Jan 9, 2011

Book Review: The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell


The Darling Strumpet:  A Novel of Nell Gwynn, Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II by Gillian Bagwell
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Berkley Trade; Original edition (January 4, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0425238592
Review copy provided by the author, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:Four Shining Stars!

The Darling Strumpet is a vivid and richly detailed historical novel that puts the reader smack in the tumultuous world of seventeenth century London. Based on the life of Nell Gwynn, who rose from the streets to become one of London's most beloved actresses and the life-long mistress of the King, the book opens on May 29, 1660, when the exiled King Charles II rides into London on his thirtieth birthday to reclaim his throne after the death of Oliver Cromwell. Among the celebratory crowds is ten-year-old runaway Nell Gwynn, determined to create a better life for herself and to become someone to be reckoned with....
As someone who prefers her history to be set in the earlier time of England, I have only heard of Nell Gwynn and have merely collected books on her. Bagwell's novel is actually my first real taste of the years in England after the Wars of the Roses and the reign of the Tudors. Set in 1660, six decades after Elizabeth I's successful reign, Bagwell's debut novel focuses on a famous mistress to the king of England. The setting is England during the Restoration, the period where Charles returns to England's throne after years of exile during Cromwell's leadership during the Protectorate.

Bagwell begins the novel with Nell as just a girl struggling to find food for her family, and ends the novel at the end of Nell's intriguing life. We learn how Nell began her work in the theater, and we are also introduced the men she meets along the way. It wasn't until halfway through the novel that King Charles II becomes more predominantly featured, as the first half of the novel focuses on the playhouses and Nell's relationships with the actors. Nell was one of the first successful actresses on the scene, and she took the trade by storm with her witty dialogues and apparent good looks. She used these looks to her advantage, and continued to be a whore, which Bagwell described in great detail. The Restoration of Charles II was littered with his many bastards, along with Nell's children, and was a period of well-known hedonism, which became mighty apparent as Nell bedded every gentleman she came to meet. It was at this point I wondered if I should keep reading, as I enjoy the historical aspects of my historical fiction much more than the adventures in bed.

After the romantic scenes started to take more of a  backseat to the more intelligent telling of the story, I again began to feel more comfortable in the novel. I started to respect Nell a little more, and I particularly enjoyed the historical characters that were included, such as Nell's rivals for Charles II's affection, and I became besotted with Nell's immediate family. Bagwell also included the political upheavals at the time, as Charles II had quite a problem with Parliament and their demands. Most importantly, I was enthralled by Nell's and Charles' relationship, as it was portrayed as one that was full of love and admiration for each other. And finally, the wind down of the novel really stole my heart, as Nell grappled with losses that came one after the other, and the last few chapters were extremely dramatic. If there weren't so many graphic sexual encounters in the novel I am sure this read would have been a five star read for me, as the ending of it was quite a soulful departure. As it is, I know I have to take those eye-rolling encounters into consideration within this review, as it was true that I became pretty annoyed as they went on and on and on. Yet, those who enjoy historical romance and a bit of bawdy love would find the best of history and sex here.

For those historical fiction readers who would not mind skimming over the romps in the hay, I would love to recommend this novel of Nell Gwynn's life. It provides an entertaining look at the newly opened playhouses, the plague, the great fire, and the King's royal ensemble. Although being a whore is not a respectable trade, Gillian Bagwell's sympathetic portrayal of Mistress Nell eventually tugged at my heart and made me weep for her. After this fabulous debut piece of work I cannot wait to see what else Gillian Bagwell has for us historical fiction fans.

Visit Gillian's website for more links and information on her subjects and historical articles.