by Priya Parmar
Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 2011
By Gillian Bagwell
In the classic (what else?) P. G. Wodehouse short story “The Aunt and the Sluggard,” poor ascetic Rocky Todd wants only to live in his rustic cabin and ponder life’s imponderables. But his aunt (in Wodehouse, it’s always the aunts), on whom he’s financially dependent, wants more from him. She writes to tell him she’ll provide him with generous funds if – and only if – he’ll use them to pitch wildly into the scene of prewar New York City, soak up the raucous nightlife, and write her long letters detailing the life she always dreamed of living. Any other young man would be ecstatic, but Rocky confesses to his friend Bertie Wooster that he just can’t face the prospect of dressing up and meeting people every night. On cue, Bertie’s omniscient manservant Jeeves volunteers to take his place and provide him with copious notes. There follows a pitch-perfect account, Wodehouse skewering a pastiche that’s already a mockery of itself:
I was out with some of the crowd at the Midnight Revels the other night. We took in a show first, after a little dinner at a new place on Forty-third Street. We were quite a gay party. Georgie Cohan looked in about midnight and got off a good one about Willie Collier. Fred Stone could only stay a minute, but Doug Fairbanks did all sorts of stunts and made us roar. Diamond Jim Brady was there, as usual, and Laurette Taylor showed up with a party. The show at the Revels is quite good. I am enclosing a programme.
The joke here is also the peril lurking in wait for every historical novelist: the idea that a scene (almost always a party) is given verisimilitude if every single famous person alive at the time crams into it like frat boys into a phone booth. The laugh Wodehouse is going for in Jeeves’ dispatch is that this particular stunt always has the opposite of its intended effect: it always comes off as canned.
It’s a peril whose attractions increase with familiarity. Any neatly-encapsulated period populated by recognizable names will tempt the unwary novelist to start playing connect-the-dots with the nearest biographical dictionary. Manhattan in the Roaring Twenties is an obvious candidate. Likewise Revolutionary America, Renaissance Florence, and fourth century Athens – the lure is simple laziness: second-rate novelists almost always think iconic name-brand figures are easier to write than the boring old made-up kind. A clubby atmosphere (“Then Benjy Franklin slapped Johnny Adams on the back” etc.) is invoked in the hope that it will counteract all that tedious history with which the reader otherwise has to contend.
Restoration London certainly ranks high among the hot-spots of this kind. Popularly seen as a time of license and gaiety, the London scene after the ascension of Charles II can easily be made to feel like one big party, with ready-made dramatic pauses in the form of the plague and the Great Fire. The roster of recognizable names is comfortingly long: the Earl of Rochester, Rupert of the Rhine, Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, John Dryden, Aphra Behn, my lady Castlemaine, a dozen buxomy mistresses, and the king himself – louche Old Rowley – presiding over it all.
In 1662, Charles married Catherine of Braganza, a Spanish princess of considerable moral character shipped off to an English court at which moral character was the equivalent of a hunchback. Although the King was fond of his state bride, he was fonder of his mistresses, on whom he lavished gifts, houses, and titles (in return they gave him children, something poor Catherine never managed to do). Frances Stewart, the French Catholic Louise de Kerouaille, Lucy Walter, the mother of Charles’ extremely handsome bastard James, the Earl of Monmouth, and foremost of all, reigning fiercely over all the others by dint of her personality and endless fertility, Diana Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, who worked hard to fascinate the King and brooked no rivals.
She got her most intense and confounding rival in the diminutive person of Nell Gwynn, a pretty, illiterate orange-seller, actress, and prostitute who caught the theater-loving monarch’s eye and quickly became his favorite among the many women in his orbit. Casual readers of history will know Nell Gwynn because she made one of the best quips in English history: when her carriage was mobbed by angry Oxfordians who mistook her for the unpopular de Kerouaille, she stuck her head out the window, smiled winningly, and said, “Good people, you are mistaken: I am the Protestant whore” – at which the crowd roared with delight.
Audiences have been roaring ever since. Nell Gwynn’ story, with its perfect mixture of pluck, earthiness, and fairy tale, has been made the subject of stage-plays, movies, and countless novels. Her tale is the inspiration behind one of the bestselling historical novels of all time, Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 doorstop Forever Amber, in which the Nell stand-in, Amber St. Clare, actually meets the genuine article, who enthuses about the royal favor:
“He’s wonderful! Why – he treated me just like – just like I was a princess!” And suddenly she had burst into tears, laughing and crying at once. I’ve fallen in love with him, she thought. Nelly Gwynne – daughter of the London streets, common trollop and public performer – in love with the King of England! Oh, what a fool! And yet, who could help it?
