I love Regency and Victorian fiction. In those halcyon days of a declining empire, men and women of rank fused scientific exploration with military daring. The blank spaces on the map were shrinking every day, and as such, this age of exploration and adventure was also an age of introspection. Strict notions of propriety and visible class barriers contributed to meditations on what makes one human, on the roles of birth and upbringing in the development of a person, and the roles of gender and sex. Some of the best literature of the English language came from the 19th century.
So I love when contemporary authors set books in 19th-century England and then imitate the prose style of the period. The Women of Nell Gwynne's is a great example of such a book, thanks to Kage Baker's captivating style. But why should you take my word for it? Here's an example:
A lengthy and painful discussion followed. It lasted through tea and dinner. It was revealed to Lady Beatrice that, though she had been sincerely mourned when Mamma had been under the impression she was dead, her unexpected return to life was something more than inconvenient. Had she never considered the disgrace she would inflict upon her family by returning, after all that had happened to her? What were all Aunt Harriet's neighbors to think?
Baker takes the propriety so valuable to Victorians to an absurd length—although, at the same time, observes that this situation is not too far from realistic. Having returned from the dead, so to speak, but much tarnished in body and spirit, Lady Beatrice has two prospects. She could enter a convent:
Whereupon Uncle Frederick, his face black with rage, rose from the table (the servants were in the act of serving the fish course) and told Lady Beatrice that she would be permitted to spend the night under his roof, for her Mamma’s sake, but in the morning he was personally taking her to the nearest convent.
At this point Aunt Harriet pointed out that the nearest convent was in France, and he would be obliged to drive all day and hire passage on a boat, which hardly seemed respectable. Uncle Frederick shouted that he didn’t give a damn. Mamma fainted once more.
Beatrice chooses to prostitute herself instead; she becomes, to use the vernacular, a "fallen woman." Baker manages to establish Beatrice as a very broken yet strong woman with all the deftness such issues require while simultaneously keeping the atmosphere of the story light, drôle. As Beatrice remarks to a gentleman who recognizes her as her father's daughter, no one deserves ill or good fortune—in other words, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and society isn't always equipped to deal with it. Beatrice can hide, retreat, or she can steel herself to the task of living, however difficult it may be.
Fortunately, Beatrice's unique experiences make her perfect for a job at Nell Gwynne's, a brothel run by the ostensibly blind Mrs. Corvey. Nell Gwynne's is the ultimate set piece in Baker's reversal of our Victorian expectations. Although a genuine house of ill repute, Nell Gwynne's is exclusive, invitation-only, and services only high-ranking officials and statesmen. It is actually a front for a secret society of innovators, who often find they need information from or leverage over certain men. Beatrice and her colleagues are more than whores, then, they are spies. And for Beatrice's inaugural mission, she and three other prostitute-spies attend a private function of Lord Basmond's in order to discover the nature of a device he's auctioning to the highest bidder.
The plot of The Women of Nell Gwynne's is actually very thin, and at times it stretches beyond its capacity. There are a few loose ends never satisfactorily explained. Firstly, who was Hindley? It seems obvious that he is the illegitimate child, who ostensibly died, of Lord Basmond. Even so, that does not explain Hindley's genius. Secondly, the murder of Lord Basmond and its resolution were not very impressive. I do not think that was Baker's intention, because she never gives us time to get acquainted with the potential suspects.
And the mysteries we do get, namely Basmond's miraculous anti-gravity device, are never very suspenseful. When are our protagonists ever in danger? Mrs. Corvey goes wandering into the villain's secret lair, even rescues a protégé, all without so much as an alarm sounded or a guard alerted—surely Basmond could hire some expendable minions. Baker handily foreshadows Mrs. Corvey's use of her brass oculars, and draws attention to the irony that all of the antagonists assume she's blind when, in fact, she can see better than they. But it's clunky, which surprises me, because the rest of the writing is so good.
So good, in fact, that I didn't notice all of these plot holes at first. I was too busy enjoying the ride. Hence Baker's captivating style. And a book that is enjoyable to read, even when its plot isn't very good, deserves some praise. Yet that does not solve the book's problem: it lacks a climax. The absence of danger to our protagonists coincides with the absence of any dramatic tension around the mystery or any tension at all, in fact, regarding the resolution of the plot. I'm disappointed, because The Women of Nell Gwynne's starts off so strong. I was giddy with elation while reading the opening chapters. To Baker's credit, she managed to sustain that giddiness for most of the book—but once the story concluded and I sat down to think about it, I realized I'd been had.