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INTERVIEW: Katherine Clements author of The Crimson Ribbon

Friday, April 25, 2014

Please welcome Katherine Clements, the author of the utterly beautiful and brilliant THE CRIMSON RIBBON to the blog as we chat about life, inspirations and reading loves. 

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, absolutely. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was young. I used to write stories and create imaginary worlds as a child, and co-wrote my first novel when I was about twelve years old (a Lord of the Rings rip off, complete with terrible illustrations). But I lost my way for a while and didn’t start writing again until my thirties.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for THE CRIMSON RIBBON?

I became interested in the 17th century after reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful novel Restoration. I began reading history about the period and was fascinated by the English Civil Wars. It was in a biography of Oliver Cromwell that I first encountered Elizabeth Poole, a mysterious woman who gave evidence of providential visions to the Army Council in an attempt to influence the trial of Charles I. 

Something about her intrigued me and this led to more research about women’s history during the period. After that it was a process of finding a story that allowed me to explore some of the themes and experiences that interested me. Using a relatively unknown figure gave me some factual structure but a lot of freedom to do this. I recently picked up my copy of that same Cromwell biography and found the bookmark I used back then – it was a train ticket stub, dated almost ten years ago, so Elizabeth has been hanging around for a long time!

How extensively do you plan your novels?

For The Crimson Ribbon I didn’t do much planning at all. I had characters, a beginning, and I knew where I wanted to end, but not how I was going to get there. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, as it took me ages. For my second book, I’ve had to plan more thoroughly, though I find that, despite my best intentions, things change as the characters develop and they begin to misbehave.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Not yet, although my characters sometimes inhabit my dreams.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Not really. I made a lot of small discoveries that influenced the direction of the story. One of the things I love about writing historical fiction is taking the facts and then creating a story around them – filling in the gaps, if you will. It’s like solving a puzzle.

Where do you write, and when?

I prefer to write at home or somewhere quiet. I’m experimenting with public spaces at the moment – libraries mostly – but it has to be peaceful. I can’t work with distractions like music or TV. I prefer to be near a window with a view of trees and sky. I dream of having my own study. I write best first thing in the morning, and in the evening, but I’m hopeless in the afternoon. 

What is your favourite part of writing?

I love rewriting and revising. For me the first draft is about finding out who the characters are and getting the shape of the story down. My first drafts are nearly always bad, but after that the fun begins. I love taking a scene and polishing it, finding exactly the right words or right image to make it work. And I love the moments when something just clicks – the perfect research fact turning up at the point you need it, or the times when a character comes alive and does something unexpected but somehow inevitable. My very favourite thing is when I’m completely inside a scene, seeing it, hearing the characters speak – utterly lost in the world I’ve created because it’s so real to me. Those are the moments that make writing a joy. 

What do you do when you get blocked?

Sometimes I need to step away from a piece because it isn’t working, or I’ve tangled myself in knots.  I take a walk, go for a swim, go dancing or call a good friend; anything to take myself outside of my own head. It’s been said many times, but the answers nearly always come eventually, if I just stop worrying about it.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading mostly, both fiction and non-fiction. Every time I read a history book I find more ideas. I watch a lot of costume drama too. I like to visit historical houses, castles, museums, art galleries etc. Time off is important. Thinking time even more so. I always remember, some years ago, hearing Rose Tremain talk about the importance of just sitting and staring out of the window. It’s important to remember that this can be essential work too. 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Lots of tea. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

This changes all the time but for today I’ll go for some of my favourite ladies: Sarah Dunant, Hilary Mantel, Jane Austen, Sarah Waters, Rose Tremain, Charlotte Brontë, Rosemary Sutcliff, Susan Cooper, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot.

(Kate: Oooh, many of these are among my favourite writers too!)

Rosemary Sutcliff

What do you consider to be good writing? 

