In the midst of chaos, an extraordinary woman unexpectedly comes face to face with her fate. Much of London remains in ashes, still reeling from the damage of the plague and the Great Fire. Abject poverty is nothing new to Nell Gwynne, who has grown up barely avoiding the very streets that claim her mother and sister, condemning them to a life of prostitution.
This is Restoration England, King Charles II enjoying the affection of his subjects, unburdening himself from the weight of his office by frequent dalliances and appreciation of the theatre. It is in front of King’s Theater that Nell meets the king, where he strolls about in disguise with a group of nobles, as is his habit: “The fire had opened up a doorway between two worlds.” With her saucy temperament and quick wit, Nell easily catches the eye of the king, who later comes to watch her first performance in a bawdy comedy at the theater, his latest paramour on his arm.
London patrons soon fall in love with this comedic actress and her broad humor, her sweet face and long copper tresses a palliative to the dreary problems of their daily lives. Quickly surrounded by amorous nobles, Nell decides that it is time to give up her prized virginity in lieu of future security with a rich man. Unfortunately, the noble she chooses is a famous womanizer and a drunk, a waste of Nell’s best intentions.
However, Nell’s disastrous romance brings her to the royal court, where Charles once again takes notice of this rare and talented beauty. Not unaware of the king’s plans for her seduction, Nell has learned a thing or two about court life and the influence of people in high places. In entering a liaison with Charles, Nell has no idea how profoundly he will change her life, that their friendship will last for over a decade, and that she will bear him two healthy sons.
Enduring the intimidating laughter of the ladies of the court, Nell survives the exposure, secure in her feelings for Charles and committed to avoiding the jealous tirades of his other amours. Such wisdom stands the young woman in good stead as the years pass. Certainly, other beauties attract the king’s attention, but he always returns to the only woman who never asks anything from him, whom he can trust to look to his interests exclusively.
Haeger has a firm grasp of Reformation society and the problems of state that Charles struggles with, maintaining Protestantism against the encroaching Catholicism of James Stuart, next in line of succession. Until his death, Nell remains a constant, trusted confidante who is virtually irreplaceable. Perhaps a mere footnote in the history of Reformation England, Nell Gwynne is, nevertheless, memorable not only for her acting skills but for her unconditional love of Charles II.