Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nell Gwyn--Aquarian

Nell Gwyn is  best known as the scandalous mistress of King Charles II of England, a symbol of the bawdy world of the Restoration, the king's own form of flipping the bird at the Puritans, but taking a mistress who was also a working actress -- in comedy!


Gwyn was, in fact, in intelligent, humorous, outspoken woman who had, by any standards, a very tough life before she met Charles.

Born February 2, 1650 -- during the Interregnum -- information about the where is sketchy. Possibly London, possibly Oxford, she and her mother and sister were deserted by her father (some speculation about who) shortly after her birth, in dismal circumstances. Nell's mother became the manager of a brothel in London, where Nell worked as a child, possibly running errands, possibly as a child prostitute. By 1662, she had a lover; their relationship lasted two years.

Most details of Nell's early life as mythical: meaning fictional, true, or something in between.


When the theatres re-opened in 1660 -- with the "restoration" of Charles II to the throne, Nell and her sister Mary were hired by "Orange Moll," a former prostitute, to sell oranges and other snacks to the patrons of the theatres during performances. She carried messages between male courtiers in the audience and the actresses, It is also possible she worked as a prostitute during this time.


Nell and Charles II began their relationship in 1668. Between that time and 1671, when Nell definitely left the stage, she bore the king two sons -- who he declared openly were his -- and went back and forth on and off stage. By 1671, she had definitely retired, and Charles gave her a house (or had the state lease it to her...). During their long relationship (1668-1685, when he died) Charles continued to have other mistresses, as well as his wife. But he not only looked after Nell and claimed her sons as his, but made certain his brother James who succeeded him to the throne, would continue to care for Nell.

During her life, she became friends with many of the leading literary and theatre figures of the time, including Aphra Behn and Samuel Pepys. She has been a character, central or tiny, in books, plays, films, operas, and mini-dramas.


At the very least, Gwyn appears to have been a courageous, practical, witty, charismatic woman, who succeeded in doing more than surviving her low birth -- she also continued to support her sister, mother, two sons, and friends, no matter what. She was a gutsy intelligent dame who made lemonade out of the rather crummy lemons handed to women in the Restoration period, like her pal Behn.

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