Title: The King's Favorite
Author: Susan Holloway Scott
Genre: Historical Fiction
Why did we read this book: During our recent Chat With an Author, Loretta Chase mentioned Susan Holloway Scott's The Royal Harlot as one of her inspirations for her new series, beginning with Your Scandalous Ways. Susan contacted us and generously offered copies of her most recent book, The King's Favorite--and of course we could not pass up the opportunity!
Summary: (from NALauthors.com)
The acclaimed author of Duchess and Royal Harlot returns with the unforgettable story of a king's last love and London's darling...
Nell Gwyn has never been a lady, nor does she pretend to be. Blessed with impudent wit and saucy beauty, she swiftly rises from the poverty of Covent Garden to become a sensation in the theater. Still in her teens, she catches the eye of King Charles II, and trades the stage for Whitehall Palace—and the role of royal mistress.
Even though she delights the king, she must learn to negotiate the cutthroat royal court, where ambition and lust for power rule the hearts of all around her. For beneath her charm and light-heartedness, Nell has her own ambition—to become no less than the king's favorite.
Thea: Ever since my Outlander binge last year, in which I read all 6 of Diana Gabaldon's books in the span of a couple of months (in total somewhere above 9000 pages), I decided to take a break from historical fiction for a bit. This year I had picked up a few historical fiction reads, but each book I tried left me cold (try as I might, Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl just wasn't cutting it for me). So, when we were offered the chance to read The King's Favorite on the heels of the Loretta Chase recommendation, I was ready to dive in! And Susan Holloway Scott really delivers. I loved this book, I loved her characterizations, especially of the witty, pretty Nell Gwyn. Going into this read, I knew next to nothing about Restoration England, but Ms. Scott manages to make even the greenest history novice feel right at home in the bawdy spirit of the era. I loved it, and cannot wait to read more by this author!
Ana: All of my knowledge about Restoration England came from a couple of lessons back at university and two or three period movies. I knew about the “bawdy spirit of the era” (Thanks, Thea) and about the English Civil War that preceded it but I had never heard of Nell Gwyn. I decided to do some homework before reading the book and read a couple of encyclopaedia entries about her. It was clear that she was quite a famous figure and I was so curious I asked some of my colleagues at work (note: I live in England) and to my surprise everybody knew who she was, including a French colleague who, as soon as I mentioned her name said: “Oranges, oranges” . The meaning of this was lost to me at the time but once I read the book I understood: Nell Gwyn was the commoner who caught the King’s eye when she was selling oranges at the theatre – this is how, it seems, most people think of her today and this is one of those stories that pass down generations. Equipped with at least some knowledge about the era, I delved into the story and I completely fell in love with the Nell the author presented me with.
On the Plot...
Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn's tale begins in a bawdy house. Daughter of an absent English soldier father and a low-born mother, 11 year old Nell earns her keep by serving, flirting and singing songs in Madam Ross's Covent Garden brothel. It is here that she first makes the acquaintance of a handsome young noble, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship, Lord Rochester. Both Nell and Rochester are young, but connect as they have both been forced to grow older than their years suggest. Both are even more united in their unfading devotion to their King, Charles Stuart. Nell, with her young girl's heart loves and idolizes her King, and Rochester too is bound to him through the ties of his late family.
Even though Nell's mother and sister have both taken to earning an honest living by lying with men for coin, Nell's aspirations are much higher than becoming a mere tavern whore: she dreams of becoming Charles Stuart's love. And yet, as the years pass and Nell reaches the age of 13, she is forced to face her destiny for the moment, and becomes a kept mistress of a well-to-do merchant (for the confident, energetic Nell, however, this is by no means the end of her journey). She sells her maidenhead to Mr. Duncan and in return is treated well and looked after, but soon Nell finds that being kept is a very dull life indeed. But when Duncan takes her to the theater, Nell falls in love. From the brash orange girls in the pit, to the players on the stage, Nell knows that her wits and charms were made for the theater, and says as much to her keeper. Although Nell's attempts at becoming a player are initially refused by Master Killigrew when he discovers she is "Duncan's chit", once her merchant tells Nell he is to be married, she seizes the opportunity and returns to the theater looking for employment. Since she is illiterate, however, Nell's dreams of becoming an actress are (temporarily) thwarted--still, she is offered a position as an orange girl, and she flourishes in her role. Pretty, youthful, spritely Nell thrives off of her audience's attention, and it is only a matter of time before her brazen comedic charm is rewarded by an onstage role. Though she cannot read, Nell's memory is as sharp as her wit--which is to say, very, very sharp indeed.
