The Perfect Royal Mistress
The subject of Diane Haeger’s latest historical novel is “pretty, witty” Nell Gwynn, the low-born actress who became a mistress of King Charles II, and outlasted many others.
Born in poverty, and raised in a brothel by an alcoholic mother, Nell catches the king’s eye while working in the theatre selling oranges. It is only a year since the terrible fire in London, and only two since the plague, so life is precarious for the young Nell. One of the King’s ambitious advisors, wishing to displace Charles’ powerful mistress, seeks Nell out and tutors her in courtly ways. Gifted with a merry disposition and a quick wit, Nell becomes the perfect companion for an easily distracted king: She shows no jealousy, she remains perpetually jolly, and she accepts with humility all the king offers. Ms. Haeger depicts Nell as a girl fully in love with the monarch, even though he keeps other women, abandons Nell for months at a time, and gives honors to his highborn mistresses that he doesn’t offer her—until she finally presses him to do so. Yet Charles is characterized as the kind of man a girl could love in spite of his kingly ways, for when he’s with Nell, he is fully “with” Nell, and thinks of no other.
Brava to Ms. Haeger for a rousing depiction of Restoration England, and for bringing to life a plucky young woman who through wit and tempered ambition rises far above her station.