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Nell Gwyn, by Charles Beauclerk
Reheated queen of tarts
Friday 22 July 2005
Beauclerk paints a lively and detailed picture of Restoration London, describing, mainly through Pepys's diary and Rochester's poetry, the intimate relationship between the reinvigorated theatre and Charles II's debauched court. Charles passed a law allowing women to tread the boards, and Nell was the first female superstar, impressing London with her wit and comic timing. The author tells the amazing story of her ascent from bawdy-house serving wench and orange-seller to actress in the royal company and, finally, loyal mistress to the king.
At least 15 biographies of Nell Gwyn have appeared and it is not very clear why we need another one. This project has emerged out of a personal quest. The epilogue, one of the most interesting parts, reflects on being the product of the unprecedented union of "a whore and a king", and explores the impact of this on subsequent generations of Beauclerks. Genealogical research often springs from a sense of ambiguity about personal identity, and this is certainly true for the author. He describes the family as "torn between the opposing poles" of whore and king and, in a fabulous high-speed version of the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, reels off a list of Beauclerks and their experiences on the fringes of English aristocracy - as vicars, bishops, admirals, artists and lunatics in asylums.
Perhaps because of the personal nature of this project, the author overstresses the historical importance of Nell. He convincingly shows how Charles II's sex life was both a political metaphor (in the competition between the English Nell and the French Louise, for example), and a sign of the king's power. Charles's sexual prowess and later rumoured impotence affected his reputation. But to say that Nell's relationship with him "set in motion a revolution in relations not only between the sexes but also between the different estates of men" is going too far.
The book focuses on the details of life at court and in the London theatre. The major political events of this tumultuous period - the succession crisis (Charles produced countless bastards but not one legitimate heir), the complex relationship between Parliament and monarchy, the Dutch Wars, the expanding empire - are presented largely as a backdrop to the minutiae of Nell's life. Details of her spending and gambling become a bit laborious.
Anyone with a good knowledge of Charles's reign may find the version of history here a little grating. Beauclerk's assertion that, far from being a pleasure-seeking, womanising, irresponsible king, Charles displayed "remarkable self-control", is unusual to say the least. This book offers the frivolous pleasures of Jilly Cooper more than the sober insights of Simon Schama; but, read with this in mind, it is very enjoyable.
Rebecca Loncraine is Vera Douie Fellow at The Women's Library
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