Writing that transports the reader. Writing that is convincing and emotionally engaging in some way. Really good writing contains truth, or reveals something, and does it with beautiful, pleasurable, perfectly chosen words. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Write anything. Then rewrite. The craft and the magic are in the rewrite.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on my second novel – as yet untitled – which is a re-telling of the legend of The Wicked Lady. (You might know the 1945 film with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason that was loosely based on the same story). The legend tells of a noble-born highwaywoman who terrorized Hertfordshire in the 1650s. I’m bringing together research on the real life figure to whom the legend has traditionally been pinned, and the myths surrounding her, to create something entirely new.
Kate: it sounds wonderful - I'll be looking out for that!

You can follow Katherine on Twitter at @KL_Clements


BOOK LIST: Favourite Books set in the 17th Century by Katherine Clements

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Today on the blog, please welcome Katherine Clements who wrote THE CRIMSON RIBBON, a historical novel set in the tiem of Oliver Cromwell which I absolutely loved. I thought it was brilliant! 

Katherine has drawn up a list of her favourite books set in the 17th century - many of her favourites are favourites of mine too but there's a few I hadn't read and have gone straight on to my to-be-read list!

Over to Katherine: 

Restoration by Rose Tremain

This is one of my favourite novels and the one that first got me interested in 17th century history. Set during the early years of Charles II’s reign, it tells the story of Robert Merivel, an ambitious young medical student, seeking advancement in Restoration London. Finding favour with the King, Merivel is at first thrust into a life of opulence and dissipation, only to have everything taken away when he incurs Charles’s wrath. Meticulously researched and utterly convincing, the book perfectly captures some of the concerns of the age and is a great story, but the real triumph is in our leading man. Merivel is a fascinating character; fallible, self-centred and dissolute but always likeable, he’s a man of his time but also relevant and sympathetic to a modern reader. The ending of this novel is perfect. Tremain’s recent sequel Merivel is also excellent.

(Kate: I have not read this in many years - maybe I'd better dig it out and read again ...)

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

Anyone interested in the political background to The Crimson Ribbon should read As Meat Loves Salt. Set in the 1640s it follows the story of Jacob Cullen, a servant in a Royalist household (and possible murderer) who is forced to flee justice on the eve of his wedding day. We follow Jacob through a stint in Cromwell’s New Model Army, the printing trade in London, a forbidden love affair and his time as a member of an idealistic Digger community. A very rich read, dense with period detail and ideas, it’s a fantastic evocation of Civil War England through the eyes of one very troubled man. I also enjoyed McCann’s second novel The Wilding, which is set later in the 17th century and is a more intimate book, dealing with the lingering impact that the Civil Wars had on individuals and communities.

(Kate: I've heard of this before - its going on my to-be-read list!)

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

The action in this novel is set in Restoration Oxford, and centres on a murder trial and the woman who stands accused. Told through the eyes of four narrators the truth is gradually revealed and completely gripping. I adored the depth of detail this book, the evocation of Oxford in the 1660s (a time of scientific, religious and political ferment), the strong, believable characters and the flawless writing. The amazing research here is evident as Pears brings to life some little known real-life characters and gives us insight into the 17th century mindset. It’s dark, fascinating and seductive. One of the books I wish I’d written.

The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Brooks mixes fact, popular belief and fiction in this brutal retelling of the story of the inhabitants of Eyam, a small Derbyshire village, who chose voluntary quarantine in an attempt to stop the spread of the Plague in 1666. Told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young wife and mother, the novel recounts the harrowing events that follow. I read this while working on The Crimson Ribbon and it has many similarities. It deals with some of the same themes: a young, female protagonist dealing with injustice and prejudice, blurred boundaries in a close female friendship, religious zealotry, herb lore and accusations of witchcraft. I had high hopes and wasn’t disappointed. Brooks’ writing is beautiful and evocative. The story is one of grief, love, hardship and hope in adversity. I was thinking about this book long after I put it down.

(Kate: This is one of my all-time favourite books too!)

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.

