The seventeenth century in
England had a lot going on. First
there was the English Civil Wars where brother fought brother over the division
between King and Parliament. Secondly, there was the Plague. And then there was
the Great Fire of London. All of these events took a massive toll on human
life. 84,830 men were killed in the Civil Wars, 70,000 more died in the Plague.
The Great Fire of London destroyed most of the familiar old Tudor streets. What’s
more, the beheading of King Charles I had a huge impact on England’s
psyche. There was a sense that the governance of England hung in the balance – that
the old order was subject to change, and that nothing could be relied upon. It
is hardly surprising that at this time, astrologers predicted doom and
destruction to come.
Yet the period just after King Charles II was restored to the throne, known as the Restoration period, was one of unrestrained celebration and entertainment. There was a mere five years between 1660, when Charles arrived back in
London to fanfares and jubilation,
until June 1665 when the first impact of the Plague deaths hit London. I was fascinated to write about this
period, a time eclipsed by the bigger events of the century, sandwiched in
between the dark days of Cromwell and his Puritan rule, and the dread disease
that ravaged the country.
This was the time in which I set The Gilded Lily – a time of surface optimism, but with undertones of unease beneath. The two sisters, Ella and Sadie Appleby, on the run from the Law, escape their rural village hoping for a new and better life in
London. This was a quite
different City of London
from Tudor London where the Queen aimed for political expansion and gripped the
nation with a firm hand - looser and more reactionary.
|Lely - Nell Gwyn|
Very much as
London in the
1960’s was known as the “Swinging Sixties” and heralded a new era of sexual
exploration, 1660’s London
was a city of new fashions, of theatres, entertainment, lavish food and a
renewed moral freedom. The King gathered his “Merry Gang” around him, the wits,
the rakes, the young bloods, such as Buckingham and Rochester. Their sexual exploits fuelled the
gossip of the nation, as Charles went through no less than thirteen royal mistresses,
and probably a few more undocumented liaisons besides. Men dressed like
peacocks in ribbons and bows, women’s décolletage drifted ever lower. An
actress like Nell Gwynn could come from nothing yet make her fortune at court.
In The Gilded Lily, Ella, the bolder sister, has her sights set firmly upward on handsome Jay Whitgift, the son of a pawnbroker, who in turn is fixed on moving upwards to enter the coterie at Court and buying himself a baronetcy. If you have seen the film, The Libertine, with Johnny Depp, this is the sort of society in which Jay Whitgift moves, and to which Ella aspires. I modelled Ella partly on paintings by Gerrrit Von Honthorst, a 17th century Dutch artist, who painted Courtesans and women of the lower classes with clarity and detail.
Sadie, the more timid sister, finds the size of
in these times is owned by the young – many older people lost their lives in
the Wars, there is a feeling that life is short. Death by burning is the
penalty for those, who like Sadie and Ella, have stolen from their employer. Writing
the story through Ella and Sadie’s viewpoints was eye-opening. In an age of
conspicuous wealth there is always the flip-side, and Restoration London is no
exception. Poverty and the accompanying criminal underworld lurk just beneath
the surface, and I enjoyed researching these. London is well-documented at this time, and I
spent much time poring over old maps to find where they might have lived. Blackraven
Alley, where I placed their lodgings, was later destroyed by the Great Fire of
I encourage anyone interested in this period to explore a little further by reading: The Daling Strumpet by Gillan Bagwell – a lovely account of the life of Nell Gwyn, The Apothecary’s Daughter by Charlotte Betts or Year of Wonders by Geraldine Green, two very different books about the Plague, As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann about the English Civil Wars, and Restoration by Rose Tremain - insights into Charles II and his court. Please feel free to add to my list!
Today there are reviews up for The Gilded Lily at One Book at a Time and at The Eclectic Reader. Giveaways are running at both.
This post first appeared on The True Book Addict Blog.- A great blog with the feature 'this Day in History.'