I read Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, historical fiction about Nell Gwynn, an actress in the seventeenth century who was also mistress to Charles II. Nell used her body and beauty, along with her wit and charm, to gain both positions. My next book, about Elena Piscopia, is set in the same time period and I have pondered their different situations. Elena was the first woman to receive a doctorate and Nell bore male heirs to the king. Elena was born of a noble father whereas Nell’s father is unknown to history, and may have been unknown to her. The wealth of Elena’s family contrasts with the poverty of Elena’s. Elena studied with the best tutors while Nell sold oysters and later her body. The one common thread is their mothers.
Nell’s mother ran a bawdy house and a tavern and died in an alcoholic stupor. Elena’s mother was upright and educated but bore several illegitimate children to Elena’s father before they finally married. I wonder if having a mother whose status is precarious leads a daughter to strive harder to achieve something of her own.