There are many joys in this masterful novel but one of the best has to be the luxurious, mouthwatering descriptions of 17th century cooking. Beginning in the reign of Charles I and running through the Civil Wars, Interregnum and into the Restoration, the political upheaval provides an influential backdrop for the story of John Sandall, a young runaway looking for sanctuary after the untimely death of his mother. He finds it in the kitchens of Buckland Manor, where his talent for cooking thrusts him into the path of aristocratic love interest Lucretia. I loved the way that Norfolk deftly mixes meticulous research with myth and invented history to create a totally believable story with a sense of otherworldliness. It captures the contradictions of the age in an unequal, changing society, from the sumptuous banquets of the rich to the horrific poverty and struggle caused by the wars. And it’s a great love story too. A beautiful read.

(Kate: this sounds wonderful - I must pick this one up!)

If you enjoyed this list you may also enjoy my BEST BOOKS SET DURING THE TIME OF CHARLES II

Please leave a comment - i love to know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW - The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Crimson Ribbon

Author: Katherine Clements

Publisher: Headline Review, part of the Hachette Group

Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

Source of the book:  I was sent an advance reading copy by the publisher – and very glad I was to receive it too as I loved the book!

The Blurb: 

England 1646. The Civil War is raging and society turned upside down. 

What should be a rare moment of blessing for the town of Ely takes a brutal turn and Ruth Flowers is left with little choice but to flee the household of Oliver Cromwell, the only home she has ever known. On the road to London, Ruth sparks an uneasy alliance with a deserting soldier, the battle-scarred and troubled Joseph. But when she reaches the city, it’s in the Poole household that she finds refuge. 

Lizzie Poole, beautiful and charismatic, enthrals the vulnerable Ruth, who binds herself inextricably to Lizzie’s world. But in these troubled times, Ruth is haunted by fears of her past catching up with her. And as Lizzie’s radical ideas escalate, Ruth finds herself carried to the heart of the country’s conflict, to the trial of a king.

Based on the real figure of the extraordinary Elizabeth Poole, The Crimson Ribbon conjures a mesmerising story of two women’s obsession, superstition and hope.

What I Thought: 
I was utterly enthralled from the very first line of this novel: ‘Sometimes death comes like an arrow, sudden and swift, an unforseen shot from an unheeded bow.’ 

THE CRIMSON RIBBON is set in England in 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell leads the army of the people against a tyrannical king, witches are hunted down, the skies are full of evil portents. A young woman named Ruth Flowers is on the run, trying to find a safe place for herself. She is helped by an enigmatic young soldier named Joseph, but – bruised by the encounter - takes refuge in the house of an extraordinary young woman named Elizabeth Poole. Her beauty and kindness ensnare Ruth, and she uses an old charm to tie herself to her new mistress. But Elizabeth is as troubled as she is charismatic, and – as the King of England finds himself imprisoned and on trial for his life - Ruth finds herself drawn into danger, intrigue, witchcraft, and treason. 

I found myself utterly unable to put this book down, constantly surprised, and constantly rewarded. This is an astonishingly assured debut title from Katherine Clements, and I’m really hoping she has more stories like this one up her sleeve!

Katherine Clements on Twitter: @KL_Clements


BOOK REVIEW: Act of Faith by Kelly Gardiner

Monday, December 09, 2013

Act of Faith 
Author: Kelly Gardiner
Publisher: Harper Collins Australia
Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Young Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:
England,1640. Sixteen-year-old Isabella is forced to flee her home when her father’s radical ideas lead him into a suicidal stand against Oliver Cromwell’s army. Taking refuge in Amsterdam and desperate to find a means to survive, Isabella finds work with an elderly printer, Master de Aquila, and his enigmatic young assistant, Willem.

When Master de Aquila travels to Venice to find a publisher brave enough to print his daring new book, Isabella accompanies him and discovers a world of possibility -where women work alongside men as equal partners, and where books and beliefs are treasured.

But in a continent torn apart by religious intolerance, constant danger lurks for those who don’t watch their words. And when the agents of the Spanish Inquisition kidnap de Aquila to stop him printing his book, Isabella and Willem become reluctant allies in a daring chase across Europe to rescue him from certain death.

What I Thought: 
Act of Faith is an intoxicating mixture of history, adventure, romance and philosophy. It is, I think, one of the cleverest books to be published for young adults in the past few years, yet it wears its scholarship lightly.

