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The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s cover
Trade Edition SOLD OUT
Limited Edition SOLD OUT
  • ISBN: 978-1-59606-250-4
  • Length: 128 pages


Dust jacket and interior illustrations by J. K. Potter

Lady Beatrice was the proper British daughter of a proper British soldier, until tragedy struck and sent her home to walk the streets of early-Victorian London. But Lady Beatrice is no ordinary whore, and is soon recruited to join an underground establishment known as Nell Gwynne’s. Nell Gwynne’s is far more than simply the finest and most exclusive brothel in Whitehall; it is in fact the sister organization to the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, that 19th-century predecessor to a certain Company…and when a member of the Society goes missing on a peculiar assignment, it’s up to Lady Beatrice and her sister harlots to investigate.

Limited: 1500 hardcover copies signed by the author

From Publishers Weekly:
“This steampunk novella, set in 1844 London, follows the exploits of the harlots of the exclusive establishment known as Nell Gwynne’s, where they gather intelligence for the shadowy Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, a predecessor to the Company featured in several of Baker’s novels…. The beautifully drawn Victorian era is neatly spiced up with futuristic technology such as mechanical eye implants. Baker’s fans will delight in this slight, bawdy and funny confection.”

From Booklist:
“A good time should be had by enough readers to prompt further Nell Gwynne’s capers from Baker.”

From i09:
“Despite the fantastic elements and twists The Women of Nell Gwynne’s feels faithful to the Victorian Period. One of Kage Baker’s great strengths is her brilliance in presenting other time periods. As a writer, educator, and actress she lives and breathes history. She captures not just the little details and mannerisms of daily life but the deeply held attitudes of her characters whether from 1844, 1604, or the 24th Century. Subterranean’s Deluxe Hardcover Edition won’t be for everyone’s budget but if you get a chance pick up The Women of Nell Gwynne’s. It’s a witty steampunk thriller as if written by Ian Fleming’s crazy libertine aunt. I am hopeful we will see more of Lady Beatrice and her sisters in espionage.”

From SF Site:
“The steampunk nature of the story is revealed by the amusing devices available to the spies — very much James Bond in the 19th Century — including a covert set of eyes for supposedly blind Mrs. Corvey. The actual plot is a bit rudimentary, but enjoyably relayed, as Lady Beatrice and friends entertain Lord Basmond’s various guests, witness a murder, and unravel the curious facts behind Lord Basmond’s invention.”

From Locus:
“For fans of Baker’s Company series, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s offers a glimpse of what the Company developed out of, given that the GSS will ultimately morph into it. But you can easily be swept away by the novella without knowing the first thing about Baker’s other works… Mostly, this is because Baker spins a great yarn. I hope that The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is one of many short works about Lady Beatrice and crew to come.”

Excerpt

ONE:

In which it is established that:

In the city of Westminster, in the vicinity of Birdcage Walk, in the year of our Lord 1844…

There was once a private residence with a view of St. James' park. It was generally known, among the London tradesmen, that a respectable widow resided there, upon whom it was never necessary to call for overdue payment. Beggars knew she could be relied upon for charity, if they weren't too importunate, and they were careful never to be so; for she was one of their own, in a manner of speaking, being as she was blind.

Now and again Mrs. Corvey could be observed, with her smoked goggles and walking-stick, on the arm of her adolescent son Herbert, taking the pleasant air in the park. It was known that she had several daughters also, though the precise number was unclear, and that her younger sister was in residence there as well. There may even have been a pair of younger sisters, or perhaps there was an unmarried sister-in-law, and though the daughters had certainly left the schoolroom their governess seemed to have been retained.

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 premises, 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, two streets away, which connected to Mrs. Corvey's cellar by an underground passage and which was in the basement of a fairly exclusive dining establishment. The tradesmen never came near that place, needless to say. Had any one of them ever done so, he'd have been astonished to meet there Mrs. Corvey and her entire household, including Herbert, who under this separate roof was transformed, Harlequin-like, into Herbertina. The other ladies resident were likewise transformed from Ladies into Women, brandishing riding crops, birch rods and other instruments of their profession.

Nell Gwynne's clientele were often statesmen, who found the place convenient to Whitehall. They were not infrequently members of other exclusive clubs. Some were journalists. Some were notable persons in the sciences or the arts. All were desperately grateful to have been accorded membership at Nell Gwynne's, for it was known — among the sort of gentlemen who know such things — that there was no use whining for a sponsor. Membership was by invitation only, and entirely at the discretion of the lady whose establishment it was.

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.

