The Darling Strumpet

Written by Gillian Bagwell
Review by Margaret Barr

First-time author Bagwell’s presentation of a familiar and popular Restoration-era character brings to life the players, wits, wenches, and mistresses who populated the court of King Charles II. Living in a London slum, avoiding her mother’s blows, little Nell Gwynn accepts her hardships but soon learns that bartering her body is more lucrative than selling oysters. Voluntarily joining her sister Rose in a brothel, she becomes popular with the clientele, and on leaving moves up a rung in the underworld as an orange-seller at the theatre. Her timing is impeccable — females are now permitted on the stage. Her flair for witty repartee and her beauty secure her a place in the company and a mentor in Charles Hart. Aristocratic rogues soon flock to her side — and some to her bed — but when she becomes the king’s mistress she proves loyal and affectionate, outwardly brave when confronting rivals for his attentions, privately suffering pangs of jealousy. Her motherly devotion to their two sons, her support of her sister Rose, and her heartfelt mourning for the losses she endures, renders Nell a sympathetic as well as an entertaining heroine.

Bagwell provides rich period flavor through dialogue, scene setting, verses, and quotations from plays in which Nell appeared to such acclaim. It was a bawdy age, and the sex scenes are numerous and extremely graphic, which might unsettle some readers. The novel covers many years, and the exposition of relationships and political developments is efficient and skillful. Slight liberties are taken with the factual record but none that jar, and overall this is a highly readable debut.