Very little is known about Nell Gwyn though her popularity is hardly rivalled by that of any other heroine of English history.
A few facts, a collection of anecdotes, mostly dubious, several portraits, many of which are also dubious, some doubtful personal relics--and that is all we really have of Nell Gwyn.
The whole information we possess about her would go into a few pages and these would seem of trivial import beneath any serious chronicle of the times or manners; indeed, an attempt to write weightily of indiscreet, charming Nelly must result in a prodigious amount of padding before the dignity of a volume is achieved, and then the spirit of the delicious actress is likely to be overlaid by the doings of her contemporaries.
In the following pages, what history and tradition tell us of Nell Gwyn has been told as a decorative romance, where no liberty has been taken with what we know or believe to be the truth. Fancy has been allowed to enlarge upon it, and, though the narrative must be taken as fiction, it contains no fictitious characters, nor do those which appear there, say or do anything that does not tally with what they are known to have said or to have done.
As the romance concerns only Eleanor Gwyn who never meddled with great affairs, these are left out of this picture of the reign of Charles II, which is only sought to provide a background for the figure of the heroine.
None of the details, however, outrage history or defy probability.
Marjorie Bowen. Lancaster Gate, London. December, 1925.
History has shut her heavy books On Nelly and her glittering looks, "But gossip, though seldom to a woman kind," Has oft, and sweetly, brought me to your mind; And many a merry quip has she to tell Of Drury Lane and Orange Nell, With wit and rags and Chaney fruit to sell, Or sparkling on the boards as Saucy Florimel
In the bright Court's radiant press I was the sweetest naughtiness Who joyed to dance, to sing, to tease, But meddled with no deeper things than these. Unlettered wench in gold brocade, Laughter wher'ere I went I made, Gay through the unthinking hours I played, And the Dark King my smile obeyed.
Death stole my love and ended all my pleasure, Meekly I sought the earth that hid my treasure, And left behind this slight and humble Tale, Yet with oblivion may these claims prevail, None to my pity sued in vain, To no creature caused I grief or pain. I loved once and could not love again. Have patience with poor Nell of Drury Lane.
"Vous plaisez à tout le monde Et tout le monde vous plait."
Le Brun Écouchard.
"How many miles to Babylon? Three score miles and ten. Can I get there by candle light? Yes, and back again. "
"What shall I do to show her how I love her?"
The scent of violets was poignant in Whitehall gardens, and loose rain clouds were blown up the river from the sea; it was high tide, the flats were covered and ripples rocked across the Palace stairs; a moist, airy day in early April, with presage of a warm tempest gathering lightly over London and wild torrents of sweet rain.
Two of the Duchess of York's gentlewomen hastened through the gentle spring gloom; their arms were interclasped, and their satin skirts, one blue, one violet, dragged against the box hedges as they hurried; their foolish laughter that was yet pleasant with youth and gaiety broke their whispered talk; both were fair and painted, languishing and roguish, both allowed silk hoods to slip back showing dimpled shoulders, both lifted flowing petticoats to show pretty feet in brocade shoes.
As they neared the noble medley of the Palace, the clock chimed from the cupola that rose against the vaporous sky, and a gallant, coming from a postern door, jostled his haste into theirs when the three, laughing, impeded each other.
The gallant wore a vizard; his figure was comely, his bearing bold, and Eleanor Needham snuggled her chin to her shoulder with an inviting laugh. She ever lay as easy to the touch of coquetry as the ripe peach to a fall; and was Mary Bagot more austere? Nay, she, too, was a shameless jigg.
The stranger admired them sufficiently to detain them a little on the narrow path; Mrs. Needham was pale, like pearl and silver, with notable gold hair, smooth banded, and a face now most rosily flushed.
Nor was she yet a stale charmer, nor spoiled, for she had been but three weeks at Whitehall.
"What is your haste?" asked the gentleman, and Eleanor Needham could see his eyes, Italian dark, looking at her through the holes in the mask.
"I think it will rain!" giggled Mrs. Bagot, but Eleanor Needham said:
"We looked over the wall at the river and a waterman said bold words to us, and two sparks blew kisses at us!"
"Well, that did not displease thee," answered the mask with graceful familiarity. "Since when were kisses and you at variance?" and he took her, with a practised gesture, by the shoulder and brought his face next to hers; the maid of honour shrieked prettily and ran, Mrs. Bagot beside her; a rustle of satin breaking the box hedges, brushing the violets.
The gallant looked after them, but with a mocking interest; nor did they fail to look back as they feigned to fumble with the latch at the postern.
The gentleman lifted his vizard.
A shudder of excitement shook the two ladies at this compliment being put on them, for he who gazed was one of the most considerable of the Princes of the time and a man that every woman had a mind to for a lover, if but in the way of modesty and innocency.
" It is my lord Monmouth ," they whispered together with foolish laughter. "Are his ways never to be mended?"
