RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell


Title: The Darling Strumpet
Author: Gillian Bagwell
Publication Info: Berkley 2011
ISBN: 978-0425238592
Genre: Historical: European

The Darling Strumpet This review was written by Jamarleo. This story was nominated in the Best First Book category.

The summary:     

From London's slums to its bawdy playhouses, The Darling Strumpet transports the reader to the tumultuous world of seventeenth-century England, charting the meteoric rise of the dazzling Nell Gwynn, who captivates the heart of King Charles II-and becomes one of the century's most famous courtesans.

Witty and beautiful, Nell was born into poverty but is drawn into the enthralling world of the theater, where her saucy humor and sensuous charm earn her a place in the King's Company. As one of the first actresses in the newly-opened playhouses, she catapults to fame, winning the affection of legions of fans-and the heart of the most powerful man in all of England, the King himself.

Surrendering herself to Charles, Nell will be forced to maneuver the ruthless and shifting allegiances of the royal court-and discover a world of decadence and passion she never imagined possible.

And here is Jamarleo's review:

Please bear with me for a moment while I throw in some metaphor magic your way.

Let’s suppose that we all come to this website because we love chocolate.  Some of us are fond of the classic milk chocolate yum, others appreciate the whimsy of a white marble with cookie crumbs, and an interesting by no means small faction of chocolate lovers are only truly satisfied if their chocolate is a raw hunk of bittersweet   that you have to gnaw on to get a full flavor. Whatever our particular tastes are, there is no arguing that we are eating these particular books- um, sorry this particular candy because, we appreciate chocolate.

Now suppose I have a magic delivery system – no, don’t scroll down to the next review yet- I swear I’m going somewhere with this- that gives each and every one of you a piece of candy.  To be polite, because chocolate lovers are nothing if not a polite a supportive community, everyone eats it.  It soon becomes apparent that the confection- a melding of green tea, hot ginger, delicate layers of candied lime and perhaps just the smallest most infinitesimal trace of unprocessed cocoa- may be considered delicious in many respects but, cocoa or no, it is definitely not chocolate…

Do you see where I’m going with this?  No? Alrighty then, metaphor time over.

The Darling Strumpet is a fantastic historical novel.  It would make anyone with even an ounce of history major geek in them to want to do a dance.  Following the life of Nell Gwynn, a real life woman who rose up from her childhood in a brothel to go to be one of the first female stage actresses in London and later a mistress to King Charles II,  the author Gillian Bagwell enriches the world of late 17th century Restoration England with such evocative detail that, if you read the book long enough, it will take you far more than few minutes to shake yourself back into the real world.   It’s an almost perfect combination of research and fictional imagination.

But it isn’t a romance, at least not from what I have every considered romance to be.

Nell Gwyn, in history and in the life of the novel, identifies herself as a whore.    Although there is some historical debate as to whether the actual Nell Gwyn was a child whore in her mother’s own bawdy house, Darling Strumpet  has her starting off at age twelve by joining her sister  to work in one of the better whorehouses.

See how many times I wrote ‘whore’?  There’s no prettying it up; it’s an ugly word and this is an ugly world that Nell is forced to live in.

From her first attempt at exchanging sex  for the promise of some food and on through to the gang rape(s), the endless quest to please whatever man who can offer her safety from such real fears as disease or death, Nell fiercely defends her “whoredom” as a necessity to survive.  And the awful truth in the world of the book is that Nell is right.

So, can you find romance in a woman’s life long quest for a man best suited to provide not love but protection?   When the only commitment is one of temporary fidelity to whomever Nell assigns herself to be “for him alone”?  When almost every sex scene—and there are a lot of them with heaps of full on explicit bits—seems like a business negotiation for Nell?

I would say no.  What is apparent from early on in The Darling Strumpet is that there is very little by way of love in Nell’s story. Nell may feel affection to a few of her men , even attraction in some instances, but the simple joy of love rarely makes an appearance in this novel, and when it does, it never fails to leave Nell—or  a reader looking solely for a romance—disappointed.

(Word of warning- these are not sex scenes for titillation and/or enjoyment on the part of the reader.  As awesomely acrobatic as some might be, there is always an under- current of Nell’s never-ending desperation.   It’s a testament to how skilled a writer Bagwell is that, after one particularly nauseating bout with the Earl of Rochester and a few of his buddies, I wanted to take a shower.   And, no, it didn’t help thinking about when Johnny Depp played him in a movie.)


This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Sony | Kobo.

SB Sarah: Jamarleo offered two grades for this book, as seen above: an A- for the novel but a D as a romance. Because this book is nominated for 'Best First Book' for the RITA, which awards the best in the romance genre, and because this award is supposed to be for romance, I'm listing this book under the “D” grade. This happens once or twice each year with the RITA, and it's difficult to come up with a standard method to make it clear to readers that this may be a great book, but it's Not a Romance, despite its presence as a RITA finalist.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    PhyllisLaatsch says:

    Well, it’s only supposed to have “romantic elements” and not be judged as romance, right? But still, doesn’t sound like there’s any romance at all.

  2. 2
    CarrieS says:

    I feel your pain.  In my personal life, the question of, “is it a romance or not” isn’t that important – I read all kinds of stuff and what I care about is “is it any good?”  But, in reviewing for the site, sometimes I spend more time trying to figure out what kind of book it is than anything else, because it is reasonable for readers to assume, unless told otherwise, that a book reviewed at Smart Bitches will be a romance and will have things like a satisfying love story with an HEA.  I dread giving letter grades and wish I could give multiple grades for each book or none at all (i.e:  this book is an A+ if what you are really into is clock work dogs, a DNF if you hate steampunk, a C+ in terms of solid writing, a B+ in terms of great characters, etc).  I also feel betrayed if something is marketed as a romance and isn’t – it’s one thing not to know if an HEA is coming and roll with the story but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to expect an HEA and not get it.  Loved the chocolate metaphor, BTW.