Certainly novelists can’t seem to help it, and this season sees two Nell Gwynn novels published almost simultaneously, eying each other cattishly on the paperback new release tables of bookstores across the country: Priya Parmar’s Exit the Actress and Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet. In telling the story of Nell Gwynn, the main obstacle, as these two authors must surely have discovered, is Nell herself. She had no education and was given the coarsest of possible upbringings; she attracted the attention of the King not because of any spiritual connection but because her on-stage dancing left virtually nothing to the imagination; she was a living, breathing illustration of loins trumping brains. The days when the ‘serious’ reading public could take such material straight with no chaser ended when Daniel Defoe stopped writing.
There are two ways to get around this. In the face of all that ogling of scanty panties, you can either make the whole thing a burlesque cartoon, or you can re-invent Nell Gwynn to serve your own ends.
As might be guessed from the title, in The Darling Strumpet, Gillian Bagwell takes the burlesque approach, with predictably delightful results. Bagwell has been an actress, a director, and a producer of plays (she founded the Pasadena Shakespeare Company in 1994), and the plentiful details she offers of the bustling London theater scene show all that experience to advantage. Charles revived the English theater, and talent rushed in to fill the void. Women were allowed to act and sing and dance on stage, and several rose to prominence – none more so than Nell Gwynn, who was praised and applauded as both a tragic and a comedic actress long before the London public knew anything about her relationship with the King. Of all Charles’ mistresses, she was the only one who enjoyed celebrity in her own right.
Reading The Darling Strumpet, I kept wishing Bagwell would drop the Forever Amber trappings of king and court and just give us a novel of that celebrity – the headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops, as it were, as surely somebody so steeped in the theater could do, a gripping performance-by-performance recreation of Restoration London’s theatrical world, as Mary Renault did so well for ancient Athens in The Mask of Apollo.
But one wonders if any agent or publisher these days would even be interested in such a book (“this bit about memorizing lines is OK, I guess, but when do we get to the cocks and codpieces?”), and in any case Bagwell has elected not to risk it. Indeed, risk-avoidance is apparently key to Bagwell’s entire writing strategy: much like her main character, she plays to the laughing groundlings and gives them exactly what they’re expecting of a Restoration novel. The color and pageantry of the time holds an undeniable allure, and The Darling Strumpet gives us plenty of that old clubby atmosphere:
May Day. Nell had heard the fiddle from her room upstairs at the Cock and Pie and run down half dressed, in her skirt and smock, to see the milkmaids dancing. Their pails were decked with little nosegays of flowers and their sleeves were adorned with ribbon garters.
“Mistress Nelly!” Sam Pepys was waving his hat as he made his way grinning across the road toward her. “A splendid day, is it not?”
And once Charles makes his big entrance, any hope of a working-actor novel goes flying out the window. When Bagwell’s Nell first sees him, she blushes beet red and imagines she sees something “piratical” in his dark looks. In short order things go from piratical to anatomical:
Charles leaned forward and brushed a tendril of hair from Nell’s cheek, letting his hand trail down her face, her throat, her breast. Nell felt a twinge in her belly – the involuntary contraction of arousal. She had fully expected the king to bed her. She had not expected to desire him as intensely as she suddenly found she did.
But no such public encounter can match the private satisfactions that soon come her way:
Taking Charles into her bed like this, with only one candle burning in the small chamber and the sounds of the street outside, was so different from spending the night in the palace, knowing that attendants lay in the next room and would burst in at dawn. It felt like he was truly her lover. And it was so much more peaceful without those infernal clocks and dogs, Nell thought, drifting off to sleep curled against her king.
“If this were played upon a stage now,” Nell muses, “I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” And yet it’s a good fiction: a poor little orange-seller who catches a king and outdoes all his noble-born mistresses. That much the real Nell Gwynn actually did, little knowing or guessing that her story was as old as King David. Bagwell’s narrative tells that story straightforwardly, altering very little of the history she finds and playing most of the time very close to the Forever Amber formula that worked so well for Kathleen Winsor. She gives her characters the earthy frankness that’s so often seen as one of the defining characteristics of the era:
“You really are the best-loved wench in the king’s eyes, Nell,” Buckingham said. “And do you know why? Because you’ve followed my advice all these years.”