The novel is set in 1640, one of my all-time favourite historical periods. England is in the midst of the English Civil War, a time of extraordinary political and religious upheaval. King Charles I has had his head lopped off, and Oliver Cromwell rules the land with an iron fist. Catholics and Royalists are being executed, while in Europe anyone who questions the absolute rule of either the Catholic church or the monarch are persecuted cruelly, many of them burned to death. 

The heroine of the tale is Isabella Hawkins, daughter of an Oxford don and philosopher. She has been taught by her father to read Greek and Latin, as well as many other languages, but she has to hide her brilliance for in the mid-17th century, educated women were considered quite freakish.

When Master Hawkins is imprisoned for his ideas, Isabella helps her father escape but sets in chain a sequence of events that will end in tragedy and exile. She ends up alone, in Amsterdam, working with a printer who is publishing seditious books and smuggling them all over the world. Danger is all around her, but Isabella is determined to work for political liberty and intellectual freedom. 
The story moves from London to Amsterdam to Venice to Spain, and brings the world of 17th century Europe vividly to life. It is crammed full of ideas, yet is never difficult to understand, and the pace rarely flags. With a gorgeous cover and interior design from the Harper Collins designers, this is a book both beautiful and brilliant, and one I highly recommend. 

Kelly's website:

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy BOOK LIST: Best books set during the time of Charles II


INTERVIEW: Marci Jefferson author of The Girl on the Golden Coin

Friday, December 06, 2013

Please welcome Marci Jefferson, the debut author of the historical novel: The Girl on the Golden Coin! I just loved her book (you can read my review here) and I hope its the beginning of many more wonderful historical novels from her. 

Are you a daydreamer too? 
Oh yes. As a kid, if I wasn’t reading, I was daydreaming. Even at school!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. For most of my life I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I became a nurse because it was practical, and then I focused intently on nursing because it was so rewarding. Then I wanted to be a mother - even more rewarding. I decided I wanted to write historical fiction after reading The Other Boleyn Girl - but I didn’t realize at the time what *being* a writer was even like. It is rewarding in unforeseen ways, but it is also all-consuming. 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in New Mexico. I’m an Air Force Brat - we lived all over the southern United States and twice in the Philippines. Now I live in the Midwest. These days my interests are limited by time constraints to parenting, researching, and writing. Oh, and I still work part-time as a nurse.


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I learned about the Stuarts years ago on a trip to London. As a history lover, I read everything about them that no one bothered to teach me in nursing school. Years later, when I read The Other Boleyn Girl, the seed was planted. I knew I wanted to write something about the Stuarts...but the plot developed slowly.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I do dream about my characters, but I can’t say my dreams inspired any particular scenes. 

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
While researching Frances Stuart, I was gratified to learn she was not the featherbrain so many people assume she was. Nor was her life story so simple. She wasn’t just a pretty maid of honor at the Restored English Court known throughout Europe for its debauchery. She survived complex and dangerous historical events such as the French Fronds, the unresolved political tensions after the English Civil Wars, the Great Plague, the Great Fire, the Anglo Dutch War, poverty, riches, and the fractious religious conflicts inherent to seventeenth century England. 

Her letters prove her to be intelligent, kind-hearted, and tolerant. I realized she embodied the spirit of the Restoration era, which, combined with her portrait as Britannia on the coins, made her a compelling subject for a historical novel. 


Where do you write, and when?
When my kids were little I restricted my writing to naptimes and bedtimes. Now that they’re in school and I work as a nurse part time, I have two full days at home each week designated for writing. When my kids are at home, I have to escape to the local library to get my writing done.

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love and adore the historical research. In fact, sometimes I get a bit too caught up in little discoveries. I call it researchitis. But while actually writing, I love it when a character comes so alive that they take unexpected turns in my own narrative. 

What do you do when you get blocked?
My blocks tend to pop up when I’m not clear on historical details. So I research.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
History is full of inspiration and inspirational characters! The more I read and learn, the more intrigued I am.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Unfortunately, I like to have a snack while writing. This has necessarily led to scheduling in some time for exercise!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Just ten? I’ll try...

