Wednesday, April 16, 2008

EDW: Nell Gwynn

It was recently suggested that changes to the Act of Settlement would see the crown revert to the Stewarts. (Or more precisely their German heir). A more disastrous and unsuccessful royal dynasty it would be hard to think of. Apart from Charles I's remarkable achievement in getting himself executed, several other members of the family lost their thrones (Mary Queen of Scots, James II and VII) and many others managed to get themselves killed in unfortunate circumstances. (James I of Scotland, for instance, was murdered in a sewer which he'd blocked up to stop his tennis balls rolling away).

Against that: Charles II at least managed to get back on the throne and managed to enjoy himself while he was on it. I could, I suppose, use this for a series discussion on his reign, but those of you who are interested in that sort of thing, let me instead direct you to a book I've been reading: Restoration by Tim Harris.

Instead, let's talk about the fun stuff. In reaction to the puritanism of the Cromwell era, Restoration England was a time of unbridled libertineage. Pepys's diaries give a flavour of the age, as do some of the ballads of the times and the Earl of Rochester's bawdy verses. Charles enthusiastically reflected the spirit of the times with his string of mistresses. As Rochester put it (in a poem which led to his banishment from court).

Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.
Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length
And she may sway the one who plays with th' other,

Nell Gwynn is the best-remembered of these royal mistresses. Rightly so. She was, unlike many of the royal paramours, popular with the common people. Stories like the following indicate her wit and spirit.

Nell Gwynn was one day passing through the streets of Oxford in her coach, when the mob mistaking her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, commenced hooting and loading her with every opprobrious epithet. Putting her head out of the coach window, "Good people", she said, smiling, "you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore.

Hard not to like someone like that.(The fact that unlike most of Charles's mistresses she wasn't a particular drain on the public purse probably helped). Should any of our current crop of royals be looking for a mistress, they could do worse than go for one like her.

Pretty, witty Nell had also started from rather humble origins. Her mother ran a brothel and the young Nell started by serving drinks in the establishment before becoming, variously, an orange seller, an actress, and kept women. These all may be euphemisms to various degrees, but given the miserable nature of life for the vast majority of people - the poor especially, she showed considerable astuteness in advancing her own interests.

It was her wit, as much as her good looks and lack of hang-ups which helped her rise. You could even, if you were so minded, make a case for her being a feminist pioneer; she was one of the first women to act on the English stage ( female roles had been played by boys prior to this) and was one of the first female 'celebrities' (okay, that's a bad precedent to set) in her own right. More than that, though, she was able to hold her own among the wittiest and most spirited characters at the royal court.

Rochester may have paid her several backhanded tributes, but in his Satire on the King (from which I've quoted above), he bemoans the fact that the king seemed to prefer Carwell (ie Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth) and the resulting "pains it costs to poor, laborious Nelly/Whilst she employs hands, fingers, mouth, and thighs/ Ere she can raise the member she enjoys."

Still, poor laborious Nelly's memory endures. There is a horse race named after her, at least one pub, and as the pictures show, whether dressed or undressed she had style, she had panache and a certain sort of elegance.



Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Excellent choice, Bill. I am most fond of Nell. She puts me in mind of Kitty Fisher, another sporting type of gal and another EDW nominee I reckon.


11:59 am  

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