Born into poverty and raised in a brothel, Nell Gwynne sells oranges in the pit at London’s King’s Theater, newly reopened after the plague and the Great Fire devastated the city. Soon, her quick sense of humor and natural charm get her noticed by those who have the means to make her life easier. But the street-smart Nell knows a woman doesn’t get ahead by selling her body. Through talent, charm, intelligence, and sheer determination—as well as a keen understanding of how the world operates—Nell works her way out of the pit and onto the stage to become the leading comedic actress of the day. Her skills and beauty quickly win the attention of all of London—eventually even catching the eye of King Charles II. Their attraction is as real as it is unlikely, and the scrappy orange girl with the pretty face and the quick wit soon finds herself plunged into the confusing and dangerous world of the court, where she learns there are few she can trust—and many whom she cannot turn her back on.
From the gritty streets of seventeenth-century London, to the backstage glamour of its theaters, to the glittering court of Charles II, The Perfect Royal Mistress is a love story for the ages, the rags-to-riches tale of a truly remarkable heroine.
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About the Author
DIANE HAEGER is also the author of The Ruby Ring, Courtesan, and
The Secret Wife of George IV. She lives in California.
Read an Excerpt
The Perfect Royal Mistress A Novel
By Diane Haeger Three Rivers Press Copyright © 2007 Diane Haeger
All right reserved.
London, September 1666
Four days after the blaze began, consuming half of London and cutting a wide swath from Tower Hill to Fetter Lane, Nell stepped cautiously through the doorway of the tavern into the harsh light of day. For a moment, she lingered on the stone landing that jutted into Lewkenor Lane before stepping down into the tangle of lost souls, prostitutes, piles of garbage, and animal dung, so overpowering that her eyes watered. The canopy of sky remained gray with smoke and obscured the sun. A rash of smaller fires still blazed as the odor of charred wood and burned pitch mixed with the putrid stench of decay. It blew across the city, and would not let go.
The flames had spread as far as Fish Street, and the Thames. The wide, serpentine river, normally dotted with thousands of decorated barges and boats with billowing sails, was still thick with debris and a heavy layer of soot. The ravages of the fire had spared the Cock & Pye, where she rented a garret beneath the eaves, as well as the other timbered and gabled houses around that end of Drury Lane. But the ashes, smuts, and little burned bits of paper still rained down upon the city. They were like feathers, she thought, until they landed, marking everything a desolategray.
Beneath her feet was a carpet of the same ash, dung, and soot that the wind had carried. Many Londoners, in one devastating evening, and the four days which followed, had lost every worldly good. It seemed unfair that a city should suffer such devastation after the ravaging plague of only a year before. But that was not her problem, then or now. Survival was. She tried not to look at the still smoldering ruins, like a tangle of skeletons against the skyline, as she quickly walked. Still, it was odd to see untouched buildings in the foreground--timber all neatly painted, window boxes still full of geraniums, sitting before a skyline of mangled and charred debris. She lowered her head and kept walking. Life was like that, really, she thought. One simply had to put one's head down and keep going along.
Nell's thick copper hair was stuffed into a drab mobcap, and her gamine body was sheathed in a mud-brown dress with beige mock-sleeves. The tie at her bosom was ages-old leather. As she made her way from the area of close-packed timbered houses and dark, narrow, straw-covered alleys, the frayed hem of her dress licked the muck-drenched cobbles that led her through crooked Wych Street.
She moved on toward Drury Lane until the great King's Theater, a stone-and-brick building, revealed itself like a great giant before her. The theater, with its long sets of windows, columns, and portico, was still pure magnificence. Not even something already called "the Great Fire" had changed that. Under the direction of a woman named Orange Moll, Nell had found a way to avoid the bawdy house and earn a few shillings as an orange girl. Orange Moll stationed her girls outside the theater doors, and in the pit beneath the stage, where the fops and dandies collected. Newest among Moll's girls, Nell was to tempt those with a few extra pence and an eye for a pretty face. Nell thought of the new work and those garishly dressed fops, who lived expensively and behaved outrageously. Allowing pinches on her bottom, and a bit of banter, amid all the pushing, shoving, and shouting, generally garnered her more tips. "I fancy clever girls," Orange Moll liked to say. "The clever ones earn more, so I earn more." Stopping outside the theater, closed now like most everything else, Nell glanced down into the small wicker basket covered with vine leaves on the crook of her arm. Two softening oranges remained, each now sporting a tiny spot of mold. She should have returned them to Moll.
