Was Jane Lane really Charles II’s mistress? No one knows for sure, but what is known is that in the troubled years following the English Civil War, sh...moreWas Jane Lane really Charles II’s mistress? No one knows for sure, but what is known is that in the troubled years following the English Civil War, she risked her life to help him flee the country. Gillian Bagwell reimagines their relationship with insight and conviction: like Jason and Marie in The Bourne Identity, Jane and Charles find passion in the most dangerous of situations, where their only safety lies in trusting each other. Once they separate, the tension increases, as Jane, waiting to hear if Charles has reached safety, realises she has been implicated in his escape and may have to flee herself. Despite the pace of the first half of the book, it feels solidly researched, with a rich sense of place and atmosphere. The horselore in particular seemed very authentic – everything you might want to know about riding pillion is here!
Unfortunately, once past the halfway mark, the narrative drive which has built up rapidly dissipates as Jane moves from the centre to the fringes of the action. The topography of her continental exile is much less vividly portrayed and her life as a lady in waiting – about which not much is known – doesn’t offer the requisite material for compelling fiction. I would have been quite happy to skip this part of her life and continue the story on the eve of the Restoration.
The final section has some of the most powerful and emotive scenes in the book as Jane has to come to terms with what she has given up for her king - and the realisation that she is only one of many women in his life. She tries to help Lucy Walter, one of Charles’s early mistresses, now on a downward trajectory, while Barbara Palmer is glimpsed at a ball, triumphant in ice blue, at the beginning of her volatile liaison with Charles. Another of Jane’s close friends is the ambitious Anne Hyde, a commoner royal mistress (of the future James II) who sets her sights on marriage. Jane’s fate is different to all of them, and she herself has to determine the end of her story.
I can recommend The September Queen as a fast-paced, sensual chase and a tribute to a courageous woman who made her mark on England’s history.
The Darling Strumpet opens in May 1660. As the restored King Charles II makes his official entry into London, the young Nell Gwynn is taking the first...moreThe Darling Strumpet opens in May 1660. As the restored King Charles II makes his official entry into London, the young Nell Gwynn is taking the first steps in a career which will take her from oyster seller, to prostitute, orange girl, actress, courtesan and finally to royal mistress. At this stage in her life, sex is a means to an end for Nell, but Gillian Bagwell conveys her sensual nature by describing her pleasure in eating a hot pie she buys after selling her virginity for sixpence.
Nell’s life as an actress and Restoration playgirl will be familiar territory to anyone who has read Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, but whereas Winsor was interested in the rivalry between the actresses, Gillian Bagwell focuses on the camaraderie of the theatre, which becomes a true home and a second family for Nell. Nell’s roles also allow her to create a public image and to win popularity.
Forever Amber, for all its racy reputation, never ventures beyond the bedroom door – I remember being particularly frustrated when Amber breezes in after her first night with the king – to which the reader is not made privy! By contrast, The Darling Strumpet is refreshingly frank, and while the sex scenes are not just vanilla (there’s definitely some chocolate and raspberry ripple in there too) they are both well written and true to the time and the historical record. The Restoration, at least for the court, was a period of hedonism and sexual freedom comparable to the Swinging Sixties three hundred years later – and Nell makes the most of it. She is a born survivor who has to learn to trust her head over her heart, yet she never loses her compassion for those still mired in the poverty into which she was born.
The atmosphere of Restoration London is beautifully rendered in this richly textured novel. Sedan chairs, frost fairs, hot wassail, changeable silks – the details on every page evoke time and place, while the dialogue strikes the right note between authenticity and accessibility. The Earl of Rochester in particular has some wonderful lines, as does King Charles, whose relationship with Nell is realistically drawn. The Darling Strumpet packs the events of twenty-five years into fewer than four hundred pages, and while I found it enjoyable and very readable, the relatively limited page space and the breaking up of the narrative into short scenes meant that it sometimes seemed a little breathless. I find it easier to engage emotionally with longer scenes and one in particular, Charles’s last meeting with Nell, has stuck in my mind as particularly moving.
I would definitely recommend The Darling Strumpet to anyone looking for a rich and spicy winter read - thanks to Berkley for providing me with a review copy.(less)
I'm very glad I didn't let the cover put me off reading this book. (I’m with those reviewers who think the model appears to be examining her train for...moreI'm very glad I didn't let the cover put me off reading this book. (I’m with those reviewers who think the model appears to be examining her train for doggy doo). The cover also gives a false impression of the book, suggesting that it is women’s historical fiction in the Philippa Gregory mould, whereas it is actually much closer to the Wolf Hall end of the spectrum.
The ‘Queen’ of the title is Alice Perrers, mistress to the ageing Edward III. It’s established fairly early on that the people hate Alice, but she is their queen in the sense that she is of the people. Whereas the Alice Emma Campion portrayed in The King’s Mistress was the virginal daughter of a respectable merchant family, Bennett’s Alice has risen from the peasantry to the court via a Forever Amber-like series of escapades and marriages. (Although this is anything but a bodice ripper: sex scenes are few and not explicit). There's a vast gap between the Alice of The King’s Mistress (passive victim of events) and this Alice (manipulative social climber) - and while I don’t know enough about Alice and her world to say which is closer to the truth, I did find Bennett’s characterisation far more rounded and convincing.
The People’s Queen covers seven years in Alice’s life: 1374 to 1381, year of the Peasants’ Revolt. The prologue is set during the Black Death, known as the Mortality, which claimed the lives of a third of Europe’s population. The book takes for its theme the Wheel of Fortune, and when it begins Alice is at the top of the wheel, feared and respected in both Court and City. So there’s nowhere to go but down.
Alice’s fight to secure her future by exploiting the broken postwar economy is linked with the power struggle between Edward III’s sons, Geoffrey Chaucer’s marital misfortunes and the career of Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt. I enjoyed the voice despite the use of my unfavourite present tense and the profuse authorial narration. It’s very Victorian, but it worked for me because Vanora Bennett writes with such confidence and enthusiasm, whether describing the free-for-all that followed the Black Death or the peripatetic medieval court.
The downside: although there is enough action to carry the book along, it could have been faster-paced. Occasionally it gets bogged down in detail, and the Chaucer scenes in particular don’t tend to move the story very far along. Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt, appears, but only in a cameo role – I would have liked her point of view to have been added into the mix. I would also have liked dates at the top of each chapter and I would have liked the Author’s Note to have more discussion of the background to the story as well as an explanation of what happened after it ends.
As historical fiction, this is a welcome blend of the literary and the popular. As a royal mistress novel, it’s the ideal answer to anyone who thinks the subject of royal mistresses belongs in a pink, frilly historical ghetto. Bennett’s Alice is the first power mistress, socially mobile, a property tycoon, a symbol of her grasping, ambitious age, who would be broken on the wheel of fortune for her sex and her class as much as for her corruption.(less)