Michelle Moran
Kate Quinn
Margaret George
Philippa Gregory
Tracy Chevalier
Sarah Dunant
Madeline Hunter
Anne Rice
Diana Gabaldon
Alice Hoffman

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Engaging writing, be it lyrical or simplistic, is good writing. I like tight sentences. Active scenes. Subversive dialogue. Tension on every page. Complex characters. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
 Write every day and never ever give up. 

What are you working on now? 
A novel about Marie Mancini who, based on the alignment of the stars at her birth, was destined to disgrace her family an a most spectacular fashion, but ended up shaping the world’s most powerful monarch. It’s loosely titled INAMORATA, A NOVEL OF ENCHANTMENT AT THE SUN KING’S COURT. 
Marci Jefferson's website


BOOK LIST: Best Books set during the times of Charles II

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


I’ve always loved stories set in Stuart times, perhaps because my grandmother told me, when I was a little girl, that we were related to the Stuart royal family. When she said ‘we’, she really meant the Clan of Mackenzie, which does indeed have links to the doomed royal family of Scotland, but so long ago and so far away from my own great-great-grandmother Ellen Mackenzie that I could never lay claim to such a connection with a straight face.

Nonetheless, growing up, I read quite a few books set in Scotland and quite a few about the Stuarts. I set ‘The Chain of Charms’, my series of children’s historical adventure stories, in the last days of the rule of Oliver Cromwell and one of my favourite stories to tell at schools and storytelling festivals is the escape of Charles II after the final disastrous defeat to Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Here is a list of my favourite books set during the years of the English Civil War and the Restoration. This blog first ran in May 2013, but I have updated it to include the books I've read in the past year. 

Favourite Books I read as a Kid: 

Sidney Seeks Her Fortune- Catherine Christian
This is an adventure story about a Cavalier family that lost all its money fighting for the king, and sets outs to restore its fortunes. It includes shipwrecks, highwaymen, pirates, romance and the eventual triumph of its heroine, the steadfast Sidney of the title, and writing about it makes me want to read it all over again … 

The Popinjay Stairs – Geoffrey Trease
I really love all of Geoffrey Trease’s books, but this is one of my favourites. The novel begins with a highwayman waylays a coach that numbers among its passengers Samuel Pepys, who is at that time Secretary to the Office of Lord High Admiral of England. The highway men seem more interested in Pepys’official document case than in gold and watches … and this sets off a wild adventure dealing in treason, blackmail and spies. 

Rider of the White Horse – Rosemary Sutcliff 
I also adore Rosemary Sutcliff. This is not one of my favourite, but it is still a vivid and engaging historical novel, telling the story of Anne Fairfax, the wife of a Puritan general, Sir Thomas Fairfax. As always, the writing is vivid and supple and evocative. 

The House at Green Knowe – Lucy M. Boston
This book has only one scene set during the English Civil War, but it always lingered in my memory.  

Favourite Books I Read as a Teenager: 

Royal Escape – Georgette Heyer
One of her few straight historical novels, this book tells the story of Charles II’s dramatic six week escape from England after the last, disastrous battle of the English Civil war. 

The Wandering Prince – Jean Plaidy 
The story of the years Charles II spent in exile as a young man after the loss of his crown, as seen through the eyes of his sister Minette, and his mistress Lucy Walter – Jean Plaidy is not much read these days, but I adored her as a teenager and read every book of hers I can lay my hands on. The Stuart saga was a favourite – it follows on with ‘A Health Unto His Majesty’ which I also really enjoyed. 

Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier
A wonderfully romantic and adventurous book set in Restoration England, about the affair between a bored English noblewoman and a daring French pirate.

Favourite Books I’ve Read in Recent Years

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
A brilliant novel about the plague village of Ayam – one of my all-time favourite novels. 

Read my interview with Geraldine Brooks

Lady’s Slipper – Deborah Swift
A fabulous historical novel filled with romance, murder, art, and one rare and gorgeous orchid. 

