Book review: The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell

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Folklore has her marked down as the buxom but illiterate orange seller who became one of the many mistresses of King Charles II.

But Nell Gwynn’s rise from the stinking poverty of London’s 17th century Covent Garden to the corridors of the Palace of Westminster, and the heart of England’s hedonistic monarch, was always a journey worth more than just a footnote in history.

Gillian Bagwell’s richly textured and multi-faceted novel paints a fascinating portrait of actress and courtesan Nell whose rags-to-riches life has always read more like fiction than fact.

Discreet, affectionate and loyal, Nell was very different to Charles’s other scheming and greedy mistresses. She never lost touch with her East End roots and remained the king’s favourite until his death when he famously pleaded with his brother James to ‘let not poor Nelly starve.’

Bagwell’s Nell is predictably ravishing and risqué but she is also a quick-witted, ambitious, enchanting, seductive and credible young woman with an innate dignity and grace that propels her to the very top of her ‘profession.’

The story opens on a tumultuous day in May 1660 as Charles makes a triumphant entry into London as the newly restored king after ten bleak and grey years under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.

The joyous crowds mean little to ten-year-old Nell who is still smarting after a beating meted out by her feckless mother the night before.

It seems impossible to believe that the destinies of the humble oyster seller and the flamboyant king will be forever entwined...

Nell’s older sister Rose is a prostitute at an establishment in Drury Lane and the youngster makes the momentous decision to swap buckets and oysters for a job that will buy her fine clothes and soft leather shoes.

And after a baptism of fire, Nell soon learns that men’s desires and her own beguiling charms and saucy humour can reap her rich rewards.

As the playhouses reopen after Cromwell’s rule of puritan austerity, Nell finds a job selling oranges to theatregoers but is bewitched by their glamour and joins an elite group of actresses who, for the first time in English history, are allowed to perform on stage.

As her fame grows, she catches the eye of the king and is groomed by his cousin, the Duke of Buckingham, to become a new royal mistress.

Advised to be always cheerful, Nell becomes Charles’s confidante and mother of his two sons and she in turn is genuinely devoted to the man she recognises has been scarred by years of war and exile.

But Charles is 20 years older than Nell and when he dies, what will be the fate of the actress turned king’s lover?

Bagwell’s intimate and entertaining take on a passionate royal romance is as bold and bawdy as Nell herself but the author also allows her the dignity, respect and sympathy that her resilience and charm so richly deserve.

A captivating and very earthy account of a charismatic courtesan...

(Avon, paperback, £7.99)