“His Majesty saw women on the stage in Frankfurt and thought it a charming innovation”
The Darling Strumpet is the story of a girl who was nothing special but rose to national and historic fame. She’s known as one of the first actresses, one of the first women to be given the privilege to play female roles on the boards, but also for winning the love of a number of rich men, including the King of England (Charles II).
I liked Nell. She’s safely characterised (for such a potentially contentious story); strong and witty and intelligent, she rises above the poverty of her oyster wenching days and the abuse from her mother, she befriends others easily and we only see a negative side when she is jealous of Charles’ other mistresses. Looking back, I feel like she wasn’t given much depth as a character, but I’m not sure that’s fair – I think my problem is that too much time was spent trading on her looks and not enough on her wit and brains.
Nell’s sister Rose and early suitor Hart are similarly safe, pleasant but uncontroversial characters. Bagwell shows much more vim in writing Rochester, Dorset, Monmouth and other scheming men – they each have their fatal flaws and their difficulties for Nell. In a sense they are presented less as players in her life and more obstacles to be overcome, hindrances in her rise to prominence.
What Bagwell did very well was the historical events of the time – the great fire of London, the plague, the return of King Charles II from exile. You always have to wonder how accurate these things are, but they were slotted into the story well and Nell’s grief at losing so much of her home town was not something I had expected, but was a nice touch. Similarly her financial insecurity, being wholly dependent on Charles’ goodwill, was an eye-opener for me.
On the whole, I found this a little bawdy for my liking – too much romping about in bed with noblemen and kings, and not enough time on stage.