You can read my full review here

Empress of Icecream – Anthony Capella 
A historical novel about the invention of ice cream, and the seduction of Charles II by the French spy, Louise de Keroualle. 

The Darling Strumpet - Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful novel inspired by the life  of Nell Gwyn, one of Charles II's most famous mistresses. Here is my full review of the book and an interview with Gillian Bagwell.

The September Queen – Gillian Bagwell 
The story of Lady Jane, the young woman who helped Charles II escape England after failing to win back his crown. 

An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears 
An utterly brilliant historical thriller set after the restoration of Charles II, it has so many unexpected twists and turns I gasped aloud at several points in the narrative. Another all-time favourite novel of mine - a must read for any lover of clever, intriguing historical fiction. 


The Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart - Marci Jefferson
A wonderful novel set at the royal court after the Restoration, The Girl on the Golden Con tells the story of the beautiful, spirited young woman chosen to be the face of Britannica by Charles II. You can read my full review here. 

Witch Child - Celia Rees
This brilliant historical novel for teenagers begins: ‘I am Mary. I am a witch.’ It is set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II. You can read my full review here and my interview with Celia Rees here.

Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
The Sultan's Eyes - Kelly Gardiner

These heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novels for young adults are set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Only the opening scenes of the first are set in England and involve the escape of the heroine Isabella and her father after he is accused of sedition and treason due to his political views. The action moves first to Amsterdam, then to Venice, Spain and, finally, in Book 2, to Constantinople. However I am including them in this list because they give a very vivid picture of the tumultuous times of the English Civil War, and the foment of ideas, philosophies, and politics that surrounded the exile and restoration of King Charles II. Besides, I loved them and want others to love them too. 

If you liked this list, you may also enjoy:

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl on the Golden Coin by Marci Jefferson

Monday, December 02, 2013

Title: Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart

Author: by Marci Jefferson

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:
Impoverished after the overthrow of the English Crown, Frances Stuart survives merely by her blood-relation to the Stuart Royals. 

But in 1660, the Restoration of Stuart Monarchy in England returns her family to favor. Frances discards threadbare gowns for gilded Fontainebleau Palace, where she soon catches King Louis XIV’s eye. But Frances is no ordinary court beauty, she has Stuart secrets to keep and people to protect. The king turns vengeful when she rejects his offer to become his Official Mistress. He banishes her to England with orders to seduce King Charles II and stop a war ...

What I Thought: 
The Restoration is one of my absolute favourite periods of history and I have read a lot of books set in that period (Here is a list of my favourite books set during the reign of Charles II)

However, I had never read about Frances Stuart before and so I found this novel of her life by Marci Jefferson utterly fascinating. 

Frances is a distant cousin of Charles II whose family lost everything in the English Civil War and their subsequent exile with the royal court.  Frances has only her beauty and her wit to help her survive in the decadent Restoration court, but she uses both to high advantage. Spying for the French king, Louis XIV, on the one hand and keeping a sensual King Charles II on a short leash with the other hand, Frances must keep a clear head without losing her heart –which proves far more difficult than she imagined. 

I particularly loved the characterisation of the king and his many mistresses, particularly Barbara Castlemaine, and the vividness of the court setting. A wonderful read for anyone who loves historical fiction. 

Marci Jefferson's website 


BOOK REVIEW: 'The Darling Strumpet' by Gillian Bagwell

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Darling Strumpet: A Novel of Nell Gwynn, Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II

Author: Gillian Bagwell

Publisher: Berkley Trade

Age Group & Genre: Historical Novel for Adults

The Blurb: A thrilling debut novel starring one of history's most famous and beloved courtesans. 

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.

What I Thought: 

I’ve always loved books about Charles II, and have often wondered why that period of history is not as well-thumbed as the preceding Tudor period. The Stuart era was just as bloody, turbulent, passionate and packed with fascinating characters, if not more so. 

One character I always liked the sound of was Nell Gwyn, one of Charles II’s mistresses, and so I was eager to read this novelisation of her life by Gillian Bagwell, an American author who has a background in acting, theatre directing, and artistic director of the Pasadena Shakespeare Company. The Darling Strumpet is her first novel, and is an extremely accomplished debut. 