***

Secrets were, in fact, the principal item retailed at Nell Gwynne's, with entertainments of the flesh coming in a distant second. Secrets were teased out of sodden members of Parliament, coaxed from lustful cabinet ministers, extracted from talkative industrialists, and finessed from members of the Royal Society as well as the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Information so acquired was not, as you might expect, sold to the highest bidder. It went directly across Whitehall and up past Scotland Yard, to an unimposing-looking brick edifice in Craig's Court, wherein was housed Redking's Club. Membership at Redking's was composed equally of other MPs, ministers, industrialists and Royal Society members, and a great many other clever fellows beside. However, there were many more clever fellows beneath Redking's, for its secret cellars went down several storeys, and housed an organization known publicly — but to very few — as the Gentlemen's Speculative Society.

In return for the secrets sent their way by Mrs. Corvey, the GSS underwrote her establishment, enabling all ladies present to live pleasantly when they were not engaged in the business of gathering intelligence. Indeed, once a year Nell Gwynne's closed its premises when its residents went on holiday. The more poetical of the ladies preferred the Lake District, but Mrs. Corvey liked nothing better than a month at the seaside, so they generally ended up going to Torbay.

Life for the ladies of Nell Gwynne's was, placed in the proper historical, societal and economic context, quite tolerably nice.

Now and then it did have its challenges, however.

TWO:

In which our Heroine is a Witness to History

We will call her Lady Beatrice, since that was the name she chose for herself later.

***

Lady Beatrice's Papa was a military man, shrewd and sober. Lady Beatrice's Mamma was a gently-bred primrose of a woman, demure, proper, perfectly genteel. She was somewhat pained to discover that the daughter she bore was rather more bold and direct than became a little girl.

Lady Beatrice, encountering a horrid great spider in the garden, would not scream and run. She would stamp on it. Lady Beatrice, on having her doll snatched away by a bullying cousin, would not weep and plead; she would take back her doll, even at the cost of pulled hair and torn lace. Lady Beatrice, upon falling down, would never lie there sobbing, waiting for an adult to comfort her. She would pick herself up and inspect her knees for damage. Only when the damage amounted to bloody painful scrapes would she perhaps cry, as she limped off to the ayah to be scolded and bandaged.

Lady Beatrice's Mamma fretted, saying such brashness ill became a little lady. Lady Beatrice's Papa said he was damned glad to have a child who never wept unless she was really hurt.

“My girl's true as steel, ain't she?” he said fondly. Whereupon Lady Beatrice's Mamma would purse her lips and narrow her eyes.

Presently Lady Beatrice's Mamma had another focus for her attention, however, for walking out in the cabbage patch one day she found a pair of twin baby girls, as like her and each other as it was possible to be. Lady Beatrice hadn't thought there was a cabbage patch in the garden. She went out and searched diligently, and found not so much as a Brussels sprout, which fact she announced loudly at dinner that evening. Lady Beatrice's Mamma turned scarlet. Lady Beatrice's Papa roared with laughter.

Thereafter Lady Beatrice was allowed a most agreeable childhood, by her standards, Mamma being preoccupied with little Charlotte and Louise. She was given a pony, and was taught to ride by their Punjabi groom. She was given a bow and arrows and taught archery. She was taught her letters, and read as many books as she liked. When she asked for her own regimental uniform, Mamma told her such a thing was wicked, and retired with a fainting fit, but Papa gave her a little red coat on her next birthday.

The birthdays came and went. Just after Lady Beatrice turned seventeen, Lady Beatrice's Grandmamma was taken ill, and so Lady Beatrice's Mamma took the twins and went back to England for a visit. Lady Beatrice was uninterested in going, having several handsome young officers swooning for her at the time, and Mamma was quite content to leave her in India with Papa.

Grandmamma had been expected to die rather soon, but for some reason lingered, and Lady Beatrice's Mamma found one reason after another to postpone returning. Lady Beatrice relished running Papa's house by herself, especially presiding over dinners, where she bantered with all the handsome young officers and not a few of the old ones. One of them wrote poetry in praise of her gray eyes. Two others dueled on her account.

Then Papa's regiment was ordered to Kabul.

Lady Beatrice was left alone with the servants for some months, bored beyond anything she had believed possible. One day word came that all the wives and children of the married officers were to be allowed to go to Kabul as well, as a way to keep up the troops' morale. Lady Beatrice heard nothing directly from Papa, as it happened, but she went with all the other families. After two months of miserably difficult travel through all the red dust in the world, Lady Beatrice arrived in Kabul.

