“Let not poor Nelly starve…”

Something that always vaguely depresses me about society is the fact that, for all we claim to be right-on and politically correct, there is still this very old-fashioned view of the place of women in society. Namely, that any woman who sleeps around or even acts in an overtly sexy fashion must be dubbed a “whore.” Optional: throw in unwarranted speculation concerning said whore’s sexual health and anatomy. You don’t get the same kind of condemnation for a man who shows off his body or sleeps around – the closest you get is the term “man-whore.” The fact that the term has to include the word “man” shows the problem here.

Being sick of this strangely Puritanical double-standard, I have to say that I rather like Nell Gwynn. Gwynn, pictured right, was the most famous of King Charles II’s many, many mistresses. Charles, whatever his virtues as a monarch, had something of an eye for a pretty young lady, and upon his accession to the throne an attractive mistress was regarded as a must-have accessory for any courtier. Not that extra-marital shenanigans were anything new among kings – half the aristocracy owe their origins to the bastard offspring of the reigning monarch. Charles, though, turned it into something of an art form.

Nell Gwynn, meanwhile, came out of nowhere. Much of her early life is obscure, but it would appear that she was born in 1650 to a Covent Garden brothel keeper, her father disappearing at a young age. By thirteen, she was working in the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane as an orange girl. Although these days such a title would merely imply an over-reliance on fake tan, the orange girls of London’s West End had the job of going among the rowdy theatre audiences selling China oranges (as in, oranges from China, not oranges made of china, that would be silly). They also supplemented their income by selling a little more than just fruit, if you catch my drift.

Young Nell was highly popular among the orange girls for her good looks and brazen wit. It wasn’t long before she found herself on the stage, where she was highly suited for the comedies of the day – Samuel Pepys in particular raved about her performance in The Maiden Queen. His enthusiasm may have been augmented by the fact that this play required Nell to dress up as a gentleman in an extremely flattering costume.

In 1668, word of this dashing young lady reached the King’s ears, and he had a special performance laid on by the company. Afterwards, Nell suggested that His Majesty should leave a substantial tip for the company. The King explained that he didn’t carry any money himself, prompting Nell to reply, “Odd’s fish, what kind of company have I got myself into?”

The affair between Charles and Nell would last seventeen years, resulting in two sons. However, Charles was not a one-woman man, or even a two-woman man, and so Nell had to hold her own against a number of rivals. The most famous of these was Louise de Kéroualle, created Duchess of Portsmouth by the King. Louise was a French Catholic, and as such not exactly popular with the public as Nell was. On one famous occasion, a mob at Oxford shouted abuse at what they thought was Louise’s carriage, calling her a “Catholic whore” (there’s that word again). To their surprise, Nell leaned out of the window and replied, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

See what I mean about the brazen wit? She even managed to win over her former enemy, the appalling John Wilmot. On another occasion, the Duchess tried to one-up Nell with a display of snobbery. She condescendingly said to Nell, “Nelly, you are grown rich, I believe, by your dress. Why, woman, you are fine enough to be a queen.” Nell’s retort was, “You are entirely right, madam, and I am whore enough to be a duchess.” Zing!

Nell’s story was, to use a hoary old cliché, the archetypal rags-to-riches tale. By the time of her death she had amassed several houses and her son, Charles Beauclark, had been given the title of Earl of Burford (remember what I said about the British aristocracy?). Famously, before his death, Charles II implored his brother James to “Let not poor Nelly starve,” and accordingly James paid granted her a pension of £1,500 a year, about £150,000 in today’s money. This was jolly decent of him, given that James had often been the butt of Nell’s jokes – she nicknamed him “Dismal Jimmy.”

Sadly, though, Nell was to die only three years later of a stroke at the age of 37 (it’s also been suggested that syphilis may have had something to do with it). She left a legacy to the prisoners of Newgate and was buried at St Martin-In-The-Fields, not far from the place of her birth.

So next time you read some embittered rant about how this or that celebrity is a whore, remember – it’s not always a bad thing.

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1 Comment

Filed under History, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Stuart London, Theatre, West End

One response to ““Let not poor Nelly starve…”

  1. Loma Silsbury

    . . . “Not on your Nelly ? ” . . .

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