The story begins when Nell is only ten years old, selling oysters on the streets of London. She is poor, dirty, and very hungry.  

On that very day Charles II is making his triumphant return to London, after years of exile on the Continent while Oliver Cromwell ruled England as its Lord Protector. The city is seething with excitement, and Nell is caught up in the thrill, particularly when she sees the king and his beautiful and gorgeously dressed mistress, Barbara Palmer. Her empty belly, however, will not be forgotten and impulsively she sells her virginity to a strange boy in return for enough coin to buy a hot pie and a knot of ribbons. 
The matter-of-fact way in which Nell does this is a telling detail, for in the world she lived in prostitution was one of the few career choices a young girl could make. This choice sets her towards employment in a bawdy house, where her elder sister already works. These early scenes are faced truthfully and unflinchingly, bringing the dark underbelly of 17th century London vividly to life. 

The king soon re-opens all the theatres that were shut under Cromwell’s Puritan rule, and Nell is drawn irresistibly to the glamour and drama of the dramatic world. She begins as an orange seller, where she first attracts the King’s attention. Soon she is treading the boards herself, and, with her beauty, audacity and wit, soon becomes a smash hit. She is torn between love and ambition, but her desire to lift herself as far away from the gutter as possible wins out and she becomes the mistress of a series of increasingly wealthy and influential noblemen. It is not long before she sets her sights on the King.

Once she has him in her bed, though, she needs to keep him there, and the King is notoriously fickle. They have two sons together, but the King has other sons by other mistresses, and Nell has to use all her wits and charm to keep what she has gained. 

The book ends with Nell’s death, so it is truly a biographical novel, with the author’s imagination providing plenty of drama and intrigue to keep the reader’s absorption in the story. In this way, it has more of an episodic structure than most historical novels, but Gillian Bagwell writes with such aplomb that the lack of a strong climax and resolution does not matter at all. I enjoyed it very much, loving the mix of fiction and historical fact, romance and heartbreak. I was particularly impressed with the creation of the colourful world of 17th Century England. Not just the London setting, but the attitudes and mores of the times all ring true. Gillian Bagwell has done her research and wears it lightly. I’d really recommend this for anyone who loves historical fiction, or epic romance.  

If you enjoyed this review, you might also like my reviews of: 

'The Lady's Slipper' by Deborah Swift here

'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant here

'The Raven's Heart' by Jesse Blackadder here

BOOK REVIEW: The Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift

Friday, August 03, 2012

Title: The Lady’s Slipper 

Author: Deborah Swift

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

Age Group & Genre: Historical novel for adults

1660. King Charles II has returned from exile, but memories of the English Civil War still rankle. There are old scores to settle, and religious differences threaten to overturn a fragile peace. When Alice Ibbetson discovers a rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in a wood belonging to Richard Wheeler, she is captivated by its beauty— though Wheeler, a Quaker, is determined to keep the flower where God intended it to grow. Knowing that the orchid is the last of its kind, she steals the flower, little dreaming that her seemingly simple act will set off a chain of events that will lead to murder and exile, and change her life forever…

What I Liked About This Book: 
Set in 1666, soon after the restoration of King Charless II, this novel begins with a young woman named Alice sneaking out of her husband’s house in the middle of the night to steal a flower from a nearby wood. The flower is a rare orchid, a Lady’s Slipper, and Alice wants to paint it. The wood belongs to a Quaker called Richard Wheeler, who will not tolerate the theft and demands the flower back. From this rather simple premise, Deborah Swift creates a fabulous historical novel full of passion, obsession, intrigue, murder, religious riots, madness and exile. I loved every word of it!

What I Didn’t Like About This Book:
The death of Alice’s husband was a little too conveniently timed for belief, but I didn’t care! Loved it. 

Other blogs on this book you may find interesting:

Interview with Deborah Swift at Muse in the Fog blog

Official Websites:

Deborah Swift's website

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