"Orange? Two pence! Orange! Who will buy an orange?" she called out in her sweetest work voice.
She saw her then, a woman huddled inside the dirty alcove between the doors where the tickets were sold. The canopy, protection from the elements, hid her face in shadows. In her arms she held a tiny, dirty-faced child. But she was not a beggar. Nell could see that by the fabric of her soiled gown. Once there had been a world of difference between the two of them. The fire had opened up a doorway between the two worlds and, for this moment, made them very much the same.
"Would you fancy an orange, ma'am? I've got one 'ere I'll not be needin'."
The woman lifted her head. Her face was smudged with soot, as was that of the sleeping child in her lap. "They're gone," she said so flatly and quietly that Nell almost did not hear. "All of them but the wee one. Even my man. All burned to death."
Nell felt her stomach recoil. "God save you, ma'am."
"There's no use to it. 'Tis all gone now."
Nell reached out with an orange. "'Tis a point with the wee one though, ain't there? You've got to think of 'er."
The woman, at last, took the piece of fruit but seemed not to realize, even as she did, what she was meant to do with it. Nell stood lingering for a moment, then heard a man's voice. Startled, she spun around to see four men, two in the crisp periwigs of noblemen, and the other two with their hair closely shorn. Their wigs and waistcoats gave them all away. They were gentlemen of the first order.
"You see? Perfectly unharmed," one of them was saying to another, as they stood gazing up at the theater. "A bit of soot only, but that can be easily enough washed away."
One of the men turned to look at her critically. His periwig was the color of corn, matching a neat mustache and trim beard. His eyes were brilliant blue and clear, but colder than any eyes she had ever seen. "Do run along, girl," he said in a pompous tone. "You've no business here."
"I'll go nowhere, sir."
He tipped his head, surprised. The others turned then to regard her as well.
"I work 'ere."
"You? As what?"
She held up the orange. A flock of blackbirds flew across the sky. "I sell these, sir."
"Is that all you sell?"
"It is, sir."
"Nonsense! You're all for sale, girls like you."
"You are vile."
"You are predictable."
Another of the men intervened. "Enough, George. Back to the business at hand, shall we?"
This man was taller than the other three, and he was one who wore no wig. His close-shorn hair was very dark. He had strong, masculine features, an ebony mustache, and a swarthy complexion that was stained with soot and sweat. His eyes, as they surveyed her, were dark as coal, and oddly intriguing.
"Still have a taste for the low ones, Charles ol' friend?" asked the other man.
"And you have a foul mouth, sir," Nell snapped, interjecting herself again.
The blue-eyed man shot her a glare. "Saucy!"
"Coxcomb!" she called back without thinking.
"Jade!" His voice went deeper, more menacing.
Her body tensed, preparing for a fight. The brothel in which she had grown up fetching wine and linen was a breeding ground for raw violence. But the other men only chuckled. "Well! She got the better of you, it's plain to see!" said a stout, dough-faced man, wearing a black velvet cape and beaver hat.
As they laughed, Nell risked a second glance at the tall man with the mustache. He was handsome, she thought. He smiled for only an instant at the surprising exchange, his cheeks dimpling as he did, yet still she could see that he was different. He wore a rust-colored leather waistcoat and, over it, a long surcoat the color of chocolate. His buff-colored trousers and nut-brown buskins, like his hands, were mud caked and stained with soot. He was a wealthy man, she saw, but one who had somehow tried to help.
"Those oranges are worth sixpence each, Charles. She has clearly pinched them from Orange Moll's supply, and I certainly think the old bird needs to know that she--"
"I ain't pinched a thing!"
"Oh, leave her be," the tall man said, his voice as deep and rich as French wine. "Let's return to our purpose, George. It appears that performances can continue as soon as the players are ready."
"T'would be right insensitive of the king!"
"Girl!" The man called "George" glared at her. His tone was full of condescension. "Merriment helps one to forget the tragedies of our world."
"Aye, for those with money enough."
"And those with a certain gentility. Which certainly does not include the likes of you."
"I may well be low, sir." She crossed her arms. "But what, I wonder, is your excuse?"
"For the rough way you speak to perfect strangers, sir."
Again the group of men chuckled, although this time with a hint of embarrassment. Nell had bested the same man twice.
"What is your name, girl?" asked the tall man, with what seemed to her like appreciation.
When she looked at him, she saw a hint of amusement in his eyes.
"Who are you that wants to know?"
