Actress Nell Gwynne is synonymous with Charles Stuart, the Restoration king who reclaimed his throne to the joy of his subjects but was tragically unable to provide an heir to the throne of England. Hence the succession of Catholic King James and the political turmoil that resulted from a nation distrustful of Catholic policies and a penchant for torturing unbelievers. As Charles IIís loyal friend and favored mistress, the unlikely tale of actress Nell Gwynne is the focus of this often steamy novel, the story of a girl who begins her notable years in a brothel, reaches acclaim on the London stage, and shares the bed of a king who seeks refuge in her unwavering support.
While Nell makes a life-changing career move from brothel to stage, Bagwell explicitly describes the degradation such women are expected to endure, casting no doubt on the painful bridge from innocence to skilled bedmate for this enthusiastic student. Nell flourishes, but it isnít until the expert tutelage of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, that she embraces her own sexuality, to the intense satisfaction of her bedmates. Combining an acute understanding of the power of the courtesan, plus her natural talent for mimicry, Nell is soon catapulted into the echelons of power and influence, from bawdy orange girl to star of the London stage.
Her aspiration only to leave the brothel for the stage, it is by force of opportunity and a clever wit that Nell captures the eye of a king known for his bedroom conquests and lascivious appetites. A perfect match, but one that can never remove the taint of Nellís common birth. It is to the authorís credit that she never seeks to portray Nell other than she is: profoundly grateful for the good will of her supporters and possessing an extraordinary talent for pleasing men. A succession of conquests, from Charles Hart in 1665 to the wild romps with the Earl of Dorset, Sir Charles Sedley, and the libertine Earl of Rochester, situate Nell perfectly for the conquest of the king. What better mockery of the preening mistresses of Charles Stuart than the strumpet he escorts to a scandalized court forced to acknowledge the actress who has charmed a libidinous royal?
In a class-conscious society, Gwynneís presence at court is truly extraordinary, but Bagwell makes a case for the popularity of a woman of the people who retains her sense of the past and appreciation for the bounty of the present. Like all love stories, the beginning is golden - if earthy - the inevitable decline fraught with loss and the acrimony of rivals. Forced to share Charles, Gwynne accommodates her loverís many diversions, wisely advised to ban jealousy from her hours with him. In an age of libertines and an indulgent court, trouble threatens a happy reign with no male heir, but Nell claims her place in history and Charles Stuartís heart, a memorable footnote to an era of flourishing theater and outrageous personalities, ever the peopleís darling and an acute reminder of the unpredictability of fate. The lusty, good-hearted Nell has secured her place in Englandís turbulent past, a destitute girl who wins the undying love of the Restoration king. Bagwell does her story justice.