From the age of thirteen, with her mother and sister operating out of a local bawdy house, Nell Gwyn is intimately aware of her limited options. Yet she possesses two important traits that will allow her to reach higher even than she could imagine: wit and ambition. Even before she has fully matured, still trapped in a girl’s body, the petite Nell assesses her surroundings in search of opportunity.
In her vivid fantasies, Nell imagines Restoration King Charles II as her lover, never doubting her ability to capture his heart. As the mistress of a merchant, Nell is introduced to the wonders of the theater. In this environment, future success unfolds, first as an “orange girl,” later as a comic actress, her skills at mimicry assuring the public’s support. That the king and his favorites also enjoy the theater allows Nell to bring her dreams to fruition.
The author takes us behind the scenes - the years of practice, hard work and careful grooming of relationships with her betters, the king’s closest friends, who will later facilitate the great drama of her life. Ambition and pride combined with true affection for her monarch give this character a special place in history, an anomaly in her lack of station, overcoming social status to be seen on the king’s arm and bear his children.
Few women have bested such odds to rise from the degradation of poverty and claim the affections of a royal. Never classically beautiful, Nell personifies how wit and spirit can amplify prettiness and unprecedented success.
Nell symbolizes the bawdy side of the king’s nature, a man who responds not only to beauty but to humor, an escape from the many trials of ruling. While the king’s other mistresses make their fortunes and plan for the future, Nell, assured by her monarch that he is watching out for her interests, is unable to achieve the patents necessary for security after Charles’s death. She is faithful over the years they are together, although the same cannot be said for her lover.
With loyalty her hallmark (as indicated by an enduring friendship with the talented, self-destructive John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester), Nell well understands her position and suffers the consequences. In her devotion, she lives for the moment, the years rich with intimacy, ribald jokes and her unique talent for making the king laugh.
It is this quality the author captures best: a common, talented woman who gives her heart for the love of her monarch, her days filled with joy as long as she can make entertain him. Indeed, she accepts her place - and it is at the side of her beloved.
In Holloway Scott’s portrait, Nell Gwyn personifies the humor of Charles’s court, the hedonistic, decadent nature of a man long separated from his rightful place. As a woman, Nell finds her niche, bred of laughter and passion, only to fall by the wayside when Charles passes from the throne, her happiness no insurance for the future. Like a bright comet, Nell’s sojourn on the stage of history is brief but brilliant, the king and the commoner capturing the public’s imagination.