How have I not heard of Nell Gwynn before this? I recognized the names of most of her contemporaries, but somehow she has skated under my radar until now. Luckily I was able to snag the copy offered to Fiction Vixen and immerse myself in Nell’s life during the era of King Charles II.
The book opens in 1660 and a young Nell has finally tired of her life as an oyster girl. She’s decided to follow in her sister Rose’s footsteps and go to work at Madam Ross’s. I’m not clear on how old she is exactly, but we find out when she’s interviewing (sort of) with Madam Ross that she has only just started her courses. That very fact makes her life that much harder to read about. She doesn’t come across as a little girl though. Throughout the book she seems much older than her years and I constantly found myself surprised when another birthday was mentioned because I kept forgetting that she was so young.
I felt the writing and characterization in the beginning section was the roughest of the book. Nell’s decision to become a prostitute seemed willy-nilly and the way she jumped into her role of seductress searching for her first customer just seemed off. The lesson in hard knocks given to her by a group of young men on the day of King Charles’s return seemed designed to cast her in a sympathetic light, but it didn’t really work for me. I felt bad, yeah, but I also was frustrated by her attitude and actions.
The next day when she’s at Madam Ross’s waiting to be chosen we’re told that her seemingly nonchalant attitude of the day before had been fueled by hunger and desperation and later by drink. I just felt that if that was really supposed to have been her motivations it was clumsily done. The only reason I knew that was because she thought it to herself.
Luckily, the author hit her stride once Nell had been at Madam Ross’s for a while. I found it a little slow at times during this period, but that was just because the nature of Nell’s work made her days a bit repetitive. I really liked that along with the benefits like the pretty clothes and freedom from her mother, the downside of Nell’s life was shown. At one point after a celebration in honor of the royal marriage of Charles and Catherine the girls were so busy that they didn’t even bother to leave the rooms because the line of men waiting their turns outside their rooms was so long! Can you imagine that? Ouch!
My favorite parts were when Nell was acting. I loved seeing the camaraderie between the actors and the competition the King’s Company had with the Duke’s Company. I also really liked learning little facts about the theater world. I loved hearing about the reopening of the theaters after 18 years and the rise of women playing female parts instead of the traditional male actors.
The theater was also the stomping ground of two of my favorite characters in the book, Charles Hart and the Earl of Rochester. I loved Charles because he was really the nicest character in the whole book. He and Nell actually seemed to have a bond that I was sorry to see eventually break. Rochester was just a wicked, fascinating man who was written as an eventual dear friend to Nell. It was nice seeing him in that role as I usually only see his self destructive, libertine ways cast. I loved one of the scenes he had with Nell early in their relationship soon after they had become lovers.
“You can give a man a quick ride that leaves him happy or a night of play that tires him. But there is more to learn. You can give a man such pleasure, not just in his body but in his mind, his soul, that you become a drug. So that he will crave you. So that his bollocks will ache and give him no peace until his prick is once more master of that smooth warmth. And I can train you, pretty pet. Do you want that?”
Nell found that her heart was beating and her loins were on fire. She looked up at Rochester and found she could hardly breathe.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good. On your knees. No, off the bed. For this is your god, and you must worship it.”
I just thought that last line was particularly apt and powerful. He also said:
”This bed is your stage,” Rochester said. “From such a stage you could do anything.”
Which was another great line when applied to Nell and her life.
I really liked how the author showed Nell having stray meetings with the king at various times in her life. It really helped build a nice foundation for their eventual relationship. I also felt that the author did a great job of including important factual events and political happenings in the background. It really gave me a nice frame of reference for when things were actually occurring.
The last quarter of the book was very sad for me. It was rough watching Nell lose such important people. I though the author did an excellent job showing her pain and heartbreak though. I never felt that any of it was gratuitously included and it was very sad watching Nell try to cope again and again.
Although I really enjoyed this book I don’t think I’d ever want to walk in Nell’s shoes. She had a hard life and I was sorry to see her never be valued as much as I wanted her to be. She came a long way in life, and she was content, but I was a little sad she never got the happy ending I hoped she would. Alas, that’s usually the case when I read books based off of real historical figures.
The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell
January 4th 2011 by Berkley