From there, Nell rises from smaller roles to the star of the stage--capturing the King's interest. Instead of tumbling into bed with Charles, however, Nell builds a bond of friendship, laughter and camaraderie with the King--for she is determined to be more to her childhood love than just another chit to see his bedchamber once and be discarded the next day. And, as time passes, Nell becomes what she has always wanted--England's most celebrated actress, and the King's favorite mistress.
Thea: What a story! The King's Favorite reads like a real-life Cinderella tale, with Nell rising from her station in life as a barefoot chit to the King's trusted friend, lover, and mother (to two of his many illegitimate) children. The plot follows Nell's remarkable life, from her hopes and trials as a young girl, to the stage, and to her final role with the King. This is not to say that Nell's story is a fairy tale, full of rainbows and ponies. There is no fairy godmother to grant fine clothes and glass slippers, ending with Cinderella marrying her Prince Charming and living happily ever after. Although good fortune and opportunity played a role in Nell's life, hers is a tale of struggle and triumph, and one that resonates as a realistic, accurate portrayal of Nell Gwyn.
My favorite scenes showed Nell at her brightest, shining as a star in the theater, from the pit as the cheeky orange girl stealing the King's attention from mistress Lady Castlemaine, to her speeches and songs onstage. And, of course, mocking her rivals for the King's affections. I loved one scene where Nell victimizes a rival actress named Moll, who unfortunately lacked Nell's wit or skill onstage:
Every scene was well received, and every time I appeared on the stage, I was greeted with great applause, Yet it felt as if everyone were holding their breath together, waiting for the scene they'd all heard would come. At last it did, with Mirida bidding Pinguister come sit on her lap. No one could cry and wail like Mr. Lacy, tormented by the knowledge that he is too fat to follow his love. While he wept, I (as Mirida) cast myself to the floor and sang my frustration, too, and made certain to employ exactly the same whining, singsong inflection that Moll had used, with the same wooden gestures.
My Lodging is on the cold boards,
And wonderful hard is my fare,
But that which troubles me most is
The Fatness of my Dear.
Yet still I cry, Oh, me, love,
And I prythee now, melt apace,
For thou are the man I should long for
If'twere only not for grease.
Oh, was there anything more deliciously ludicrous? I could scarce hear Mr. Lacy's replies for the laughter and uproarious cheers that greeted my song, but I wasn't yet done. Instead of walking toward me like an ordinary suitor, Pinguister's ungainly girth made him roll across the boards like a giant ball, while I in turn was reduced to rolling away from him, the way children do on a grassy hill. Trying to avoid having my tiny person crushed by the mighty Pinguister, I flailed my limbs about in a mockery of Moll's sorry dance, my legs and petticoats tossing prettily about the stage while Mr. Lacy rolled after me.
The plot is imbued with a sense of history, as a living creature--Ms. Scott integrates numerous poems and plays from the Restoration theater--using snippets (like Nell's song above) throughout the book. Other artifacts play a prominent role as well, from portraits to Nell's wonderful sterling silver bedframe--engraved with images of Nell and Charles together as King and Queen, their sons as cherubs, and most deliciously of all, all Nell's rivals in compromising positions:
Prancing overhead on a fine-spun silver wire was a tiny figure of Jacob Hall. Hall was the famously accomplished rope-dancer who'd performed for us at court over our heads in the Banqueting House. He'd likewise performed privately for the Duchess of Cleveland as one of her most notorious lovers (and her most acrobatic, too, for with him she was said to attain the most complicated of Aretino's postures for coupling). Nor was Louise neglected. I'd had her shown lying in a coffin with an exotic foreign prince, in tribute to her well-known salacious delight in Africans, Turks, and other heathens.