"Listen, girl! Do you have any idea who this--?"
"Be silent!" The tall man cut him off. "That is quite enough, George."
"But, Your M--"
"Enough!" The tall man raised his hand, and his companion was instantly silenced by it. He turned his attention to Nell. There was a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "You are quite an extraordinary girl."
"In that case, Eleanor Gwynne's the name. But most call me Nell."
"Well, Nell. I believe I rather fancy an orange just now. George, pay Mrs. Gwynne for the orange, and for having to spar with the likes of you."
"'Tis not necessary, sir. And I ain't no one's missus."
"Forgive me, but where I come from a lady is called missus, out of respect. And believe me, Nell," he smiled kindly. "It is quite necessary. There are few around who could go more than a round or two with old George Villiers here. Much less a--"
"Much less a low girl?"
Bested as well, the tall man smiled. "There's nothing in the world low about you."
Nell felt herself smile, too, and her guard fell by a degree. He had a kindness about him.
"Here." The man called George Villiers handed out a coin to her, pomposity and pity in his gesture. Nell took it and, for a moment, held it tightly in her hand. There was cold, hard reassurance in it for her. Enough to buy food, perhaps even a pair of shoes not already worn at the soles. But she simply could not take it.
"I do thank you, sir, all the same, but the lady over there, the one with the babe, she'll be needin' it more."
As the collection of men stood incredulous, Nell walked the few paces back to the woman and her child, and then knelt beside them.
"Here," she softly said, holding out the coin for a moment, then tucking it into the woman's shirt. "I know a place, the Cock & Pye, 'tis very near, where you and your wee one'll find a proper bed, and a bit of peace, to think through what you're meant to do next."
When Nell stood and turned around, she saw that the men were still watching her.
The tall man had murmured the word, though more to himself than to his companions.
"Nothing extraordinary about it. 'Twas only what's right, sir."
He was studying her now. For a moment, neither broke their gaze. Her knees were suddenly weak. She could only imagine the number of well-bred ladies whose heads he had turned with that same stare.
"You are an intriguing girl, Nell Gwynne."
"I'll be takin' that as a compliment, sir."
"It was intended as one. And this coin I wish you to take for yourself. Think of it as any other tip a customer might offer you. I would say you've more than earned it."
The man held out a single shining silver crown to her. Nell thought of declining, but there was no expression of pity or condescension in his offer, as there had been from the other man. She accepted the coin.
"We really must be on our way," said Geaye."
"So we must."
"I'll remember what you said, sir," Nell called out.
"You do that," said the tall man, glancing back as he disappeared into the gathering crowd. Nell moved quickly down the narrow, sunless alley, through soot ground into black mud that came up through the holes in her shoes, until she was back at the Cock & Pye. People seemed always to have money for ale, and a crowd had grown down in the tavern. Four days after a fire that nearly wiped out the city of London, life went on.
Inside the dark tavern, there were low, rough-hewn beams, chipped plaster walls, and mice scurrying across the cold stone floor. Tankards full of foaming ale were lifted by meaty hands as she pulled back the roundtop door, letting a rush of street light inside. Amid laughter and the clink of pewter, the barman called out to her as she moved toward the rickety staircase.
"Your money's owed me long since, Nelly Gwynne! Ye'd best find a way to pay me or I'll toss your arse straight out of 'ere, I will!"
The crowd, most of them drunk, red-faced men in soiled shirts, from the harsh, neighboring streets of Cradle Alley and Paternoster Row, laughed, coughed, and tipped their heads back at the great jest. This was not a neighborhood that housed compassion.
Nell met the barman's gaze squarely. Patrick Gound was simply a businessman. More nights than she could recall he had helped her press her gluttonous, drunken mother up the staircase, toss her into bed, then bring Nell a clean pan as her mother wretched up gin. But it was about survival in these alleyways of London. In that, they understood one another. Amid chuckles, she went to the bar and slapped down her glistening silver coin. "This is all I 'ave in the world, Mr. Gound. I 'ope 'twill be enough 'til the theater opens again and there is work for the lot of us."
"'Twill do 'til Michaelmas, but not a night longer." He leaned forward, lowering his voice. In it, there was a hint of compassion, hidden like a thief behind the warning, "You've got to pay me what ye owe, Nelly girl, or you're out!"
"I'll pay your rent, Nelly," a man called out from the back of the room. "If ye pay me a bit of time."
"I'd rather be paid by the devil 'imself!" she shot back in a deadpan drawl.
