Margaret envisioned them and readily wins the part, while Margaret, keeps her secret attraction for Amy locked quietly in her heart.

The producer of the King’s Company is worried about the mystery that surrounds Amy. He asks Margaret to spy on her and see if she can discover what the girl is hiding. If she is a gentlewoman by birth, there’s really no point in developing her talent only to have her snatched from the stage of Drury Lane by her family. Margaret refuses, but later, feeling the bite of jealousy over the ardent male admiration Amy inspires, and fearing she will go the usual route and become some rich man’s mistress, she agrees.

Margaret asks Amy to allow her the honor of becoming her patron, to provide for any needs she has beyond what her wages will satisfy. They can also rehearse together, and Margaret has a wonderful idea for a new play about Hippolyte and the Amazons. Amy delightedly agrees. Soon pent up passions, which both women feel, overflow, and they become secret lovers.

But their happiness is short-lived when a ghost from Amy’s past comes back to haunt her, threatening to destroy everything she holds dear. And Amy fears she most give up fame, glory, and Margaret too, lest all the sins of her past be exposed.

There are also numerous subplots involving other players in the theatrical world.

This novel wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, and, in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise; to put it delicately, it’s not really my cup of tea. I acquired it when I was doing the initial research for my novel The Queen’s Pleasure under the mistaken impression that it had something to do with the Amy Dudley (Amy Robsart) of the Tudor era, which it obviously does not. But it’s historical fiction and has to do with theatrical history, so I read it anyway. I’m writing this review several months after reading the book, which I no longer have, and, even with my notes to refresh my memory, I can’t honestly say it left any lingering impression on me. 

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