How delightfully mischievous--capturing the devilish, fun side of this notable woman. *On a side note, I also love Ms. Scott's sprinklings in like "Aretino's postures"--Pietro Aretino, from The School of Whoredom (read in one of my university history classes)--lending more authenticity and context to the story.*
Ms. Scott also manages to capture the feel of Restoration England with the undercurrent of important events and tensions, showing the conflicts between the English and the Dutch, the distrust of the French, and the tension of Protestantism versus Catholicism and patriotic loyalty. No small feat--especially while keeping in tune with Nell's first person voice.
I did have a few gripes, writing-wise. Nell narrates the story looking back in time, and as such, many chapters end with melodramatic messages of foreboding (i.e. "But oh, what we would become. What we would become," or "by the end of the summer, everything--everything--I knew and held dear would be changed"). While this does bug, the quality of writing throughout the rest of the book is still exceptional.
I would like to echo Thea’s thoughts: what a story! The remarkable life of a woman who knew what she wanted since she was a child and pursed her dreams – to be an actress and to capture the king’s affections. It is difficult to say with certainty if this portray is accurate or not but it certainly feels that way. Thea explored how Mrs Scott integrated numerous poems and plays from that era and how they helped to bring Nell and her friends to life and I couldn’t agree more. Some of the lighter and funniest scenes of the book occur on stage and sometimes behind it too when Nell lets her player side shine.
But for me, the best parts were the more emotional ones, followed close by the historical background and the questions I was asking myself throughout. More than the political aspects of the plot, I was more enthralled by the cultural panorama:
For example, how so very young everyone was. Nell starts the book at 11, she has her first lover at around that time. This was a time when a woman was at her prime when she was 15! FIFTEEN. She felt old when she reached 30. It never fails to surprise me how times change perception and merely 400 years later all of these men would end up in jail for pedophilia. Similarly, boys were considered men at a young age as well. Rochester was a student (and a bright one at that) at Oxford when he was 14 – already debauched, drunk and horny.
Please note that these are my own anachronistic feelings speaking – within the story itself all of these feel right and in keeping with the time period.
Other painful moments came from realizing the position women occupied in those times and no matter who they were – noble, commoner, queen, whore - they were always less than men. Yes, in the Restoration period there seem to be some amount of freedom and some recognition of what a woman can do – it was then that women were allowed playing parts in the theatre – but ultimately they were but pawns, specially the Ladies. The whores and widows may have had more freedom and the mistresses may have held their men’s hearts but they also probably died in misery or by illness.
And speaking of it, all the debauchery, the lose morals may have been fun but the repercussions were dire: most of these infamous men and women suffered from syphilis. Rochester himself died of it and it is speculated that both the King and Nell had it too, which wouldn’t surprise me at all.
As for the emotional side, many times I was in tears. Nell may have been bent on making people laugh, specially the King and she knew better than to shower him with tears or demands but those few times she allowed herself to show her emotions were really heartbreaking. Specially sad were those moments of clarity when she felt she was less than his other whores when he King would grant them titles, or houses and for poor Nelly, nothing until it was almost too late.
This was a woman capable of undying loyalty to a man who was less than stellar in his dealings with her. She never denied him anything and how could she? He was after all, the King and she never let herself forget that. Still, there were a couple of scenes there were really touching and the author managed to convey that their relationship was that of a friendship above all. They had fun together and she truly loved him, all that was all she ever wanted.
On the Characters...