Excerpted from The Perfect Royal Mistress by Diane Haeger Copyright © 2007 by Diane Haeger. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
The Perfect Royal Mistress
Reading Group Guide
About This Guide
A legendary actress. A mistress to a monarch. A woman who would rise from the ashes of London to take her place in history.
Nell Gwynne, born into poverty and raised in a brothel, starts her working life selling oranges in the pit at London’s newly reopened King’s Theater, just after the plague and the subsequent Great Fire have devastated the city. Her quick sense of humor and natural charm get her noticed by those who have the means to make her life easier, though Nell is street-smart enough to know that a woman doesn’t get ahead by selling her body. Through talent, charm, intelligence, and sheer determination–as well as a realistic understanding of how the world works–Nell makes her way out of the pit and onto the stage to become the leading comedic actress of the day. Her skill and beauty quickly win the attention of all of London–eventually even catching the eye of the king himself. Before she knows it, the scrappy orange girl with the pretty face and the quick wit finds herself plunged into the confusing and dangerous world of the court, and she must learn quickly who to trust–and who to never turn her back on.
From the grit of the streets and the backstage glamour of London’s theaters to the glittering court of Charles II, The Perfect Royal Mistress is a love story for the ages, the rags-to-riches tale of a truly remarkable heroine.
The questions in this guide are intended as a framework for your group’s discussion of The Perfect Royal Mistress.
About the Author
DIANE HAEGER is also the author of The Ruby Ring, Courtesan, and The Secret Wife of George IV. She lives in California with her husband and family.
1. Very early on, Nell comments that to survive despite hardship, “one simply had to put one’s head down and keep going along” (page 2). How does this attitude help her throughout her life? Are there others in the novel who either live by this rule or don’t? How do they fare? Do you think Nell’s approach changes as she grows older and more experienced, or
2. What is the turning point in young Nell’s life? At what point does she become one who makes things happen, rather than one who things happen to? Can you pinpoint a moment where she discovers the power she has?
3. What is it about Nell that first catches the king’s eye? Does what he sees in her change over time or remain constant? Why is this infatuation so lasting when so many of the other mistresses are fleeting?
4. Consider those who Nell encounters at the court of Charles II. What drives these men and women? In what ways are they similar to each other, and who stands out, positively or negatively, as different from the pack? Did anyone surprise you? How?
5. Why does Richard commit himself so fully to helping Nell? Why is he so loyal to her throughout his life, asking very little in return? What does he get out of their relationship?
6. Consider the impact of parental relationships on the main characters in The Perfect Royal Mistress. How are each of these people affected by the actions of their parents, and how does this legacy manifest itself? If you were to look one generation into the future, how would you see the cycle continuing? What effect do you imagine these characters’ lives and choices having on their own children?
7. When Nell attends the state ball with Charles (with Louise on his other arm), why, despite her fear of making a fool of herself, does she go against Mary Chiffinch’s advice and insist on wearing her dress with the laces unfastened, though she knows that it is not proper? What is it that Rose seems to understand about this choice?
8. Discuss the relationship between George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and Nell. From such a rocky beginning, were you surprised at the genuine friendship that develops between them? How does each win the other over? Did you question Nell’s willingness to trust Buckingham at all? At what point did he show himself to be her true friend?
9. It is clear that Nell loves Charles dearly and honestly, but nevertheless, she still continues to manipulate him into doing what she wants. Consider these manipulations and the reasons behind them. Why does she do this, and how does she accomplish her goals? What did you think of this? Does the fact that Nell has to use such tactics with the king to get a title for her son, for example, negate the gesture once it is made? What do these exchanges say about their relationship? Do you think Charles knows when he’s being played?
10. At what point does Charles lose interest in Louise de Kéroualle, and why does he not dispatch with her immediately as he does his other discarded mistresses? Why is she allowed to stay by his side for the rest of his life? Did you think this fact lessens Nell’s place at his side? Why or why not?
11. Do you believe that Charles is happy at the end of his life? Why or why not? What would happiness have entailed for the monarch? What does he want to accomplish, and what do you think would bring him peace? What is Charles’s driving need and how does he go about filling it?
12. Throughout the novel, Nell is treated poorly by many of the people she encounters but holds very few grudges. In what cases does she hold past wrongs against the person who has committed them, and in what cases does she forgive and forget? Why do you think this is? What accounts for the difference? Did you agree with her choices in this respect?
