We all know a little about Nell Gwyn, but most of it's wrong. One of her many descendants tries to set the record straight. He begins with Nell's story, and once she meets Charles II, King of England, at his Restoration in 1660, intertwines their stories. Nell was probably the daughter of a prostitute and an Army man, who apparently disappeared into a debtor's prison. Nell, close to her mother, worked in the establishments her mother did, as a servant girl, serving water to guests, etc. Her free time was spent on the streets, where her saucy humor made her a natural leader, and her beauty caught the eye of many a man and boy. Among these was the owner of the new Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where she and her older sister got jobs selling oranges before plays and at intermissions. Actresses were recruited from this "job pool," and she had her first chance at upward mobility. She was among the first English actresses, women's parts before the Puritans closed the theatre having been played by boys and young men. Restoration drama, after the drab life of Puritan London, was a heady affair, beloved of King Charles and his Court. This was where he first saw Nell Gwyn, and while she was by no means his first mistress, she was the most loyal, bearing him two sons, and staying faithful to him for the 17 years he had left to him, and refused to marry after his death. Charles remained true to her, as well, in his fashion, though he continued to have additional mistresses and one night stands. Nell Gwyn was the one woman with whom he could be most himself, because she truly loved him for himself. Charles and Nell would discuss the problems of the day, as he trusted her reading of what was going on, especially from the viewpoint of the common people from which she sprung. For the most part, a believable tale, nicely told, interspersing political details. Sometimes one wonders if the family connection makes the author see his ancestors through rose-colored glasses, though he does see their individual faults. One major flaw of the book is the lack of two kinds of genealogical charts. Nell's surviving son, Charles, was ultimately given the title Duke of St. Albans, and Beauclerk traces this line down to himself. Things get very complicated, especially as the name Charles naturally is highly favored over the generations. It would be much easier to keep the 7th Duke separate from the 8th, for instance, with a properly labeled chart, when he traces the family down to the present day in his line. Likewise, it would be very helpful to have a genealogy chart showing Charles, his wife, his various mistresses, and their spouses (many were married), and their children, both by the King and by their husbands. Here again, many of their children by the King were named Charles, and without knowing the titles the King gave them, it's hard to keep the people apart. Especially this would be helpful for an American, unfamiliar with the English fashion for switching from using a person's name to using his/her title. Still, this interesting book is recommended for an understanding of one aspect of this complicated king.
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