    I actually will put Darling Strumpet on my TBR pile because it sounds great but thanks for warning me that it is not a romance so I don’t throw it across the room at the end saying, “Where’s the HEA?”

  3. 3
    katherinelynn_04 says:

    Excellent review! I sometimes wonder, after seeing some of these books nominated for RITAs, what were they thinking? Especially when I have read the book and don’t consider it terribly romantic. This is one of those times.
    I completely love your chocolate metaphor. Amazing.

  4. 4
    SonomaLass says:

    Another confirmation of my theory that it is almost impossible to write historical biography romance. Very few important historical figures (and by that I mean real people about whom we know enough detail to write biographical fiction that’s based in fact) had the kind of relationships that fit in the romance genre. Especially that elusive HEA. Writing about fictional characters in a well-researched historical setting is a better way to achieve effective romance, most of the time. And yes, as reflected in your review, a lot of that has to do with the treatment of women in most times and places.

    I like good historical fiction, but I don’t want to go into it expecting romance. Thanks for the clear distinction here.

    Also, PhyllisLaatsch makes a good point. Best First Book can be given to a novel entered in any of the other RITA categories, including Novel with Strong Romantic Elements. From Jamarleo’s description, I can’t say this book even fits that description, but certainly an author could win the first book competition with a book that wasn’t actually a romance.

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    That’s what I was thinking. If my understanding is correct, to enter “Best First Book” one must also enter in another category as well, and likely, my guess anyway, this was entered in to Strong Romantic Elements. Yet from Jamarleo’s review, I don’t think there were many strong romantic elements! Or any!

  6. 6
    Bnbsrose says:

    Excellent review! And based on it I’d have to agree, it doesn’t even qualify as a book with strong romantic elements. Unless someone on the nominating committee is operating under the belief that sex=romance. People don’t still do that, do they?

  7. 7
    Lizwadsworth65 says:

    Romance or not, this sounds like an excellent book.  While it sounds a little heavy for summer reading, I’m definitely keeping it in mind.

  8. 8

    I found no ‘romantic’ aspect to this book.  I certainly felt no love between Nell and the King.  The closest thing to ‘romance’ in my opinion was in Nell’s relationship with her fellow actor Charles Hart (“My Hart, my heart”) but she dumped him for a richer man’s bed.  I thought the book was guilty of a lot of telling, not showing when it came to the emotional aspects of Nell’s life.

    I’m not certain this book even properly fits in the “Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements”, because frankly, I didn’t see them.

  9. 9

    As historical fiction, it was well done.  It covers an under represented period of history that I found fascinating.  Romantic fiction?  Uh…no.

  10. 10
    Laurel says:

    Jamarleo, this was a bang up review. It didn’t trash the book, but it did elucidate why a reader looking for a romance would be dissatisfied with it. In fact, this is exactly the sort of “negative” review (based only on the official D rating) that shouldn’t hurt the book’s sales.

    If anything, readers are forewarned about what to expect and less likely to take to Twitter griping about what a letdown the book was.

    Nice job!

  11. 11
    Sveta says:

    I didn’t read the book, but it does sound intriguing. I wonder if RITA could make some kind of another category that would mean “love stories” where a book might possibly not have HEA? (Until HEA permanently happens in my life, I look at it as a non-existent wish fulfillment fantasy, and enjoy darker endings…)


  12. 12
    Jamarleo says:

    I only now got a chance to read all of the comments.

    I’m just grateful that my ramblings (ie’I loved this book!  Wait—don’t read it!”) made some sort of coherent sense.

    Carrie S- Honestly, if I was allowed to run with it I would have gone nuts placing grades over the entire novel.


  13. 13
    CarrieS says:

    @Jamarieo – you would have had my full understanding and heartfelt support!

  14. 14
    Gillian Bagwell says:

    Have just seen your review. I must point out that, as some other people surmised, my book was nominated in the category of Novel with Strong Romantic Elements, and makes no pretense to be romance. That said, there are very strong romatic elements, first between Nell and her first love and mentor, the actor Charles Hart. And then with Charles II, with whom she had two sons and to whom she was faithful from when she became his mistress until his death. He loved her and she loved him, no question! And I think the book shows that very well, though I say it myself. So I hope that anyone who likes historical fiction will read it – have a look at the numerous 5-star reviews on Amazon.

  15. 15
    Hydecat says:

    Thanks for the explanation of how the RITA categories work! I read this book too, and I kept thinking it was in the Strong Romantic Elements category, so it’s nice to know that I was partly right.

    I agree with SonomaLass that it is hard to write a historical biography romance, but I think the difficulty is structural, not just that real people don’t have an HEA. When you follow one character’s life from a young age until their death, you inherently have a different kind of story arc than a typical Romance novel. Nell loves Charles II, but her entire life isn’t directing her towards that moment, and she has a lot more going on before and after (with family, children, friends, enemies, career issues) that is unrelated to her emotional connection with him. So, while I do think that Bagwell could have told parts of the story in ways that would have given us more of the strong emotional/romantic punch romance readers are used to, I think the biography genre makes that difficult.

    Also, I read this book in a day and didn’t want to put it down. Romance or not, Nell is a fascinating woman to learn about.

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