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REVIEW: The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell

Dear Ms. Bagwell,

When a review copy of your novel fell into my hands at the beginning of January, I was intrigued. I had actually seen the book at Borders a couple of days before and noted the cover rec from Diana Gabaldon (I know, I know, only gulliable fools are drawn in by cover recs. I happen to be very suggestible). I didn’t know a lot about Nell Gwynn, Charles II or the Restoration Period before beginning the book, but I wanted to. (Why aren’t more romance novels set during the Restoration? It’s such a great and dramatically rich period in English history!) So I settled in eagerly with the book almost as soon as I received it.

The Darling Strumpet by Gillian BagwellNell Gwynn is thirteen when the story opens, selling oysters by day and trying to avoid her mother’s fists at night. The book opens on the momentous day that Charles II makes his triumphant return to London, having finally vanquished Oliver Cromwell’s army after years of civil war. Nell is excited to see the parade welcoming the king back to London, but she’s mostly absorbed with getting something to eat – she slept in an alley the previous night, after one of her mother’s violent blow-ups. She impulsively gives her virginity to a red-headed boy who is also watching the parade, in exchange for money with which she buys food. A later attempt to prostitute herself to another group of boys ends disastrously. Nell’s older sister Rose is already working in a brothel, and she convinces the madam to take Nell on.

Nell’s career as an adolescent prostitute is handled fairly matter-of-factly; it’s certainly not romanticized but it’s also not presented in especially gritty terms. I had mixed feelings about that – I was glad that, since this wasn’t a traditional romance, the reader wasn’t treated to Nell’s endless grief over her soiled-dove status. On the other hand, it did feel slightly sanitized. The only truly unpleasant circumstance of Nell’s employment is her madam’s lover and bouncer, Jack, who shows himself early on to be cruel and sadistic. Eventually, he turns his sexual attentions to Nell, and brutalizes her regularly. A regular client, Robbie Duncan, intervenes and installs Nell in his home as his mistress to protect her from Jack. (Jack pops up again a few more times in the narrative, rather pointlessly, I thought. He’s the villain of the book but his appearances are so sporadic and his character so one-note that I wondered why he was included at all.)

Robbie’s a fairly decent guy, but Nell has ambitions that go beyond being the mistress, or even the wife, of a lowly tradesman. She is drawn to the stage; the theaters in London were shut during the Proctectorate, and are slowly being reopened now that Charles II is on the throne. Nell met some theater folk while at the brothel, and found them likable and accepting of her. Eventually, bored with the lack of things to do while Robbie is at work, Nell gets a job, along with her sister Rose, selling oranges to the theatergoers. Before long, she is given a chance to act, and Nell quickly finds that she loves the adulation of the crowds, and they love her.

On the positive side, the prose in The Darling Strumpet is smooth and readable, and the main character is likable. Perhaps too likable. The Nell of this novel is….well, she’s bland. Nell Gwynn led such a rich and dramatic life, and a lot of that life is depicted in this book. But somehow, her characterazation remains flat.

Nell is often contrasted with Charles’ other mistresses, such as Barbara Castlemaine and Louise de Kérouaille. They are rapacious and bitchy; Nell only wants Charles’ love, not the money or fame that come with it. Which may be somewhat true; Nell Gwynn does appear to have been a more popular and likable public figure than some of the other women Charles consorted with. But it doesn’t add to Nell’s complexity as a character, which is pretty much nonexistent. She is a nice girl; all right thinking people love her.

I would’ve been more interested in understanding why, if Nell was only interested in love and not in material things, she hopped from her actor lover Charles Hart, who truly did seem to care for her, to liaisons with a series of aristocrats, culminating in catching the king’s eye. I can imagine that Nell’s upbringing gave her a longing for security. Actually, I had to imagine that, because the discrepancy between Nell’s actions (taking advice from a lord who wants to use Nell’s influence on the king on how to win and keep him) and Nell’s words (all she wants is love!) is never addressed in the book.

The story begins to feel somewhat episodic in the second half, with scenes that seem to be included mainly because they are known from the historical record. For instance, Nell has a gambling problem for about two pages. She wins a bit, then loses disastrously, and Charles has to bail her out. She vows never to gamble again, and apparently she doesn’t. It doesn’t really seem to be worthy of inclusion in the book, except that it presumably corresponds to some real-life documented incident.

The characterization is pretty light all around. Charles II is pretty much the same Charles II we’ve all read of – randy and fun-loving, but no fool. There are a number of lords who appear as either lovers or friend’s of Nell’s, but I confess that I had trouble keeping my Buckinghams and Rochesters straight right up until the end of the book.

At times, The Darling Strumpet feels a bit like a YA novel with an unusually daring subject and some explicit sex added in. There’s a simpleness to the prose, plot and characterization that make the story feel a bit superficial.

As the book draws to a close, it becomes a bit bittersweet and melancholy for me. I tend to have that reaction to both biographies and biographical novels. You know the main character is going to die, and you have to read about a bunch of the people she cares about dying first. (Nell Gwynn was not that old when she died, but the life expectancy during the period combined with the fact that many of those close to Nell were apparently a good couple of decades older than her means that characters are dropping left and right in the last 30 pages or so.) I did feel some attachment to the characters at that point.