Thea: Ah, what characters! I knew nothing of Nell Gwyn or Charles Stuart before reading this book (I'm more of a 20th century political history type of gal), but upon finishing The King's Favorite I felt intimately acquainted with Nell and all the characters in this novel. These characterizations, especially of Nell herself, are where Ms. Scott truly shines. She manages to breathe life into these prominent historical figures and makes them tangible, whole and real. Upon opening the book, the first thing I noticed was that it was narrated in the first person point of view, from Nell's perspective. Immediately, I felt somewhat wary--this is a gutsy move to assume the voice of not just a character in a story, but a real person.
I need not have worried--Nell Gwyn was a delight to read! The voice Ms. Scott employed for her Nell was perfect, capturing the spirited and mischievous side of the actress. In less capable hands, the Nell's actions and narration could have easily come off as two-dimensional, or slid into a cutesy caricature--but Ms. Scott manages to avoid this pitfall effortlessly, tempering the more mischievous aspects of Nell's persona with a sensitivity and earnestness that is at once completely believable. For every prank Nell plays (my favorites were of her mocking the rival mistress, French "Weeping Willow" Louise de Keroualle), we also garner a sense of the woman behind the act. And what's better--it's handled with beautiful subtlety. Though from her narrative she seems brash and incredibly self-confident, there are instances that show her own insecurities, and motivations for her actions. Her constant mockage of Louise (though Nell would never admit to such a thing) speaks to her own unsure footing and longevity in the King's heart, and her place among those born much higher than she. When Louise is given the title of Duchess while Nell is neither ennobled nor even given deed to her house, the motivations for Nell's vigorous mockery of the weepy Louise are all too clear.
Beyond the pranks and her dislike for rival mistresses, Nell's insecurities stem further, to her own sense of belonging, despite all her self-confidence. Nell's illiteracy and her low birth, for all her wit and intelligence, manifests as something she laughs off with gusto in her narrative...but then passages about Nell's pride in being able to recognize her name, and her habit of proudly branding all of her belongings with her initials (an idea she took from Charles's every item bearing the mark of C.R.--Charles Rex) is incredibly touching and speaks volumes to her own quest for acceptance. Her cries and resounding jibes to her audiences, "I am the Protestant whore!" again shows Nell's vulnerability, in spite of how many merry jigs she dances.
What makes Nell even more endearing as a character and tangible as a real flesh and blood person is her unyielding devotion to King Charles (however undeserved her devotion may seem). From historical accounts, and reflected here in The King's Favorite, Nell was not a "whore" in the literal sense of the word--she recounts to herself that she can count all the men she has been with on one hand (with a finger to spare), and after becoming the King's mistress, she never again slept with another man. From the beginning of the book, Nell's infatuation with her King is clear, and resounds throughout her story. For Nell, it has always been about serving her King, growing from a girlish infatuation to a bond of dearest companionship and unconditional love. In Nell's narrative, the concepts of loving Charles and of serving her country are intertwined and nigh inseparable--Nell does not interfere with politics though she is aware of them, and trusts almost blindly in her King's decisions for England, and for herself as well. Foolhardy perhaps, but again lends to this vivid, stunning depiction of the woman Nell Gwyn was.
The other characters in this book are similarly detailed, and lovingly brought to life on the page--of course, by the lens Nell perceives them through. Even when her dear Charles accepts secret funds from Catholic France and Nell fears for Protestant England, or when Charles continues with the bankrupting Dutch war, or when he decrees gold be spent on frivolity of horse races instead of rebuilding or tending to the parts of the city destroyed after the Great Fire; he is still her King, and infallible. Of course, as readers, we are free to form opinions--and my own views of Charles Stuart aren't quite so favorable as Nell's! Still, I found it fascinating to read about this romanticized King, especially through Nell's rosy perceptions.
