Goodreads: While selling oranges in the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, sweet and sprightly Ellen "Nell" Gwyn impresses the theater’s proprietors with a wit and sparkle that belie her youth and poverty. She quickly earns a place in the company, narrowly avoiding the life of prostitution to which her sister has already succumbed. As her roles evolve from supporting to starring, the scope of her life broadens as well. Soon Ellen is dressed in the finest fashions, charming the theatrical, literary, and royal luminaries of Restoration England.
Ellen grows up on the stage, experiencing first love and heartbreak and eventually becoming the mistress of Charles II. Despite his reputation as a libertine, Ellen wholly captures his heart—and he hers—but even the most powerful love isn’t enough to stave off the gossip and bitter court politics that accompany a royal romance.
Telling the story through a collection of vibrant seventeenth-century voices ranging from Ellen’s diary to playbills, letters, gossip columns, and home remedies, Priya Parmar brings to life the story of an endearing and delightful heroine.
Oh how I love well written historical fiction! Seriously, it is one of my favourite things ever, and Priya Parmar has done such an excellent job with this book. I read Dark Angels by Kathleen Koen earlier this year which was set during the same time period, just a little later. It began in France, so it was interesting seeing all these characters I'd read about before, but seen in a new light. That's another thing I love about historical fiction (not that you could tell I like the genre judging by what I've reviewed on the blog. Must remedy this!) - you get the same characters but so many different facets of them, which always makes it interesting even when you've already read a book about that character, and even better if they were just a side character in another book! Before reading this book, the only thing I knew about Nell is that she is one of the most popular mistresses of all time, and that she befriended the queen, which made me excited about this book from the get go!
Despite having read about a similar time period, much of these events preceded Dark Angels, and I learned so much! Like did you know that there is a published female writer, Aphra Behn, from this time? I didn't! It made Nell's independence much more believable to me. I also loved the amount of detail spent on large events that happened during this time period (a big London fire, plague - incidentally the shut down of London during this reminded me of a zombie apocalypse, but that's a musing for another time). Honestly most of these are brushed over in historical novels I've read in the past (generalizing, and I'm speaking of historical novels and not just set in this time since I've read a grand total of one other during Charles II's reign. And therefore there might not have been crazy things like this happening during all those other books settings'). There was a lot of attention to smaller details like the types of fabrics and styles as well as people's beliefs which felt genuine to me (but then I am not well researched in these things so take that with a grain of salt). Nell wasn't some liberated woman just set in the 1600s, nor did she (or other characters) think that the doctors' solutions to things were barbaric (to my recollection). It always bothers me - particularly the latter part - when I come across that in historical fiction, because that sort of thing was normal to them, and honestly most people wouldn't have the education to even question whether the practice was dumb or not. Again, not a researched opinion necessarily, but it's my opinion on that so there. Tell me I'm wrong!
The story is told primarily through her personal diary, but between chapters the book adds snippets of gossip, recipes, and correspondence between other characters to get in world events and to add authenticity to a lot of the beliefs people held. I thought it was so interesting how much the court and royalty were discussed, as well as politics in the lower classes. I honestly think they were more up to date and informed in comparison to most people I know (sadly myself included now that I rarely watch the news! Of course, this is just coming for this book, but still! And having had time to think about it, I realize that courtiers and royalty are equivalent to our celebrities, and sadly I feel like we don't pay much attention as a nation to the celebrities involved in charity and political events and more to sex scandals. So on second thought maybe as a race we haven't changed very much! I had expected more of her life with Charles, but really that was only the last third of the book. It focused a lot on her early life and her life as an actress. This next part is slightly spoilery (but not enough to white out) so read the rest of the paragraph with caution! My biggest quibble with this book is that Nell is constantly citing her wish for independence and how she won't give up the theatre...but then with very little fight, she does. And that seemed like sort of a let down (I know, I know historically I'm sure she did give it up so that's not something you can change in a story haha), but also like it didn't fit with her character. I might have given her a different reason or...I don't know. A more compelling reason.
My favourite part of the book was definitely the side characters. You get such a colorful crew, particularly when they are primarily made up of actors and actresses! I seriously shipped Nell's sister Rose and...ah damn. Duncan? Durst? I FEEL LIKE A FRAUD FOR FORGETTING HIS NAME! I wished with all my heart for them to get together during the book (and I'm not going to tell you if they do or not). It was really strange for me to feel so involved with secondary characters (particularly since I cared way more about Rose and boy I cannot remember the name of than I did about Nell and her lovers). I particularly loved Teddy. I thought it was interesting that Teddy was a fairly well-known cross dresser, and that these sorts of things semed to be generally accepted (as long as it was done on the down low, even though everyone knew about it...which seems strange). I'm assuming since this was mentioned throughout the book, that this is based on historical fact (really you just need to be convincing for me to believe things, I'm terribly gullible!) and that really surprised me! Beyond that though, Teddy is a wonderful friend, delightfully funny, and...OH MY GOD IS IT SNOWING?!?! It's totally snowing right now. Well. I'm not going outside today. (Of course it won't be snowing when this posts. Or rather...I hope it isn't...)
I'm having a hard time focusing so I'm just going to skip to...
I think this is a great book both for historical fiction lovers and for those new to the genre. It's very readable, and it's rekindled my need to go read all the historical fictions!