A novel by Anthony Burgess
After years of exile, the Restoration court of Charles II of England ushers in an era of celebration and debauchery, the king in sore need of approbation after penurious suffering. It is no wonder, then, that this roué's eye is captured by the antics of an orange girl in the theater- one of Charles's favorite pastimes- the young beauty possessed of a rapier wit that is as seductive to the monarch as her blossoming figure. A daughter of poverty, Nell Gwyn takes advantage of every opportunity to better her circumstances and avoid the fate of her mother and sister, launched in the theater by a wealthy merchant. With a gift for mimicry and a bawdy sense of humor, Nell rises quickly to great popularity on the stage, charming the king each time he is in the audience. In this classic tale of king and commoner, the author paints a vivid picture of Restoration England, the petty politics that fester near the throne and the bold actions of a young woman who lives for the moment and the accolades of the crowd. Though she may grow intemperate in her use of ribald jests, the king tolerates his lover, realizing in Nell a true friend who will always speak truth to power.
Susan Holloway Scott is adept at bringing history alive through the perspective of women who exist within the inner circles of power, in this case Nell Gwyn, stage actress and king's mistress. From barefoot chit with romantic fantasies of her king, the bright Nell becomes the king's beloved consort and bears him two sons. Following Lady Castlemaine in Charles's affections, Nell watches carefully, sympathetic to Charles's Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza, who remains childless, Nell soon realizing the way to his heart and his bed is through the extravagant wit she has in abundance. Nell is quick to establish a cunning friendship that will lead to a love affair than continues until the king's death. It is Nell's journey, from barefoot dreamer to consort that dominates this novel, the challenges and triumphs of an unlikely royal paramour. While her natural habitat is the theater, Nell learns the ways of the court, the intrigues and petty jealousies that surround the powerful.
The world intrudes on Nell's happiness with the death of the king's sister and a "gift" from Louis XIV, the enchanting Louise de Keroualle, the woman delivering Nell's first painful blow as rival for the king's affection. Nell rides out the affair, even as it wounds her. Although Gwyn doesn't influence policy, her low birth a hindrance to real acceptance, certainly Nell is a mitigating factor in the life of a man beset by political intrigue and tedious wars, his popularity diminishing over the years in an outcry against suspicion of Papist influence that plagues Charles's rule. It is Nell and her cohorts, Buckingham, Rochester and Buckhurst, who bring much needed levity to the king's days. But even her great love cannot shield Nell from the inevitable, dire straights she faces after Charles's death. Burning brightly for those happy years with her beloved, Nell remains an icon, cresting the wave of hedonism that so defines the Restoration court. Through Nell's eyes, history is revisited, the ribald atmosphere of the theater and the fickle heart of the monarch who dotes on a unique creature who boldly blends truth, humor and passion, all in service to her king.
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