The other character that stands out is Nell's close friend, the rakish Earl of Rochester. The friendship between these two characters is a thread that runs through this book from beginning to end--it is a constant, steady relationship that seems to anchor both Nell and Rochester throughout their turbulent lives. Rochester is a charming, beautiful young man when he first meets Nell in the bawdy house--and though there is the current of attraction and playful flirting between them, their relationship is much deeper than some shared sexual innuendo. In fact, the only time when Nell openly defies Charles is on Rochester's behalf--in turn, the Earl is one of Nell's champions that argues for the King to ennoble her and give her the property and finery she deserves for being the King's loyal companion for years. Rochester's story is a heartbreaking one to read--for his own charm and writing wit, his alcoholism and libertine lifestyle catches up with him all too soon.
Ana: After doing some pre-reading research, the historian in me was a bit worried about reading a novel concerning a famous figure that didn’t leave any writings or journals behind. I was especially wary once I realized the story was narrated in first person by Nell, which I though is a very ballsy move by the author. But I felt, given what is known about Nell, that the “voice” she was given by Mrs Scott was a believable one and Nell felt so real she leapt from the pages.
Because of that, I was captivated by Nell from the get go. From her beginnings as a lowly tavern entertainer, when she was merely 11 years old to the position as mistress to the King of England. She seems to have always known who she was and what she was – a commoner, an illiterate, a whore but first and foremost, a born entertainer. Her love for all things funny and amusing and her wit granted her a place not only at the Theatre but also amongst some of the most eminent figures of the time – not only King Charles himself, but Charles Hart, one of the greatest actors of his generation and Lord Rochester, of The Libertine fame.
Such a fascinating figure! She was known to be one of the funniest women of her time but she was also witty and smart – although her smarts don’t necessarily mean that she was well –cultured or politically savvy. Quite the contrary – her humour was bawdy and she could not even read which, in my opinion, proves how smart and intelligent she was and with such a memory that she was able to memorise her lines just by hearing them. Her mimicry of illustrious figures seems to have carried a cunning eye for capturing the ridiculous and exposing it to everyone. Not even the King was safe: in fact maybe that was even the secret of her success. By having the guts to say and to laugh at things that no one else would, she attracted the attention of a man who had everyone attending to him like a God – this seems to have been their main connection and what kept her as his favorite amongst many (MANY).
It is interesting to see that even though she walked amongst politicians and was in an enviable position so near the King, she seem to have kept away from the politics of the Court. Other mistresses appear to have tried to gain vantage with their position but Nell was extremely loyal to Charles, who was her lover, her friend and her King, all at once. She never tried to be more than she was, she knew herself to be a whore - not too smart, not too ambitious, just plain old Nell. The court jester - allowed saying things no one would.
Now what about King Charles II (or King Charles the Pig, as my own internal voice has tenderly named him)? There are two sides of King Charles: the man and the King. Even though for Nell they were one and the same, in order to keep my sanity whilst reading this book, I had to separate both. I can never distance myself, even if this is a historical character with many sides and as complex as it can be. As a man, he was less than heroic, less than perfect – in reality he was tremendously selfish, incapable of keeping his cock inside his breeches, displaying his mistresses in front of his queen and officially keeping them with money provided by the parliament. His actions towards his many lovers were less than stellar and towards Nelly were downright appalling –out of all of his mistresses she was the one who seemed to have been his one true friend and still, she was granted less than any other in the way of favours.
For all its anachronism, I was still left with a sour taste in the mouth but alas, let sleeping dogs lie.
Having said that, what a stupendous writer Susan Holloway Scott for being able to make me feel sympathy for the King with regards to his difficult position – a man caught between French and Dutch, between Catholics and Anglicans, he fought to do the best for England. I thought many scenes even if from the more than pink coloured lenses point of view of Nell, were truly emotional when one could get a glimpse of a man who truly loved, at least in some measure all of his women, even his queen and Nell. His love for his sister, his love for his sons, even the bastards ones and for his friends was quite believable.
