Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26342-6
Historical Romance, 2013 (Reissue)
Gillain Bagwell’s debut effort The Darling Strumpet was first published in trade paperback format back in 2011. Hilariously enough – or maybe not, depending on how much you value your $7.99 – the mass market paperback that I have in my hands declares this story as a “historical romance” on the spine. There is even a tagline on the gorgeous cover – “A novel of Nell Gwynn, who captured the heart of England and King Charles II” – to make it sound like this is the literary upgrade of an average romance novel, and reading it will make you feel smarter and more profound about love.
Well, first of all, this is a romanticized tale of Nell Gwynn’s life, yes, but it is only romantic in that Nell tells me that she’s in love with King Charles II. That man is juggling her and three other mistresses at the same time, and he never tells her or behaves in a manner to suggest that he’s in love with her. The “love” thing happens in the later half of the story. The first half is the story of Nell’s rise from nobody to mattress queen, with some sex scenes, including a threesome. reminiscent of those sexy times Bertrice Small usually writes, only Ms Bagwell’s sexy times are tamer compared to Ms Small’s. Oh, and King Charles II dies in the end, and so does Nell. So, if you are expecting a romance novel, as in a romance novel and not a soap opera with a tacked on ending that tries to emulate some kind of “When Evita and Rose DeWitt Bukater compare who has the bigger kind of tearjerker ending” melodrama, then you may want to wave that $7.99 somewhere else.
Nell Gwynn, in history, is supposed to be this witty, beautiful, and popular actress whose greatest claim to fame is that she is a long time mistress of King Charles II. Alas, historical fiction tends to treat her like a placeholder for political events during her time, and this one is no different. Worse, this version of Nell is flat, boring, and devoid of any memorable trait. I always assumed that Nell would have a pretty good degree of cunning to retain King Charles II’s interest as well as survive the dangerous political currents of his court, but from Ms Bagwell’s version of Nell, it’s more akin of Nell just somehow stumbling to the last page by default.
This Nell shows little actual wit, and the few “witty” scenes are lifted from previous anecdotes in history, such as Nell’s famous line to King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York, “But this is the poorest company I ever was in!” or her line to a bunch of enraged mob who mistook her carriage for that of Louise de Kérouaille,”You are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore.” Left to her own devices, Ms Bagwell’s idea of “wit” for Nell often falls flat. This Nell’s wit, therefore, is an informed atrribute. I don’t see the vaunted wit; the author just insists that it’s there… somewhere.
The author also doesn’t seem to know what she wants her version of Nell to be. I think Ms Bagwell just wants Nell to be liked, so she has Nell becoming this weepy creature that is often carried along by the people around her. This Nell has no interest in politics or anything at all. Her greatest concern, whenever some political disturbance takes place, is when the theater would reopen. When the man she is living with, Charles Hart, comes home to complain bitterly about King Charles II shutting down the theater after a play offended that man, Nell’s response is to ask Hart whether he wants to practice his lines with her now that he’s home. Nell is this… girl-child thing… that manages to waddle all the way to the last page without having to display any depth in her character.
The only time Nell actually does something on her own is to leave her mother and become a prostitute in the author’s version of Nell’s teenage years. Even then, her sister does all the actual work to help Nell get set up at the neighborhood posh brothel. That’s understandable, given that Nell is in her early teens, but Nell’s passive character becomes exasperating to follow when she grows older and she’s supposed to be even a little shrewd and smart. But no, the guys are the ones who pursue her, and she gets passed around until, how lucky, the King thinks that she’s hot and decides to keep her as his mistress.
The Duke of Buckingham, the guy who becomes Nell’s procurer in his ambitions to find a woman to supplant King Charles II’s current mistress Barbara Palmer, is portrayed here as an elderly friend and confidante. No mention of Nell wanting money from Charles, because this would distort the author’s agenda to portray Nell as a gold-hearted tart, and no mention of Nell’s cunning efforts to secure titles for her illegitimate children. No, Nell is this selfless, giving sweetheart who only wants the love of the king, and who only does something when she gets jealous about his other women, and even then, in the end all women are happy to share him because they all know he has a place for each of them in his heart.
No, no mention of Nell possibly dying from syphilis – she dies of a broken heart, poor thing, after Charles took his kingly affections to the afterlife. No mention either of Nell leaving some money in her will to Newgate prisoners, because the author would prefer her sweet, saintly Nell leaving money for poor people without criminal records instead.
Perhaps knowing that all that bland one-dimensional sweetness will put me to sleep, the author has some half-baked sex scenes thrown in, although these scenes only serve to either show me how every good guy wants Nell from first sight because she’s so amazing or how every bad guy wants Nell and turns her into a victim of their rampant beastly lusts. Nell’s exchange of her body for financial security is made so pretty by showing me how those guys give her money willingly because she’s just so witty, beautiful, awesome, and sexy and she’s only doing it because she really needs the money.
Interesting political events are glossed over quickly, and the later half of the story is like a history book chopped up with all the readable bits thrown out to be replaced by Nell making cow eyes at Charles. The author for some reason introduces a cartoon crazy guy that shows up every few years to terrorize Nell, and even then, this problem is solved by the men around Nell. Nell, like she always does, just cries and acts like the most tragic (and sexy, don’t forget that, oh, and also witty) heroine in the land.
The Darling Strumpet is pretty amazing in that the author manages to use over 300 pages to turn one of the most popular figures in Restoration England history into a singularly bland and lifeless thing with no discernible personality throughout the whole story. Nell is every man’s favorite personality-free mattress of love, King Charles II is a pimp daddy with more bastards than the entire NBA roster, but their love is so pure that when Nell dies, they meet again in heaven, along with Nell’s ex-lovers turned BFFs, where they’d presumably have a holy orgy forever as Celine Dion belts out their love anthem, specially composed by James Horner just to cherish this beauteous love for all time.