Historical fiction can be tricky. Finding the right balance of period detail while still creating memorable characters and maintaining forward momentum is a lot to pile onto any writer’s plate. Add to this the near-absolute ignorance of many readers about prior historical eras, thus necessitating a fair bit of exposition, and the task becomes daunting, indeed.
This hasn’t stopped Gillian Bagwell from taking Nell Gwynne as the subject of her debut novel, The Darling Strumpet. For those of us (ahem) who might be a little foggy in the Restoration courtesan department, Gwynne is a real historical figure whose life reads like a variation on Cinderella. Born into poverty, she escaped the rough life of her mother’s tavern and joined her sister in prostitution before rising to fame as a stage actress, from where she caught the eye of various nobles, including, ultimately, the King of England himself, Charles II. Charles was not one to let his marriage interfere with a quick tryst, and he took on Nell as one of his lovers, ultimately rewarding her with titles and wealth.
A storyline like that has a natural momentum, and Bagwell takes full advantage of it, skillfully injecting the necessary exposition along the way. Charles II, you may recall, is the King who was reinstated after the death of the disastrous Oliver Cromwell, who—when not busy slaughtering Irish peasants—pursued projects like overthrowing the crown and outlawing everything fun. Theatre was high up on that list, and during his ten-year rule, those doors were closed and locked.
Charles returned upon Cromwell’s death (yay!) and introduced numerous reforms, including one to permit women to act onstage. This was a novelty to say the least (one that Shakespeare, for one, missed by 50 years) and caused some muttering in certain quarters. Nell Gwynne, both the real-life figure and the heroine of this novel, took advantage of the new opportunity.
The story is told in a close third person, and Nell’s straighforward speech crackles throughout. Like many naturally sympathetic characters, she expresses little resentment toward those better off than she, and her natural optimism serves as a counterweight to the horrible circumstances of her childhood. Besides, it’s tough not to be taken by her earthy bluntness. In the very first chapter, as the still-virginal Nell wanders through a crowd, hungry and penniless but too proud to beg, she finds a lad from the countryside and tells him, “I’ll let you fuck me for a sixpence.” It’s this mix of naivete and fearlessness that will propel her through the story, and through her life.
As she grows up, she grows more careful and quite a lot smarter. Her station improves, mainly through her alliances with powerful men, but it is her career in the theatre that is most captivating. Much of Nell’s life was spent having sex with men in exchange for money and property, and there is a limit to how interesting that particular relationship can be. Playing the comic leads in various plays for the King’s Company, however, reveals a stronger, more charismatic and intelligent character, and it’s also rewarding to follow along with her own realization of her skills. Alas, this gets thrown over too soon in favor of sexy scenes with various well-heeled libertines.
Oh and there’s plenty of sex here. You get the feeling that the Restoration was one long post-Cromwellian orgasmic burst.
Throughout, the narration is straightforward and brisk, much like the protagonist. “The meal and wine went down well. Nell listened to a bird calling in a nearby tree. When it ceased its song, the only sounds were the gentle whisper of the breeze in the treetops and a honeybee buzzing in the clover.” Sometimes the narration is a little too brisk—what kind of bird was singing? Surely Nell would know, city girl or not. A robin sounds quite a bit different from, say, a lark. Or a crow.
Historical events pepper the story—the plague, the Great Fire, various plots against the king—but the focus of the narrative remains fixed on Nell. There are cameos from personages such as Samual Pepys and various actors of the time, as well as entirely fictional characters worked smoothly into the mix. As the book winds down, it begins to feel somewhat repetitive. Nell’s friends grow old and start dying off one by one—at times it seems like the book isn’t doing much more than recounting the order of their deaths. Once or twice it’s moving, but soon enough we’re simply turning to a new chapter, wondering, “Okay who’s going to die this time?”
It’s hard to see a way around this; it’s a historical novel after all, and the people from that time have all died. Maybe a different approach to the subject matter might have mitigated it. Then again maybe not. In any case, fans of historical fiction or the Restoration era, or simply desirous of an immersive, fast-paced look into another time, will likely find much to enjoy here.