“Is that so?” Nell asked, annoyance fighting with amusement at his earnestness.
“Your advice, George?” said Rochester. “It’s my counsel has kept her in the royal bed so long.”
Dorset chuckled. “I think Nell would have managed fine without any of us, you know. She’s not only kept her feet on the ground and her sweet cunt in the king’s mind, but she’s beloved of the people, as well.”
All that’s missing is the occasional “Huzzah!” – but Bagwell balances things out by giving her Nell introspective moments, as when she reflects on the death of the hell-raising Earl of Rochester:
And now he was gone. Poor Johnny. A satyr, a wizard, a scholar, a dangerous hellion, and a lost little boy. All perished from the earth. And gone to where? To somewhere he had found peace, Nell hoped. She tried to pray. But gave up. Surely any god who could hold his place in the heavens would laugh at any prayer from a whore for the soul of a libertine.
An entirely different approach – the approach of re-inventing our heroine to suit the times – is taken by debut novelist Priya Parmar in her burstingly energetic Exit the Actress. Parmar has no use for the kind of good-hearted happy-go-lucky slattern at the heart of Bagwell’s account. Instead, the Nell – pardon me, Ellen (in this book, no less than the King himself insists that she call herself that) – Gwynn who narrates her own story in these pages is the epitome not only of the perfect courtesan but also of the perfect human being. Her mother turns to pimping and her sister turns to prostitution, but our Ellen is given a conscientious (and apparently trilingual) education by her beloved grandfather and holds out for a better life. She quite literally stumbles into that life when, distraught over the fact that her sister has just been arrested, she trips over King Charles, offers him an angry retort, and then profusely apologizes: “Please, please, don’t hold my rudeness against my sister,” she says, to which he replies, “Ellen, do you suppose I am the sort of king who would?”
Parmar makes her Ellen’s impressions of the Merry Monarch if anything even more starstruck than those of Bagwell’s girl:
He was slimly built but had a coiled restiveness about him, like a spring waiting to stretch. A mixed crowd of grim-faced councillors, foppishly dressed young men, and women in carnival-coloured gowns stood about him, and a great puddle of spaniels nosed about his feet. He was the fixed centre of the melee – the substance anchoring the chaos. Nothing about him was quite right: his face was too long, his eyes too deeply set, his lids too heavy, his moustache too lank and his mouth too wide, yet he fit together perfectly.
“I still cannot get used to the sight of the king, and my soul dissolves into a million bumble-bees at his approach,” she tells us at one point. “I sometimes wonder if he can hear me buzzing.”
He can certainly hear something, because those first meetings quickly develop into a fully-formed infatuation, in which the King will take any opportunity to speak with this charming actress. When he slips into her box at the theater, she’s “struck by a surprising sense of familiarity: his great height, the drape of his soft amethyst coat cut in the latest French style, and his large-featured grace – all so right, like a bolt sliding into place.”
In due course, Charles’ bolt is sliding into place on a regular basis, and Parmar does an extremely skillful job of juxtaposing Nell’s – dammit, sorry, Ellen’s – growing royal relationship with the equally tempestuous connection she has with manager and fellow actor Charles Hart. Hart and Gwynn were the hit stage comedy team of their day, and both Bagwell and Parmar devote a great portion of their respective books to the time the two of them spent together, although in this Parmer has the edge in the sheer detailed human recognizability of their less passionate interactions:
He slipped my mittened hand in the crook of his arm as we ambled through the criss-crossed covered pathways [of Foxhall], where you can find glass-houses; festive hawker’s stalls selling roasted nuts, cider, pastries, meats, and fruit; and pretty views of the river at each turning. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt in his company. We laughed easily (his: a great rolling baritone; mine: I fear, a sort of wild goat noise) and gossiped about the company: Becka’s efforts to ensnare an unenthusiastic young viscount; Michael’s troublesome gout, worse this winter; Lizzie Knep’s complicated menage with her invalid, gambling husband, her ever visiting cousins, and her philandering lover; Sam Pepys, who is always in the tiring rooms …
If that echo of “Sam Pepys” from Bagwell’s book has you worrying about the Restoration version of Rocky Todd’s letters to his aunt, there’s justification for it. Neither novelist can resist the temptation to have Nell greet, bump into, pleasure, and/or get impregnated by half the name-brand players on the scene. In Parmar’s book, good ol’ Sammy Pepys isn’t the only one forever hanging around the dressing rooms. We also get a word-portrait of the poet and playwright John Dryden that’s vivid enough, for all that it would strike Mrs. Dryden as unrecognizable:
He was wearing the most astonishing canary-yellow hat, complete with ostrich plumes and small feathers and velvet ribbons and gold buttons plus an enormous blond periwig with ringlets almost reaching his waist. He looked like a frosted lemon wedding cake. He was holding his coffee cup in the most curiously affected way, with his smallest finger arched awkwardly in the air. Did he think it elegant?