And they slipped through the postern with what effect of backward glances they might decently achieve.
My lord had several times before observed Eleanor Needham, and with an approval that was too lazy to go further than a light fancy, but now the lovely girl seemed to him sweetly desirable, for he had lately fallen out with a dark, impetuous and sharp-tongued tormentress.
Yet he was too indolent to follow Mrs. Needham or indeed any other woman, and gave her but the tribute of his dark glance before he went his way across the gardens, adjusting the mask that saved his clear brown complexion from the wind; he went to a little outside stair which led to a turret room where His Majesty and Prince Rupert had their laboratory, which was ever crowded by an odd company of Empirics, Charlatans and Chemists in whom His Majesty found great amusement.
My Lord Monmouth understood nothing of all this, yet came here when he would find the King well humoured and accessible, and so passed in through the low door, into the room dim with fumes and confused with globes, retorts, and queer instruments.
Stately and gracious my lord looked, not the least like the wild, weak rakehell that he was, and the warm beauty of his face was a pleasure to the beholder, as many, men and women, had found to their betrayal.
Mrs. Needham and Mrs. Bagot, those two forward jiggs, had not failed to peep through the crack of the postern and watch his magnificent lordship; seeing him go up to the King's tower, they went on their way with a pout and a shrug.
"Is it likely," asked Mrs. Bagot with malice, "that his roving grace has two glances for such as us?"
"Are those on whom his glance does rest any different?" replied Mrs. Needham in a lisping way she had. "Are we not as janty as the rest, of as yielding a humour, of as nice a wit?"
"Ay, and as well painted with red and white," giggled Mrs. Bagot, "but here's a point to our jest," added the simpering girl, "if you will put on these rough kirbles and slip into Drury Lane with a basket of China oranges--among the wild gallants and roystering citizens--"
"Will I not?"
"This afternoon, then, they do the 'Mad Lover' at the King's house, with new players, and the King goes, with Monmouth--"
They leant together in the dark corridors embracing each other to stifle their excited laughter.
"'Twill be rare to present my lord with a dozen oranges--and stand no haggling for the price!"
"And bid him present them to the fairest mask there! I'll warrant you he'll note us better there than here. Is it not the orange wenches who have their choice of our lovers?"
"I can be as pert a damsel as any of them--give me leave!"
They slipped into Mrs. Needham's room; Her Highness, the Italian Duchess, was sick and had no need of them, nor indeed of any but a little moppet she had brought with her from Modena, who excelled with the mandoline.
And these cunning girls were clever at evading the jaded eye of the Mother of the Maids.
Mrs. Needham pulled out two dimity gowns coaxed out of the tailor yesterday; they were her idea of the dress of the orange wenches of whom she had heard tell, but never seen, for maids of honour went not to the play.
They laced themselves into the red bodices and blue skirts, pulled on the muslin caps, woollen stockings and latchet shoes, and giggled at their frolic when they saw their pretty reflections in the dim mirror with the red tortoiseshell frame.
Mrs. Bagot had sent out for oranges earlier in the day, and the gorgeous fruit came tumbling out of the wardrobe as they hung up their bright gowns, and rolled over the dark, gleaming floor.
Mistress Needham pulled down the most decent, sober cloak she could find, while Mrs. Bagot picked up the golden fruit, keeping her glance on the door.
The frolic was as dangerous as it was tempting; neither had any mind to be packed back to country homes; but both had a great mind to coquette with my lord Monmouth over a basket of oranges in the pit of the Play house, and to observe for themselves what this gay scene was like.
"Oh, Lud , how my heart beats!" giggled Eleanor Needham, as she patched her chin with a black, swan-shaped patch.
The wilful girls had pulled a knot of violets from the King's gardens as they ran out of the quiet back way, avoiding the gentries, and the perfume of the dewy flowers went with them on their silly journey.
It was warm and London was drowned in pearly air; the steeple of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields seemed to catch in the vague low clouds, the raucous voices of the crowds were softened by the tenderness of the spring breeze.
The maids of honour picked their way over the planks flung down across the worst puddles of the unpaved street, and wished for the clepines that kept the citizen women out of the mud.
Their timidity attracted attention; people turned, gaped, laughed; a hag begged too boldly, a man flung admiration in terms too coarse even for the vanity of Eleanor Needham.
The edge of excitement had gone from their adventure.
"Shall we go back, Mary?" whispered Mrs. Needham. "I never knew the ways were so foul--"
They were not used to London, the tangled hedgerows at home, fragrant with a medley of delicious weeds, were so different to these dark streets; but Mary was not for returning; she even ventured on asking a sober-seeming woman the way to the King's theatre; the directions sent them into a maze of dun alleys rank with garbage, where the filth flowed in a central channel between the crazy houses and there were no posts to keep the foot passengers from the carts and horses.
