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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 LIST: Books Read in April 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I read 10 books in April, bringing me to a grand total of 44 books for the year. All but one was a historical novel - next month, I must try and read a little more widely!

The Changeling – Philippa Gregory

This is Philippa Gregory's first foray in Young Adult Fiction and I thought it was really well done. From the opening scene, I felt as if I was in the hands of a storytelling master. The pace is swift, the characters are believable, sympathetic and sharply drawn, and the historical setting done with a sure, light touch. The book twists together a medieval mystery, romance, and a touch of the supernatural to make a most enjoyable read. 

The Firebird – Susanna Kearsley

I was drawn to this book by the utterly gorgeous cover and also by a Good Reads recommendation which said it was like other authors I'd enjoyed like Kate Morton and Kimberley Freeman. It's always a risk and an adventure trying out a new author, and I'm really glad I took the jump. Susanna Kearsley's writing is just gorgeous - very sensuous and vivid - and the storyline is intriguing. The heroine Nicola has the psychic gifts of seeing 'flashes' of an object's past when she lays her hands on it. Although she works in antiques and art, she tries to keep her gift hidden from the world. Until she touches a simple, wood-carved firebird ... and finds herself on a quest to discover its story. The Firebird combines contemporary and historical narratives, romance, suspense, and a a twist of the supernatural into a delicate, wise tale. I believe the book is part of a connected series and so I look forward to discovering her other books. 

The Darling Strumpet – Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful historical novel told from the point of view of Nell Gwyn, the feisty mistress of Charles II. 

Silent in the Grave – Deanna Raybourn
Silent in the Sanctuary – Deanna Raybourn
Silent on the Moors – Deanna Raybourn

I read and enjoyed this these Victorian murder mysteries some time ago, but recently realised that there were now five in the whole series and I had only read the first three. So I set myself the task of reading them all again. They were a great pleasure to revisit. Each book is a separate mystery, but a lot of the intrigue comes from the slowly developing romance between the heroine, Lady Jane Grey, and the mysterious investigator she first meets in the first line of the first book: 

"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." 

The tone of the books are wry and clever - there's a lot of subtle ironic humour - plus I loved the way lady Julia slowly turns from being a repressed Victorian lady to a bold, sensual and self-determined woman. I'm looking forward to reading the last books in the series (I've already bought them!) 

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris – Jenny Colgan
A book bought solely on the title and the cover! I don't read much chick lit but enjoy a frothy comic romance every now and again. This was even frothier than I expected - and not quite as funny as I had hoped - but a few memorable characters, gorgeous descriptions of making chocolate, and the Parisian setting made it a most relaxing and sweet read. 

And Then She Fell – Stephanie Laurents
I enjoyed this Stephanie Laurents book more than I have some of her other titles --- I think because there was a murder in there as well which meant that was a story line other than the usual rake-meets-lady angle. Good holiday reading.

The Perfume Garden - Kate Lord Brown
A young woman inherits an old house in Spain, discovers clues to buried family secrets, meets a gorgeous Spaniard, and finds her true path in life ... interposed with flashbacks to her grandmother's experiences during the bloody and turbulent Spanish Civil War  ... this book is exactly the sort of book I love to read the most. And I did love it! Look out for a longer review and an interview with the author in the months to come. 

The Chalice – Nancy Bilyeau 
I read and really enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Crown last year and so was eager to return to her world of bloody Tudor intrigue, romance, with a twist of the supernatural. Her heroine Joanna is a sympathetic character and the story is filled with  slowly building suspense. 

INTERVIEW: Gillian Bagwell, author of '|The Darling Strumpet'

Friday, May 17, 2013

I have great pleasure in welcoming Gillian Bagwell to my blog today. She is the author of two books I've enjoyed hugely: The Darling Strumpet and The September Queen. She has a new book out - called Venus In Winter - which looks wonderful and which I'm looking forward to reading very much.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, I’m a daydreamer!  I think most writers must be. Visiting historical sites is especially evocative for me, especially in connection with my writing historical fiction.  I can get lost in imagining my characters there, what they did and thought, and marveling that this is the actual priest hole that Charles II hid in during his flight after the Battle of Worcester, or the very site of the theatre where Nell Gwynn performed, or the street where Bess of Hardwick lived in London. Even if much has changed about a place, there’s something magic about those experiences. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always loved books and I’ve always written bits here and there, but I didn’t begin writing my first novel until seven years ago. Many years earlier, I had done a lot of research about Nell Gwynn, and begun writing a one-woman show for myself based on her life, and though I set that project aside, Nell stayed in my mind and heart, and I always thought I’d get back to her.  In 2005, I put my life on hold to go to London to take care of my mother, who was terminally ill, and while there, without a creative focus and needing something  of my own to work on,  I began writing Nell’s story as a novel, which was eventually published as The Darling Strumpet.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in Tacoma, Washington, in the northwest of the U.S., but moved away from there when I was very young. We moved around during my early childhood, settling in Berkeley, California when I was nine, and that’s where I really grew up. I moved back here two years ago, so it’s home again. The San Francisco Bay Area is a great place, full of exciting things to do and much history. 
Inevitably, I suppose, I don’t get around to do as much visiting of historic sites and so on around here as I do when I’m travelling, but they’re there!  

