Nell Gwynn: Mistress to a King by Charles Beauclerk

My favorite historical stories always seem to focus on the royal mistresses, and Nell Gwynn holds a particularly special place in my heart. She has the distinction of being born into poverty (her mom owned a brothel, which Nell may or may not have worked in when she got older), and met Charles II when she was working as an orange seller in a theater. Women who sleep their way to power tend to get an (often unfair) reputation as evil, conniving harpies, but Nell was by all accounts a funny, good-natured, and generally pretty cool person.

Nell’s main rival was the king’s other mistress, the French Louise de Keroualle. Lucky for Nell, the British people loved her and hated Louise. Also Louise was dumb, and Nell was a snarky genius. My favorite story about Nell was the time when Louise decided to have her driver take her past Nell’s house in the pimped out new carriage the king had bought for her, so Louise could put Nell in her place. Nell responded by hitching a mule to a wooden cart, which she then drove past Louise’s house yelling, “Whores to market, ho!” That’s another thing I like about her – Nell understood perfectly that she was nothing more than an expensive prostitute, and she never pretended to be anything else.

So, now that I’ve fangirled enough, let’s talk about the actual book. It’s very detailed and informative, and if you want to learn more about Nell this is a good place to start. However:

Charles Beauclark is a direct descendant of Nell Gwynn, a fact that he informs us of at least fifty times during the book. He can hardly be considered an impartial biographer, and at several times gets downright misty-eyed when he’s speculating on Nell’s life. (Yes, Charles, it’s possible that Nell and her childhood friends played kings and queens in a dirty alleyway, with her little friends shouting “long live queen Nell!” but can we move on, please?) Beauclark even ends the book talking, not about Nell, but about his own grandson, who Beauclark thinks is just the spitting image of his famous ancestor’s spunk and spirit. Ugh.

Unfortunately, this may be the best current resource on Nell Gywnn, because I can never seem to find any other good biographies written about her. It’d be nice to read one written by a slightly less biased biographer, so if you find one, let me know.

Verdict: three out of five stars


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