Gillian Bagwell’s “The Darling Stumpet” has been on my “must read” list since it first came out this year. Now that I’ve turned my attention back to revising my own Restoration-era work in progress, I decided it was time to pick up Gillian Bagwell’s book and indulge in the life of “pretty, witty, Nelly Gwynn.”
Nell Gwynn is one of my favorite historical figures. She might not have changed history or influenced world events (she never wanted to), but her courage, brass, and pluck kept her heart open and her smile wide as she went from street urchin to famous actress to favorite mistress of King Charles II. Gillian Bagwell captures the spirit of Nell and the period she lived in perfectly, beginning with her first day plying her trade in the world’s oldest profession to her death.
I can’t imagine it could be easy for a woman, and a royal mistress at that, to be loved by both a king and his people. Nell was. The people of England adored her because she was one of them. They cheered her in the streets and truly mourned her when she was gone. While the other mistresses of Charles II battled amongst themselves like a spiteful harem who would willingly bankrupt the country if it suited their needs, Nell asked for little more than the king’s love. I like to believe that no matter what other pretty faces flitted through the heart of Charles II, he did love Nell to the end, including her in his last thoughts: “let not poor Nelly starve.”
“The Darling Strumpet” may have some pretty racy scenes, but really, what sort of story about Nell Gwynn (with a special appearance by the Earl of Rochester) would it be without a healthy dosage of skin and sensuality?
Most of the book is a romp through the lush world of Restoration England, filled with theatrical escapades and court intrigues. The most affecting part of the story, though, comes near the end as Nell witnesses the deaths of many friends and lovers. With the passing of each character I also felt the passing of their world, and that their moment in time was much like the comet that appeared in the sky in 1664, a vibrant blast that lit up the darkness then faded forever.
Reading “The Royal Strumpet” was as close as I will ever get to sharing a glass of wine with Nell Gwynn, the Duke of Monmouth, the Duke of Buckingham, and a multitude of other Restoration rakes she so easily enchanted throughout her life, much like she enchanted me.