In fairness it must be pointed out that all these well-known historical figures fare better than Nell’s – oh my God, Ellen’s – hand-fanning theater friend Teddy, who’s one askew periwig away from being Carol Channing. Teddy can be such a handful, as when he and Gwynn are discussing the latest casting for Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy:
Becka is playing Evadne, and I must say, she does do it well. Poor Teddy is mourning the loss of that part. Evadne was his favourite. “It was my best,” he said wistfully this morning over coffee and toast. “Better than my Epicoene, better than my Juliet … Ahem, Ellen!”
“What?” I said, surprised, looking up from my script – I am Becka’s understudy, and I am nowhere with my lines.
“Better than my Juliet?” he repeated, waving his toast for emphasis. “And then, you say …?”
“I didn’t see it. I was too young.”
“Ellen!” he shrieked.
“No, Teddy, nothing has ever been better than your Juliet,” I placated, hiding my smile behind my coffee cup.
“Thank you,” he said graciously.
Parmar is dutiful if a bit rote in her researches. When N-Ellen developes a bad cold, the family consults “Grandfather’s volume of Culpeper’s English Physician, now worn with use,” and the same Grandfather sends her a copy of “Milton’s controversial Paradise Lost,” warning her that “It is frightening and awesome in its scope” and encouraging her to “Keep up your reading!”
But the most innovative parts of Exit the Actress are largely inventions Parmar adds to her narrative. She intersperses her story with excerpts from the “social broadsheet” of the pseudonymous “Ambrose Pink,” a kind of prototypical Matt Drudge (he writes the most horrible drivel, one character says, but “accurate, though. And quick – he always has it before anyone else.”) whose real identity simply couldn’t be any easier to for readers to guess. And she periodically makes us privy to private letters between Charles and his beloved, outspoken sister Minette, who’s married to the brother of the King of France. These letters are almost flagrantly anachronistic, although they can sometimes provoke a smile, as when Charles writes to Minette in 1664:
We are guilty of at least one act of aggression [against the Dutch] as we have captured their colonial city of New Amsterdam, on the coast of America, but I do not feel that is such a substantial crime as to constitute a need for war here at home. We have renamed the town New York.
The plague and the Great Fire make their appearances here just as they do in Bagwell’s book, but Parmar differs sharply in her portrayal of Gwynn’s relationship with her mother. In Bagwell’s book – as in history, so far as we can tell – Nell’s mother is an increasingly despondent drunkard who has little or no interaction with her daughter in adulthood. Parmar opts for a more yearningly complicated relationship and a mother who’s eaten up with disappointment at least as much as she is with alcohol. As a result, the two share some touching scenes, including a subdued moment shortly after Ellen has had a miscarriage:
“I know about sadness that eats you up from the inside” [her mother tells her].
“Mother …” I faltered, tears in my voice. I wanted to tell her so much: my dread of the awful pain that lies beyond my fogginess; my inability to share it with Hart; the coldness in my fingers; my sleeping heart, waiting to break.
“No,” she said firmly. “We won’t speak of any of it. What would be the point?”
So we sat in silence by the fire, my mother and I, and ate cake.
There are no comparably quiet moments of human frailty in Bagwell’s novel, but then, there’s nothing like Bagwell’s night-owl roisterousness in Parmar’s book either. Together they perfectly illustrate the two sides of this girl-actress who’s captivated reading audiences for so much longer than she ever captivated theater audiences. She’ll forever be our Nell – or Ellen, if you must – laughing and joking at the heart of the greatest night-life of them all, and as long as novelists are fascinated by gaudy stories (or is it readers fascinated by gaudy trollops?), she’ll continue to cavort with Georgie Cohan, Diamond Jim Brady, and Doug Fairbanks – and she’ll enclose a programme.
A.C. Childers was born in Chippenham, England and works as a freelance writer and editor in London.