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
My first two novels were set in seventeenth-century, and when I was casting around for what to write next, I recalled that Bess of Hardwick sounded like an interesting character, though I didn’t know much about her, as she lived somewhat earlier than the period I’d been writing about.  I did a little research and was immediately drawn to the richness of her life. She rose from humble beginnings to become the wealthiest woman next to Queen Elizabeth, and knew just about everyone of importance in the second half of the sixteenth century. She built Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House, survived four husbands, and is the ancestor of many of the noble families of England, including the current royal family. 

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
All three of my books are based on real people, so I start by laying out a timeline of my character’s life and then develop as close to a three-act structure as I can, using significant events  as the plot points that turn the story in a different direction, bring a conflict to a culmination, and so on. Of course as I write and continue with my research, I learn more and get different ideas, and the structure may change. But I don’t have to make up an entire story from scratch!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I can’t think of a specific idea I’ve used that’s come from a dream, but I do try to be open to inspiration and those wonderful moments of serendipity that can come while writing. For instances, I visited Australia while I was working on The September Queen (the title in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries was The King’s Mistress), I saw a great production of King Lear at Bell Shakespeare at the Sydney Opera House.  The scenes that take place on the heath, when Lear has been cast out by his daughters are very evocative, and gave me inspiration for the part of the story when Jane Lane and her brother are walking the two hundred miles from Staffordshire to Yarmouth. I wrote a climactic scene that takes place during a storm, with Jane and her brother taking shelter in a novel, as Lear does with his fool and Gloucester. 

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
There was a discovery that was tantalizing and frustrating. I learned in the early stages of my research for Venus in Winter, my novel about Bess of Hardwick, that Bess’s letters were being transcribed and digitized to be put online, but that the project wouldn’t be done in time for me to make use of this great resource. Ironically, the project has just gone live (read it here) now that my book is about to be published. But at least people who read my book and want to know more about Bess can read her letters. And I can use the letters if I write the second part of Bess’s life, as Venus only covers her first forty years. 

Where do you write, and when?
I write at home, and I’m fortunate to live in a place that is very conducive to writing: a little cottage in the hills of Berkeley, California, just on the edge of a huge wilderness area, Tilden Park. My desk faces a bank of windows that look out onto redwood and lots of other trees and greenery. It feels remote, though I’m actually very close to other houses and it’s only a ten-minute drive to commercial areas.

I don’t have any particular schedule. If I have more mundane work that takes up my time, I have to fit my writing in around that. Generally afternoons and weekends are good for me—I’m definitely not a morning person.

What is your favourite part of writing?
I can certainly get lost in research. It’s fascinating to me to learn things that make pieces of the puzzle fall into place, shed light on the events of my characters’ lives and their world. For instance, when I was researching The September Queen, I discovered that Elizabeth of Bohemia, an aunt of Charles II who was at the court of her niece and his sister Mary of Orange, planned to take Jane Lane with her  when she moved to her son’s court in Heidelberg. It didn’t happen ultimately, but it showed that they had a real relationship, and I made use of that in the book.

What do you do when you get blocked? 
If I feel overwhelmed about how to write a scene or how to proceed, sometimes I just pick some smaller task that seems less daunting, such as making small revisions to another scene, and that gets me going. Or I may just tell myself that I just need to sit and work for half an hour, and by the time I’ve done that, I’m into the project again. But not having to make up all the events in a book is a big help! I know what happens next, I just have to figure out how to write it.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Good question! I think I just try to let my mind to stay open to inspiration from whatever source it may come when I’m working on something. Even when I’m not actively writing, I’m thinking about the book, the characters, the events, and I get ideas that I can use.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 

No, not really. I always think of a quote from the novelist Peter de Vries: “I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” In other words, just do it! 
Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Diana Gabaldon – I love her Outlander series and she’s been an inspiration to me.
Patrick O’Brian – I’ve read all twenty of the Aubrey-Maturin books, naval adventures set during the Napoleonic era, two or three times.
George Macdonald Fraser – his Flashman series is very entertaining.
Ian Rankin – sometimes when I’m writing, I really want to read something that isn’t historical fiction, and Rankin’s crime fiction set in contemporary Edinburgh, is perfect for that. 
Laura Ingalls Wilder – my sisters and I grew up reading the Little House books, and I’m sure that influenced my interest in history and the lives of people in past times.
Mark Twain – it always amazes me how  contemporary and relevant his writing is still. I’m particularly fond of Life on the Mississippi, which chronicles his time learning to captain a steam boat and the characters he encountered during that time. 
P.G. Wodehouse – nothing like a little Jeeves and Worcester!
Samuel Pepys – his diary is such a great read, bringing Restoration London so vividly to life. 
My home page on my computer is the diary online that Phil Gyford put together over ten years (Samuel Pepys Diary) so I can read each day of the diary as it happens. 
Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon and subsequent books tell the King Arthur story from the perspective of the women in the story, and are very evocative of magic and nature as a source of spiritualism. 
Shakespeare – an early love, and in my life in the theatre before I turned to writing, I’ve acted in, directed, and/or produced many of the plays.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, one of my favourite writers too
What do you consider to be good writing?  
It’s hard to say one thing, because there are so many kinds of writing. But certainly some constants are telling a good story that draws your readers in, creating a main character that is believable and with whom your readers can identify, and vividly evoking the character’s world are important.

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

Sit down and write something.  Don’t obsess about making it perfect before you move on, get to the end. Then rewrite— that’s much easier than getting it out of your head and onto the paper or screen in the first place. 
What are you working on now? 
I’m writing the first few chapters of the novel I hope to write next, which is quite different from any of my previous books, and also have in mind another smaller project set in Restoration London.I don’t want to say more than that. 

If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy some of my other interviews:

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

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