Date read: 4.1.12
Book from: Personal collection, via Subterranean Press.
(N.B. The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is out of print, and has since been republished as Scarlet Spy.)
“In any other neighborhood, perhaps, there would have been some uncouth speculation about the inordinate number of females under one roof. The lady of the house by Birdcage Walk, however, retained her reputation for spotless respectability, largely because no gentlemen visitors were ever seen arriving or departing the premise, at any hour of the day or night whatsoever.
Gentlemen were unseen because they never went to the house near Birdcage Walk. They went instead to a certain private establishment known as Nell Gwynne’s …
Now and again, in the hushed and circumspect atmosphere of the Athenaeum (or the Carlton Club, or the Traveller’s Club) someone might imbibe enough port to wonder aloud just what it took to get an invitation from Mrs. Corvey.
The answer, though quite simple, was never guessed.
One had to know secrets.”
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is a breezily entertaining steampunk spy-thriller novella, serving up fast-paced intrigue, witticisms, and gadgetry, with the occasional amusing period detour into e.g. the niceties of Victorian cake decoration. There’s a modicum of social commentary, too, on the precarity of being a woman in a man’s world: the Women of Nell Gwynne’s are societal cast-offs, disgraced former gentlewomen (and one former workhouse girl) offered recourse as courtesan-intelligencers. Their sponsors are the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, a mysterious organization of spies and inventors that eventually gives rise to the Company, the subject of numerous of Baker’s other works (which I’ve never read). Here, members of Nell Gwynne’s are dispatched to investigate the disappearance of a Society member on assignment at the country manor of a secretive aristocrat, who appears to have developed a taste of his own for invention.
Most of the Women are charming sketches, like the three cheeky Misses Devere and the cross-dressing Herbert/ina, who has “the appearance of a cupid-faced lad fresh from a public school whereat a number of outré vices were practiced.” (Predictably, I was enamored with the latter.) The only psychological interior to which we have access is that of Lady Beatrice, the Scarlet Spy. Lady Beatrice is a survivor of abduction and rape during the disastrous first Anglo-Afghan War, who returns to England only to be promptly disowned by her family. Her relationship with herself – her horrific past, her mechanically unstoppable will to survive, the wary distance she keeps from herself as a physical being – is the story’s most compelling element. While The Women of Nell Gwynne’s didn’t have me hankering to dive into the entirety of the Company series, I am curious to read the further Nell Gwynne’s novelette The Bohemian Astrobleme, to see whether Lady Beatrice is further developed as a character.
Edit to add: Reading about the life of the actual Nell Gwynne, a 17th-century brothel girl turned celebrated comedienne turned royal mistress, is a must. Amazing woman.