Papa was not pleased to see her. Papa was horrified. He sat her down and in few words explained how dangerous their situation was, how unlikely it was that the Afghanis would accept the British-backed ruler. He told her that rebellion was likely to break out any moment, and that the order to send for wives and children had been perfectly insane folly.

Lady Beatrice had proudly told Papa that she wasn't afraid to stay in Kabul; after all, all her handsome suitors were there! Papa had given a bitter laugh and replied that he didn't think it was safe now to send her home alone in any case.

So Lady Beatrice had stayed in Kabul, hosting Papa's dinners for increasingly glum and uninterested young suitors. She remained there until the end, when Elphinstone negotiated the retreat of the British garrison, and was one of the doomed sixteen thousand who set off from Kabul for the Khyber Pass.

Lady Beatrice watched them die, one after another after another. They died of the January cold; they died when Ghilzai snipers picked them off, or rode down in bands and skirmished with the increasingly desperate army. Papa died in the Khoord Kabul gorge, during one such skirmish, and Lady Beatrice was carried away screaming by a Ghilzai tribesman.

Lady Beatrice was beaten and raped. She was left tied among the horses. In the night she tore through the rope with her teeth and crawled into the shelter where her captors slept. She took a knife and cut their throats, and did worse to the last one, because he woke and attempted to break her wrist. She swathed herself in their garments, stole a pair of their boots. She stole their food. She took their horses, riding one and leading the others, and went down to find Papa's body.

He was frozen stiff when she found him, so she had to give up any idea of tying him across the saddle and taking him away. Instead she buried him under a cairn of stones, and scratched his name and regiment on the topmost rock with the knife with which she had killed her rapists. Then Lady Beatrice rode away, weeping; but she felt no shame weeping, because she was really hurt.

All along the Khyber Pass she counted the British and Indian dead. On three separate occasions she rode across the body of one and then another and another of her handsome young suitors. Lady Beatrice looked like a gray-eyed specter, all her tears wept out, by the time she rode into Jellalabad.

No one quite knew what to do with her there. No one wanted to speak of what had happened, for, as one of the officers who had known her family explained, her father's good name was at stake. Lady Beatrice remained with the garrison all through the siege of Jellalabad that followed, cooking for them and washing clothes. In April, just after the siege had been raised, she miscarried.

***

Her father's friends saw to it that Lady Beatrice was escorted back to India. There she sold off the furniture, dismissed the servants, closed up the house and bought herself passage to England.

***

Once she had arrived, it took Lady Beatrice several weeks to find Mamma and the twins. Grandmamma had died at last, and upon receiving word of the massacre in Afghanistan, Mamma had bought mourning and thrown herself upon the mercy of her older brother, a successful merchant. She and the twins were now living as dependents in his household.

Lady Beatrice arrived on their doorstep and was greeted by shrieks of horror. Apparently Lady Beatrice's letters had gone astray in the mail. Her mother fainted dead away. Uncle Frederick's wife came in and fainted dead away as well. Charlotte and Louise came running down to see what had happened and, while they did not faint, they screamed shrilly. Uncle Frederick came in and stared at her as though his eyes would burst from his face.

Once Mamma and Aunt Harriet had been revived, to cling to each other weeping on the settee, Lady Beatrice explained what had happened to her.

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?

Uncle Frederick as good as told her to her face that she must have whored herself to the men of the 13th Foot, during all those months in Jellalabad; and if she hadn't, she might just as well have, for all that anyone would believe otherwise.

At this point Mamma fainted again. While they were attempting to revive her, Charlotte and Louise reproached Lady Beatrice in bluntest terms for her selfishness. Had she never thought for a moment of what the scandalous news would do to their marriage prospects? Mamma, sitting up at this point, tearfully begged Lady Beatrice to enter a convent. Lady Beatrice replied that she no longer believed in God.

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.

Lady Beatrice excused herself and rose from the table. She went upstairs, found her mother's room, ransacked her jewel box, and left the house by the back door.

She caught the night coach in the village and went to London, where she pawned a necklace of her mother's and paid a quarter's rent on a small room in the Marylebone Road. Having done that, Lady Beatrice went to a dressmaker's and had an ensemble made in the most lurid scarlet silk the seamstress could find on her shelves. Afterward she went to a milliner's and had a hat made up to match.

The next day she went shopping for shoes and found a pair of ready-mades in her size that looked as though they would bear well with prolonged walking. Lady Beatrice purchased cosmetics also.

When her scarlet raiment was ready Lady Beatrice collected it. She took it back to her room, put it on, and stood before the cracked glass above her washstand. Holding her head high, she rimmed her gray eyes with blackest kohl.

What else was there to do, but die?

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