Impostor Searchlight: Nell Gwyn
Fewer joys exist in this cruel, cold world than those of a real-life Cinderella story. How juicy it is when someone from the duller side of the tracks not only makes it to the other side, but lands on a train straight to riches, fame, admiration, and legacy. That is to say, not necessarily someone of the smarmy, eyelash-batting variety of staler fairytales, but someone who has enough character and pluck to righteously fill that seat. Someone who would lean out of her gilded carriage and declare, “I AM THE PROTESTANT WHORE” and feel 100% satisfied with herself.
Ah, Nell Gwyn. Would that I could drink a bottle of cheap champagne with ye. I know you would not turn your nose up at my $6 Andre Brut or $8 Barefoot Bubbly Moscato. Even as you were demanding an exorbitant allowance and multiple homesteads to be a king’s kept woman.
You see, “pretty, witty Nell,” as some playwright or other called her (she worked with many,) worked her way up to the uppermost rungs of the ladder straight from the floor. The daughter of a flophouse managing mother who once served flat ales to its patrons became the most celebrated mistress of King Charles II. But before she became a full-time mistress she completely transformed the theatre scene of the time.
Nell (Eleanor) Gwyn is our Impostor of the month because she embodies the term like no other: a low class, illiterate girl with a seedy reputation shapeshifting into a talented, charismatic, significant actress and artist.
At the tender of about 13, Gwyn kickstarted her career in the theatre world as an “orange-girl” for the King’s Company, housed in what would later become the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. As an orange-girl, she would traipse around the audience selling oranges (obviously) and lemons and sweetmeats and stuff. (I never really know what to make of sweetmeats. What are they exactly? I’m picturing her handing people drumsticks covered in jelly.) Apparently, people in the 1660s were all about ripe fruits. Ha. Oh, and she wore really suggestive clothing, which, you know, helped make the sale. Sometimes, this role also allowed her to transmit messages between dukes/lords/bros in the audience to actresses backstage, helping fuel flirtations and secure sexual assignations and the like. So Gwyn was also kind of a pimp. Just saying.
Our Gwyn was apparently a stitch. While she certainly learned how to use sex appeal to her advantage (some biographies allude to the fact that she was possibly even a child prostitute at her mother’s flophouse before her orange-girl days, but there’s no verification for this,) it was her wit that garnered most notice. Thomas Killigrew himself, leader of the King’s Company, invited Gwyn to join ranks with the company.
Here’s the important thing: at this point in history, seeing female actors on the stage was still pretty brand-spanking new. This was the Restoration Era; England had just broken free from a decade of puritanical insanity (the Cromwells were nuts) where pretty much everything enjoyable, like theatre, was banned. The second Charles II was restored to the throne, he was like, “I’M BRINGING THEATRE BACK, BISHES!” And that’s how the King’s Company came to be. Basically. (The Restoration period is actually very fascinating. I can’t believe I’m going to make this comparison, but if you don’t really have a good grasp of history, the Restoration was kind of similar to the Roaring ‘20s, if that makes sense. But like. In the ‘60s. The 1660s. Yeah. Just read up on it sometime.)
Another thing Charles II did was legalize acting for women. Crazy, right? It was actually ILLEGAL for women to perform. So, in part because of Charlie’s forward thinking, his future mistress gained the right to pursue a career onstage.
And did she ever! Gwyn surpassed expectations; despite being illiterate, she learned her craft at a school developed by Killigrew and an actor of the King’s Company, Charles Hart (who Gwyn soon became romantically entangled with, AS YA DO.) She also learned how to dance. After one so-so dramatic performance in The Indian Emperour (lol,) Gwyn blossomed into her renowned comedic roles in plays such as All Mistaken, or The Mad Couple; The English Monsieur; Flora’s Vagaries, and Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen.
Gwyn’s penchant for comedy was impossible to ignore. In fact, her singularity helped shape the formula of plays written during the Restoration and onward. She played a few uproarious breeches roles (i.e. she dressed as a male character; my how the tables turn!) Most notably, by playing a clever, cunning female character opposite a rakish, cynical male character, Gwyn and her costar popularized “the gay couple,” a pair of annoyingly winsome lovers seen in many Restoration plays. The female characters were always written with Gwyn in mind, as she embodied them so well, but eventually (i.e. when Gwyn became full-time mistress to King Charles II,) the torch was passed on to other actresses.
Not only did Gwyn pioneer roles in plays—she pioneered the role of comedienne. To have been so tenacious and successful in her career gave credence to women pursuing the same craft. Gwyn never went for the damsel in distress or the heartbroken puddle of mush; she was too good at playing the one who had all of her wits about her, and used them at exacting, ecstatic will.
Refreshingly, Nell never pretended to be something she wasn’t. Just as she steered clear of dramatic roles on the stage, she steered clear of pretentiousness in life. She was proud of her seedy roots; or, if proud is too heady of a word, she was at least honest about them. According to lore, her coachman once got into a brawl with a man who called her a whore. Nell’s response was, allegedly, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.” And, of course, there was the whole Protestant whore comment. Apparently when her coach came rolling down a street one day, people mistook her for one of the king’s other mistresses (because, you know, you can’t have just one) who was a Catholic and French and such so they were hecklin’ and hootin’. And that’s when she stuck her head out and was like, “Nah, nah, my good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore.” Legendary.
And so, even when she relinquished a career on stage to be a royal sugar mama (she had birthed a couple o’ sons by Charlie, so she actually did become a full-time mother; she even used her wiles to secure titles for them so they didn’t have to be referred to as “those little bastards” their whole lives) she never outgrew the acclaim she received. As stated, she was the most beloved of Charles II’s mistresses, and it’s easy to believe that this is owed to both her popularity as an actress/comedienne and her genuine, earthy character—that glorious wit.
Raise a glass of champagne to Nell Gwyn! She’ll never tell anyone it’s cheap. Or she’ll make that part of the toast.