"We should have had chairs," whispered Mrs. Needham, but, indeed, they had not known how to hire them, or how to engage one of the rude springless wagons that plied the streets.
"We escape attention," replied Mrs. Bagot. "Our cloaks are so sombre, and consider the frolic when we arrive at the theatre, dear heart!"
They squeezed each other's hands and hastened on; each was thinking of my Lord Monmouth who had barred their way in the garden and looked after them, actually honouring them with a second of his attention.
And each dwelt with rapture on the fact that my lord was the King's son, and the King's beloved, more adorned with honours than any man in England. It would be very beautiful to be courted by my lord, to be wooed with jewels, with roses, with smiles and sighs by the handsomest and greatest man at Court.
Yet the baseness of the streets was ill glazed over by the radiance of the spring air, and the mischievous hearts of the escaped ladies beat with unpleasant quickness when they at length found themselves in the more evil end of Drury Lane, where they were frightened by the narrow courts and dark abodes with broken windows.
Of the Strand or Covent Garden end of this street they had already some acquaintance, having been there to visit the ladies of the household of my Lord Anglesey, who had a fair mansion, and having glimpsed the region in driving past Montague House; but this squalid succession of low inns, stable yards and decayed houses alarmed and disgusted them; they kept their drooping violets at their nostrils and walked uneasily along the foul way.
They caught a glimpse of an object already too familiar to them, the Maypole in the Strand, rising high above the timber fronted houses and gable ends. The great pompous crown and vane and the sumptuous coat of arms above' this Maypole glittered in a stray gleam of sunshine as the girls looked up; a sunset glory for a second flushed the airy clouds and set the Royal Insignia gleaming bravely; their hearts beat quicker, they laughed.
"'Tis the Play house," said Mrs. Needham, and she nodded to a fair portico with pillars and a rabble about them, and two men setting the holders for torches above the pasted play bills.
There was a shop beyond, from the projecting gables hung a large wooden glove; there was a tavern opposite, and from this dangled a gaudy board with the rude painting of Hippo-griffin in scarlet and green.
About the steps of this tavern were loungers with dark clays full of Virginia tobacco, and the girls shrank together again and tried to conceal themselves in the crowd.
A row of real orange wenches had already taken up their station, one either side of the door, and several to wander about and tease the passers-by; they carried their flat baskets under their arms, held on their hips, and shouted lustily, abuse, pleasantries and snatches of ballads of the day, some of which were already familiar enough to the maids of honour.
Marshalling them all was Orange Moll, the dame and ruler of the orange wenches, and seeing her heavy figure with the coarse purple face approach, the two ladies hid their baskets of fruit beneath their cloaks lest they should be called upon to give an account of themselves.
"Lud," whispered Mrs. Needham, "this is like to be a poor frolic--shall we ever pass for one of these hussies? Why they are in rags, ill-washed and foul--"
Indeed, the neat, clean, if rough and homely garb that had seemed such a good disguise in Whitehall, looked ridiculous enough here.
The orange wenches were in rags or the plainest of leather bodices and linen aprons, greasy, torn and begrimed; their heads were uncovered, showing tangled locks bare of ribbons and innocent of comb; many wore neither shoes nor stockings, but carelessly walked the mud and garbage, the litter of orange peel, old play bills, and sooty flakes from torches, while those whose feet were covered, could boast nothing but broken shoes and tattered hose.
And these Hebes of the Play house, these Dryads of the Lane, moved up and down with an assured air, mingling laughter with curses that sounded odd on fresh young lips, and bandying rough jests and even sharp quarrels with the tavern loungers and the link boys who idled round the trim porticoes of the theatre.
"Come forward," urged Mrs. Bagot, "it is a pity to lose the jest when we have come so far--"
And being at heart an impudent and reckless piece, she moved up to the Play house door and established herself inside the portico with an air; Mrs. Needham, giggling, hung somewhat behind.
One orange girl was already in possession of this coveted post, where the gallants might be waylaid and followed with golden fruit thrust into their faces; she was one of the most ragged and dishevelled of these gutter flowers, but young and round, golden with a head of close curls that overflowed on to the prettiest of necks and shoulders that was ever concealed by a torn and dismal shawl.
She sat on the doorstep arranging her fruit with some care in her basket, putting the oranges in rows against the deep green leaves, and seemed too absorbed in this to take any notice of her company, though now and then she deigned a word to her companion, a mongrel dog with a bitten ear and ragged hide that crouched by the basket the little girl (she was small in stature and very young) held on her knee.
As the two maids of honour crept to the other side of the door, the orange wench looked up at them, wrinkled her face with an expression of contempt, and returned to her task.
The two ladies, despising such an antagonist, now boldly exposed their wares, while their bright eyes peered between the pillars of the portico; for the gallants were beginning to arrive and Sedan chairs were being brought cautiously over the puddles and cobbles.
But soon Orange Moll came raging to the Play house entrance.