THE WOMEN OF NELL GWYNNE'S
by Kage Baker
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Kage Baker presents an assortment of wellbred women plying the world's oldest profession in The Women of Nell Gwynne's. However, rather than for personal gain, these courtesans work for the British government, spying on Britain's members of parliament, lords, and others who could conceivably do harm to Queen Victoria's government in mid-nineteenth century England. Led by the blind Mrs. Corvey, this group of women provide an excellent spy network and are each entertaining in their own way, with a variety of personality quirks that helps make them real.
Baker's protagonist is Lady Beatrice, who comes from a fine family, but when she returns to England after her father's regiment is destroyed in an ambush in the Khyber Path, she discovers that her remaining family wishes she had died, for the strict and regimented morality of their social class in 1840s London. Turning her back on her relatives, she finds herself working Marylebone Road until she is offered a job working for Mrs. Corvey at Nell Gwynne's. Lady Beatrice's introduction to Nell Gwynne's also serves as the reader's introduction and is done in an organic way that helps move the novella's plot along.
Once Lady Beatrice gets settled, she, along with several of the other girls, find themselves on a mission to an English manor house where the eccentric Lord Rawdon is auctioning off an unknown artefact which may very well fall into foreign hands. A spy at the estate has already disappeared and Mrs. Corvey and her women are sent to learn what happened to the spy as well as learn what Rawdon's invention is. Leaving London behind, The Women of Nell Gwynne's becomes a mix of a British cozy mystery and a spy thriller and the women perform their outward occupation while acting undercover. Baker makes a point of showing the difficulties they have because of their role in the social strata of Victorian England. Although they are able to get into areas which would be unavailable to more socially acceptable agents, their movements are also prescribed by their role.
Basmond Hall, the setting of the intrigue, is an ancient home, undergoing extensive renovations, which accounts for Rawdon's need for money and his auction of the mysterious object. Of course, the instrument is not the only secret hidden at Basmond Hall. Lady Beatrice and her companions Basmond Hall is a far cry from a typical manor house while Mrs. Corvey displays a variety of skills which are not immediately obvious, allowing her to take an active part in the investigation while being constantly underestimated.
It is unfortunate that Baker died shortly after the release of The Women of Nell Gwynne's, for in this novella she presents an excellent starting point for what could have been a new series of novels with strong female protagonists moving through an alien world in which women's roles were sharply contained despite a woman sitting on the nation's throne. Her characters are strong and her setting is intriguing, easily lending itself to further exploration. Although The Women of Nell Gwynne's could easily have been the first in a series, it stands up quite well on its own and highlights many of the strengths of Baker's writing.
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