13. What did you make of the character of Queen Catherine? Despite her estrangement from her husband, Catherine still wields an extraordinary amount of power over Charles. Is this entirely a result of her position as queen, or also due to something inherent in their relationship? What do you imagine the queen’s life to be like?
14. Why does Nell refuse to give up acting for so long, even when the king wants her to? Is the reason financial independence, as she maintains to him, or is there something more in it for her? What is it about the theater that keeps her coming back?
15. Prior to reading The Perfect Royal Mistress, what, if anything, did you know about Nell’s story? What did you think about this portrayal? What expectations did you have going in, and how did the novel fulfill them or surprise you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nell Gwynne grew up in impoverished fire and plague racked London. She supported herself selling oranges outside the King's Theater. There she gains a reputation for her intelligent tongue that uses double entendres that catch the extra attention of her male customers. Soon her lewd wit leads Nell onto the stage itself where her humorous bawdy asides and physical charm catches the attention of womanizing King Charles II, who has left a horde of illegit offspring wherever he visits. King Charles II not so shockingly makes her his mistress as many other men coveted doing, but the stunner is he also makes her his most trusted advisor. Even when French King Louis XIV sends a beautiful noble to court Charles, he may use the visitor¿s obvious allure, but it is Nell he turns to in crisis. --- This is a fabulous Restoration historical due to THE PERFECT ROYAL MISTRESS as Diane Haeger catches the era by capturing the essence of Nell Gwynne especially after her performance in a 1668 John Dryden play. The story line focuses on the heroine especially her relationship with Charles. Though the plot implies that if she was a blueblood she would have been Queen of England not just in the royal boudoir that concept is based on her personality remaining as bawdy as it was when she sold oranges. Still readers will appreciate a deep look at late seventeenth century London through the eyes of a woman who went from barely surviving the 1666 inferno that destroyed much of London to becoming in just a couple of years the most influential woman make that person at the court of King Charles II. --- Harriet Klausner
Not too shabby
The Perfect Royal Mistress tells the story of young Nell Gwynn, a fascinating historical character who has been explored by a number of different writers. Nell's rags to riches story is one of the most unique stories in history, as well as one of the most fascinating.Nell was making her living by selling oranges to theatre patrons at the popular King's theatre. While most women of her status -born into poverty and raised in a brothel -have little option other than to sell their bodies, Nell becomes a favorite with theatre patrons, those in charge of the theatre and even courtiers thanks to her dazzling wit and charm. Purely because of her standout personality, Nell caught of the eye of the theatre's owner, who decided to make her into an actress. As an actress, she becomes the darling of London, both in noble circles and commoner ones. It isn't long until Nell captures the attention of King Charles II himself and finds herself in his bed.Once she becomes the King's mistress, Nell's world changes in ways she never expected. But, it all seems so fragile as other courtiers and mistresses declare war on Nell for the King's affections. Nell is thrown into a world of intrigue and betrayal where your fortunes can change in an instant based on the king's whim.While Nell is set up to be a wonderful character, she never quite follows through. Sadly, there were several points where I nearly put the book down because I was getting downright board. I kept going though, mostly because Haeger continued to weave an entertaining plot and threw in enough twists and turns to keep me going. However, in an environment where characters are supposed to drive everything, I found Nell, Charles and all the other characters that populated the world of The Perfect Royal Mistress to be incredibly dull, moving between somewhat interesting plot points in a world that felt just a little hazy.Basically, I've read better Haeger novels, all of which were published after Perfect Royal Mistress. With that background, I would say that Perfect Royal Mistress was probably a stepping stone to these later books, but I know that Haeger is capable of better.
I actually enjoyed this more than I thought I would; it was a perfect, mindless accompaniment to heavier literature. The story of Nell's ingratiation to (at least fringe) court life is fun. Don't expect it to be any more than that, and this novel will certainly find a niche in your repertoire.
And easy enough read, and an intimate glimpse into the life of the lower classes, as well as the clash between lower and upper. I enjoyed Nell, and could actually see why she retained a hold on a king's heart for so long.
Writing about actual historical characters can be tricky, but Haeger has done a good job, making the people believable and sticking pretty much to what we know actually happened. I found this book a fun diversion and plan to pass it on to relatives and friends who share my enthusiasm for historical books.
I'm into historical books like this because the story lines are always captivating. While reading this book, I found myself rooting for Gwynne, going from rags to riches. Its kind of cool to think a girl cna go from an orange seller in the King's Theatre to being his mistress.