As for the other characters, I really enjoyed reading about the Merry Gang: the bunch of witty libertines, that circled around Crown and Country, friends with both the King and Nell: the Earl of Rochester (one of Nell’s closest friend), the conniving Duke of Buckingham, Charles Buckhusrt (one of Nell’s former lovers) and others. All indulged in debauchery, drinking, shagging and making fun of others – the epitome of The Restoration period for its freedom after the dark period of The Civil War. It was interesting to see how the King gravitated around them – at one hand attracted to the fun they promoted, at another having to keep his cool and his distance and sometimes even having to bring about punishments when the jokes went too far.
Final Thoughts, Recommendation and Rating...
Thea: A caveat for the romance readers in the house: I would caution against thinking of this book as a "historical romance"--there is no happy ever after here (although there is happiness) and the romance is not of the monogamous one-true-love variety. For all that Nell becomes a true favorite of the King's, she is always one of many mistresses and one-night stands. The relationship between Nell and her King similarly cannot be boiled down to simple, pure true love--although they do love each other in their own ways.
That said, I loved this book. The characterizations were brilliant, the history rich, and what's even more impressive is that Ms. Scott manages to tell Nell's story without any hint of modern day judgements or apologies. Nell's voice is strong and wholly believeable in historical context--I found myself marvelling at the level of detail in this book, as well as at the minute colloquialisms that felt completely authentic.
Ana: I loved reading about Nell Gwyn. That is one fascinating story and now I wonder why I don’t read more biographies or more historical novels based on true characters. In any case, this book proved to be both entertaining and educational. There were laughter and there were tears. It felt truly authentic. There is no better word for it.
Thea: I loved all of Nell's theater scenes and performances, and this passage I think best captures her love for the stage, as an exceptional, born performer:
"On your way, Nelly," James whispered, applying a friendly swat of encouragement to my silk-covered bum. "There's your cue."
My cue; ah, are there any sweeter words to an actress? I raised my face, set my hands upon my hips, and pranced out onto the stage, the great hatflapping over my head. The laughter and applause began before the whole house had even spied me, waves and waves of boisterous amusement so loud that I had to stand a full fifteen minutes in the center of the stage before I'd quiet enough to begin to speak my piece. True, I coaxed them onward by making a show of peeking out from beneath the hat, feigning great surprise to find them on the other side, and then once sure of their favor, posing and preening like the most foppish French gentlemen, taking the daintiest pinch of snuff from the back of my wrist only to have it knocked away by the outsized brim of my hat. And when I finally began to speak, the laughter started all over again, to be muffled only by giddy anticpation for my next words.
Ana: This is not part of the book per se but I loved the author’s notes in the end. The book ends, let’s put it this way, at a “happy” point in Nell’s life. But there was more to their story and in the notes, the author recounts the last moments of their life together – how the King fell ill and Nell was denied entry to his bedroom and as he lay there dying, she could do nothing but to weep outside the door. There were no goodbyes between them and it is said that his last words where about Nell, and that someone needed to be sure she was taken care of. When I read that, all the emotions I had reading the book came rushing back and I sobbed uncontrollably. There could be no better compliment from me than that I was moved to point where I was crying myself to sleep.
Thea: 8 Excellent - I loved this book. Historical fiction fans looking for a new voice in the genre should give Susan Holloway Scott a try! I cannot wait for her next book, The French Mistress, in stores next year. Very highly recommended.
Ana: 8 Excellent. – I loved to learn about Nell and King Charles and the Restoration period. I was impressed with the amount of research necessary to be able to have so many details about the characters and the era and I highly recommend it.
COME BACK TOMORROW FOR A FANTASTIC INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN HOLLOWAY SCOTT WHERE SHE TELLS EVERYTHING ABOUT HER RESEARCH FOR THE BOOK, AND MORE ABOUT NELL AND KING CHARLES. SHE WILL BE AROUND TO ASNWER SOME OF YOUR QUESTIONS AS WELL!
AND WE HAVE TWO COPIES OF THE KING’S FAVORITE TO GIVEAWAY – ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS LEAVE A COMMENT ON THE POST TOMORROW.
SEE YOU THEN!