The King’s Favorite
By Susan Holloway Scott
New American Library
Nell Gwyn, all of 12 years old, is working in a brothel but instead of spending quality time with the men, she serves refreshments and sings by way of amusements. Her mother and sister both work in the trade but she refuses, believing herself to be worthy of only one, specifically King Charles II.
Eventually she becomes the mistress of a wealthy merchant and though boring, he is kind to her and rather indulgent. At her request, he takes her to plays where she falls in love with the idea of being on stage. When her agreement comes to an end, she decides to get a job in the theater not wanting to go back to the brothel. She doesn’t end up on stage but gets herself inside by selling oranges where she is able to catch the eye of the king and the playhouse director. Nell eventually worms her way on stage and through her wit and ability to make people laugh, becomes one of the most famous actresses of her time. Soon after, she finds herself a mistress of the king, no longer playing on stage but in the king’s bedroom instead.
I found this book on my shelf while doing a bit of weeding. I adore historical fiction but I found that I quickly tired of the court politics and Nell’s incessant impersonations of every single person she didn’t like. The celebrity of being an actress was interesting and the way Nell yielded her fame was amusing but when the action moved to the court I felt bored. There was a lot going on at the time — war with the Dutch, secret alliances with the French, religious persecution — all were mentioned in the most vague terms and never became part of the story. As Nell herself constantly reminds us, she is just the king’s protestant whore and doesn’t concern herself with anything more than entertaining the king she dearly loves. That’s all fine, but it makes for a sort of boring book when all they do is a bit, and sometimes a lot, of swiving. (I was so waiting to use that word in a sentence!)
The love story between Nell and King Charles is touching at moments but overall I didn’t feel much for the characters. Charles is a kind person and you can see why Nell loves him but it felt superficial to me. There were a few amusing scenes along the way but not enough to draw me into the book breathlessly waiting to find out what would happen next.