THE DARLING STRUMPET Gillian Bagwell
Berkley Sensation
ISBN: 978-0-425-26342-6
June 2013
Historical Fiction

London, England; 1660

Nell Gwynn's life could be summed up as starting with oysters and ending with oranges.  As a young girl, poor Nell brought in a meager income for her and her mother by selling oysters, but she soon learns that she could make a better profit as her sister Rose does with prostitution.  It may not land her with silks and living in manor homes, but surely there's power in bringing men pleasure.  And so THE DARLING STRUMPET's journey begins, from impoverishment to the King of England, Charles II's lover.

As King Charles II returns to the throne after many years in exile, his people rejoice, and the celebrations go on for days.  Charles is loved by all, and the feeling is mutual.  Nell Gwynn is in the streets of London to catch a fleeting glimpse of the handsome king, and she secretly daydreams of catching the eye of the beloved, handsome monarch.  On the celebrated night of his return, Nell shares a wave with King Charles from a window.  She knows the moment does not even compare with the many Charles surely shares with his current mistress, Barbara Palmer.

Soon Nell turns to the prostitution trade, working with her sister Rose in Madame Ross's bawdy house.  It may not be a life of luxury, but it beats not knowing where her next meal will come from or suffering the abusive slaps Nell and Rose's mother is prone to deliver.  During one rare night off, Nell encounters several actors from the local playhouse in the barroom.  To hear their tales of dramatic celebrity and plans to reopen the theaters now that Oliver Cromwell's dead, Nell is instantly enraptured and befriends the actors, Charles Hart among them.  It's not long before she is able to see a play in rehearsal and falls instantly in love with the theater.  Nell knows then that this is what she is meant to do.

THE DARLING STRUMPET follows Nell through the highs and lows when she leaves the bawdy house and sets her sights on a bigger ambition, the theater.  Although she begins humbly as an orange girl, selling the foreign treats to theater goers, and even the king and his company, Nell has intentions of making it on stage.  And that she does, in smashing success, playing to sold out crowds beside Charlie Hart.  Through hard work and dedication, Nell proves to her sponsors and friends in the theater that she has the tenacity and raw talent to bring crowds in.  It's not long before her name is almost as common in the playbills as Moll Davis and Anne Marshall as a leading lady.

Nell's fame grows in London, and soon she has a growing list of male admirers, King Charles being one of them.  Now that Barbara Palmer is losing her allure with the king, he's in need of a new mistress.  This is the folly that the Duke of Buckingham suggests as he furthers his own ambitions by suggesting that Nell take the King of England as her next lover.  It's preposterous!  Charles II and Nell Gwynn, in bed?  She's obviously not peerage, but somehow she holds him enthrall even as she begins to love the man behind the crown.  With Nell, Charles is able to relax and take his ease.  Perhaps this is why, even though the king strays from her bed on occasion, he always returns.  It's an odd relationship to be sure, but enrapturing none the less.  THE DARLING STRUMPET, indeed, has fallen in love with the king.

Nell Gwynn has long been a fascination of mine, as well as the other players in THE DARLING STRUMPET: Charles II; Barbara Palmer; Moll Davis, although she's not a staple in this book, she reigned in her own right during Nell's stardom; and Louise de Keroualle, one of Charles's many other mistresses.  Of course, within the pages of this book there are many other characters, some fictional but many true to history: Charles Hart, the actor who helped Nell win her fame on London stages and soon after became one of her lovers; Tom Killigrew, actor and friend to Nell; Orange Moll, Nell's employer who gave her her first job in the theater as an orange girl; James, the Duke of York, Charles II's brother who became James II upon his brother's death; and Catherine of Braganza, Queen of England, Charles's wife.

If I've done a too wordy job of reviewing THE DARLING STRUMPET, I apologize.  It's hard to sum up this fascinating woman's life as told by Gillian Bagwell, but was so easy to read about in this book.  Ms. Bagwell brings Nell Gwynn to life, allowing me to celebrate with her, share her sorrows and many tragedies, and to fall in love with Charles II right along with her.  This is one not to miss this summer, and I'm sure it will be a keeper for many readers out there.

Amy Cunningham