Title: The Darling Strumpet
Author: Gillian Bagwell
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 376 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 enthusiastic stars
Now this was the novel about Nell Gwyn I was waiting for!
The Darling Strumpet is definitely a grittier version of her story than Exit the Actress was. Here she is, unapologetically, a whore. And, while Bagwell doesn’t flinch away from some of the nastier elements of the profession (including disease, alcoholism, beatings, and rape), she comes to quite enjoy aspects of her life between the sheets — particularly once she’s servicing delightfully decadent noblemen rather than common folk. The line between prostitute and mistress is drawn in silk, but it also comes with a lot more security, both physical and financial. Bagwell presents Nell’s sex life vividly and without judgment, and it’s enough to make more vanilla readers squirm, I’d imagine. Fortunately, I am no vanilla reader. I loved that Bagwell was willing to go to some saucier places, to indulge so fully in the libidinous excesses of the time period. The morals (or, perhaps, lack thereof) embraced and celebrated in the wake of the Protectorate were not nearly so straight-laced as we tend to think of English history (nor, come to it, as our own). Bagwell presents the world of Restoration London in all its dubious glory: gilt-edged and soot-stained at the same time.
Bagwell also follows through on the story, taking Nell from childhood all the way through her death, and she does so in a way that feels quite true to life. Nell changes over time — not dramatically, not suddenly, but with the sort of ebb and flow that comes with age and experience. She starts out a reckless child, throwing her virginity away for a pittance, and then she learns some street-smarts, aided by her sister. When she takes to the theatre, first as an orange-girl and then as an actress, that’s another major change for her life. She very nearly settles down, first with an early patron, then with the actor Charles Hart, but practicality and passion win out — she can make more money and have more fun keeping her options open. She learns valuable lessons from her interactions with Johnny Rochester and Charles Sackville, though they’re lessons of different kinds — Johnny teachers her many bedroom tricks and introduces her to new pleasures, and they remain friends, but Sackville’s careless treatment teachers her to be wary and keep her wits about her. When she finally lands the greatest prize of all, King Charles II himself, she has to learn how to keep him by carving out a niche for herself in his heart. Charles has many lovers, of course, and the ones who stay are the ones who can stake out unique territory. Nell manages it by mastering her jealousy (though we do see French Louise get under her skin no little bit) and through her total disinterest in politics. Then, as she grows older and becomes a mother, her objectives change. She no longer flings herself so heedlessly into excitement and intrigue; she finds that she quite prefers the company of an intimate few and the quiet charm of her own home. It’s a natural progression, and it’s nice to see it handled so well; Nell’s still the same person, but we get to see her change over time.
My major criticism of this book is that Bagwell doesn’t quite seem know what to do with action sequences. Her sections on the plague and the Great Fire lack some punch, which is a shame, because those are two major events in this time period, and they have a lot of dramatic potential. Bagwell sort of rushes through them. There are also places where the story feels a bit disjointed. She’s much better with character than with plot, and the personal bits — the interactions between characters, the internal contemplations — are where this story shines. She also includes a great many of the popular anecdotes and witty quips attributed to Nell, but they don’t always fit in neatly with the narrative. Sometimes it feels like she was shoehorning them in, either because she liked them too much to leave them out or because she thought they were expected.
On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed The Darling Strumpet. It’s refreshingly honest about both history and human sexuality, and it covers its topic quite nicely. I’m looking forward to Bagwell’s upcoming book, The September Queen, which focuses on another woman in Charles II’s life, though this is one I know very little about — Jane Lane, who helped a very young Charles escape England during the Civil War. I’m interested to see how Bagwell approaches less well-known subject matter.