Review of The Perfect Royal Mistress by Diane Haeger

Born into poverty and raised in a brothel, Nell Gwynne sells oranges in the pit at London’s King’s Theatre, newly reopened after the plague and the Great Fire devastated the city. Soon, her quick sense of humour 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.

Haeger captures the charm and character of Nell perfectly, even to the witty dialogue. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which moved along at a cracking pace. Charles is sympathetically portrayed although he is no more faithful to his adored Nell than to the gentle Queen Catherine. His weakness over women is all too evident, but also his undying loyalty to a barren wife.

Nell is not overly ambition, her only object initially being to survive, to feed herself and her sister Rose and escape the poverty of the East End. But she has the misfortune to fall in love with her royal protector. Haegar illustrates this tender love story superbly, showing how Nell copes with the dangers of tangling with royalty, the malice of the court ladies with whom she deals most shrewdly. She generously forgives Charles his peccadillos, his frequent neglect and betrayals. And despite the disappointments she meets along the way, you can see why the people of London loved her. The reader does too.

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