Oh, pretty witty Nell. That’s generally how Nell Gwynn, the long-time mistress of King Charles II of England is described. And, in addition to these flattering terms, weirdly, unlike French mistresses who are seen as hardcore seductresses bred from birth to be . . . mistresses (Madame Pompadour, Madame du Barry, I’m looking at you) . . . people generally spin Nell Gwynn’s tale to be some kind of Cinderella story.
The history you often hear says that Nell Gwynn was a charming orange seller at the theater. Orange selling was a big thing, back in the 16th century, and not because people loved to eat fruit. Because the stench of filth in the city of London was unbearable, especially when you were in close quarters with others, as you would be at the theater, the idea was that you would hold the orange up to your nose and inhale deeply and . . . You know there are a lot of reasons I wish I lived in a past era, but this is not one. Orange smelling and the plague ruin a lot of fantasies for me. More the plague, really, but filth is not good.
So, that was Nell’s job, which somehow seems like she was a sort of sassy 16th century cigarette girl, and then, supposedly, she caught the King’s eye while he was at the theater, and he fell immediately in love with her. And insert a joke about oranges. Bada-bum.
That’s a fine story for people who like boring stories (your least favorite Sunday School teacher) but it’s not really at all true. In England, England – a great book about a group of developers trying to create a theme park based around English history – Julian Barnes talks about the myths surrounding Nell Gwynn. I will copy that section down for you:
‘What we are looking for, if I may make so obvious a point, is a woman who gave sex a good name, a nice girl everybody’s heard of, goddammit, a cutie with big knockers – figuratively as it were.’
The committee found unprecedented interest in the grain of the table, the flock of the wallpaper, the glitter of the chandelier. Sir Jack suddenly bounced his palms off his forehead. ‘I have her. I have her. The very woman. Nell Gwynn. Of course. A cat may look at more than a king. Charming girl, I’m sure. Won the hearts of the nation. And a very democratic story, one for our times. Perhaps a little massaging to bring her into line with third millenium family values. Then there’s the orange franchise, of course. Well? Do I hear good? Do I hear more than good?’
‘More than good,’ said Mark.
‘Good,’ said Martha.
‘Dubious,’ said Dr. Max.
‘How?’ asked their employer grumpily. Did he really have to shoulder all the creative burden, only to find himself carped at by a pack of nay-sayers?
‘It’s not really my period,’ the official historian began, a disclaimer which rarely lead to a briefer lecture, ‘but as I recall, little Nell’s background was not exactly riddled with family values. She referred to herself as the “Protestant whore” – the King being a Catholic at the time, you understand. Two bastard child by him, shared the pleasures of his mattress with another favorite whose name temporarily escapes me -’
‘You mean three in a bed stuff?” muttered Sir Jack, envisaging the headlines.
‘- and obviously I would have to check, but her career as a King’s mistress did start at a relatively tender age, so we might have to factor in a child sex angle…’
‘Disastrous,’ said Sir Jack. ‘I have always run family newspapers.’
‘We could make her older,’ suggested Martha brightly, ‘lose the children, lose the other mistresses, and lose the social and religious background. Then she could be a nice middle class girl who ends up marrying the King.’
A lot of modern depictions of Nell seem to go with Martha’s take.
Right. We’re going to go with Dr. Max’s version.