Ultimately, I did enjoy The Darling Strumpet, even if I was frustrated that it didn’t manage to be something a bit more than it was. My grade for the book is a B-.

Regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

15 Comments

  1. Tweets that mention REVIEW: The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell | Dear Author -- Topsy.com
    Feb 03, 2011 @ 17:24:23

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  2. DS
    Feb 03, 2011 @ 18:14:34

    Nell Gwynn is not one of my favorite historical characters– I’ve read a couple of fictionalized biographies of her from the 50′s/60′s and no one ever seems to make her come alive. She is more the touchstone for historical events.

    However, I have got to say I LOVE that cover!

    ReplyReply

  3. Jayne
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 05:45:48

    (Why aren't more romance novels set during the Restoration? It's such a great and dramatically rich period in English history!)

    Amen, sister! I love this time period but finding any books, much less well written ones, using this era is next to impossible.

    As the book draws to a close, it becomes a bit bittersweet and melancholy for me. I tend to have that reaction to both biographies and biographical novels. You know the main character is going to die,

    And this is the reason I read so few of these books. With straight fictional characters, an author can give me a HEA even if it’s after a shitload of angst/problems. With RL people, historical fact messes that all up.

    ReplyReply

  4. Jo
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 13:01:33

    That’s a to die for cover. I have all the same problems with dear Nell. I crave HEAs.

    ReplyReply

  5. Estara
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 15:53:55

    (Why aren't more romance novels set during the Restoration? It's such a great and dramatically rich period in English history!)

    The second Judith James novel – A Libertine’s Kiss is set during the restauration. I got it because I really liked Broken Wing. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well for me (more with spoilers in my GoodReads review).

    ReplyReply

  6. Estara
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 16:06:28

    Aside: How can Oliver Cromwell’s army have been vanquished – he was dead by the time Charles II. came back. His inept son lost the Puritans the government, if I remember my history correctly

    ReplyReply

  7. Jennie
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 17:37:25

    It is a lovely cover.

    @Estara: I think my wording wasn’t too clear, perhaps because as I mentioned, I really don’t know much about the time period. I only figured out when I read the book that Cromwell had died sometime before the restoration of the monarchy. I changed the wording in my review to reflect that fact but I guess I still wasn’t clear. I need to read up on his son; I didn’t know that.

    ReplyReply

  8. JenD
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 23:16:36

    This isn’t my type of book (I’m an HEA addict) yet Dear Flying Spaghetti Monster, is that cover a winner! I absolutely love it.

    ReplyReply

  9. Susan/DC
    Feb 05, 2011 @ 18:41:32

    If you want a wonderful historical novel set during the Restoration, read Diana Norman’s “The Vizard Mask” (I’m mourning her recent death not only because there will be no more Adelia, Mistress of the Art of Death books but also because there won’t be any more of her historicals). It’s OOP but should be easy to find online or at a UBS. Norman is a master at putting you in the middle of an historical time and place and making you feel what the people of that time and place knew and thought and felt. There is a romance in the book, and the hero and heroine do get their HEA in the end; it is a long journey and well worth the trip. The book also has one of my favorite opening lines: “Penitence Hurd and the plaque arrived in London on the same day.”

    ReplyReply

  10. Jayne
    Feb 05, 2011 @ 19:41:50

    @Susan/DC: According to a BBC article, Norman did finish a 5th Adelia book before her death.

    ReplyReply

  11. Jennie
    Feb 05, 2011 @ 23:10:20

    @Susan/DC: I’ve heard good things about that book – I will have to look for it.

    Jayne, I’m glad to hear that. I still haven’t read “A Murderous Procession” yet, but I feel better about reading it knowing it’s not the last book.

    ReplyReply

  12. Gillian Bagwell
    Feb 07, 2011 @ 16:08:11

    Those of you looking for “happily ever after,” I encourage you to read my book anyway! It’s got just about a happy ending as one can hope for, considering we all die and suffer losses before that.

    Nell’s life spanned an amazing period in history – the restoration not only of the monarchy but the theatres – and she was one of the very first women ever to appear on stage in England – the last great plague in 1665, which killed a third of the population of London – the Great Fire of 1666.

    Please visit my website for links to my series of articles on the incredibly eventful months between May 1660 and January 1661 – and the 18 (and counting) outstanding “can’t get enough of this book/Nell Gwynn/Gillian Bagwell” reviews!

    ReplyReply

  13. REVIEW: The September Queen by Gillian Bagwell - Dear Author
    Dec 14, 2011 @ 11:21:01

    [...] this year, I read and enjoyed your book about Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II, The Darling Strumpet. When the opportunity came to read a book about another woman in Charles’ life, I figured, [...]

  14. What Jennie’s Been Reading, Part the Third
    Mar 18, 2012 @ 10:24:49

    [...] September Queen by Gillian Bagwell: Earlier this year I read and reviewed Darling Strumpet so when the opportunity came along to read about another one of Charles II’s mistresses, I [...]

  15. So-called ‘victims’ of bullying » Readers Have Rights
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 01:15:00

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