The Darling Strumpet: A Novel of Nell Gwynn, Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II
By Gillian Bagwell
This is the second book I’ve read about Nell Gwynn, the mistress of King Charles II. I like the character, the reason I keep reading the books about her, but for whatever reason, I can’t come to love these books; I like them but not love them. Maybe I like the real life person too much and want all of these fictional ones to live up to her. She was known as an incredible comic and was a well-known stage actress adored in her lifetime. I’m wondering if what I know of her real life has become too mixed up with the fictional one for me.
Nell Gwynn is recovering from another beating from her mother when she realizes this is the day the king will return to England. She celebrates the king’s return with several men but unfortunately it doesn’t end happily for her. Needing comfort, she seeks out her sister Rose at the whore house where she works. Nell is taken on as another girl and begins earning her keep as many women without other means do. She does her best to stay safe but things aren’t easy for her. She finds her escape in a regular customer but what she really wants is to be part of the theatre life. She manages to get herself and Rose jobs selling oranges to theatre patrons and does eventually convince others to teach her to act. Nell becomes a hit on stage known for her comedic abilities but when her affair with a fellow actor comes to an end, she sets her sights on the king and the position of mistress.
I love historical fiction and the 17th Century is a rich time period. I can’t fully explain the draw but it’s there. And I can also say that these royal affairs are always fun; the backstabbing courtiers, the intrigue, and antics always amuse me. This one didn’t satisfy on the regular level though and honestly, I think it was too much sex. Yes, I said that and suddenly feel very prudish.
When you’re reading a book about a royal mistress you expect certain things, a lot of sex for one. This one was brutal in some places and I don’t know about you but forced sex scenes, even when reading about a woman working as a whore, aren’t appealing even if expected. It didn’t ruin the story for me but it did cause me to approach it with a quick eye. I skimmed several passages here and there.
The story also felt as if it were being told in snippets. A paragraph here and there and a year passed. While it worked in some cases — I didn’t need extended explanations of Nell and Rose’s time at the brothel or Nell’s sexcapades with several men — I did want more when it came to her being the king’s mistress. That’s when I felt it moved to fast. I wanted more of the court, the jewels, the presents, the people…
But, all in all, I thought this was still a good read. It moved fast, was entertaining, and if you’re looking for some bawdy historical fiction, this one fulfills completely on that level.