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on 14 July 2006
The seventeen-year romance-cum-friendship between London's most notable comedienne, the outsplken, salty commoner Nell Gywn and the bright, saturnine, often incomprehensible King Charles II, makes for a lively tale. There's a great deal about Restoration theatre and politics, most especially the politics of the court, as a bonus underpinning to the story of the two unlikely lovers.

But were they so unlikely a pair? Both were children of hardship: Nell, scrambling from poverty and probable illegitimacy to theatrical stardom, then upward to precarious glamour as the King's mistress, and Charles, for eleven years an imporverished, apparent loser scrambling to keep himself going, even to stay alive, in Europe while the Commonwealth ruled.

This is the first time I've gotten much of a feel for what Charles was like as a person, and one of Beauclerk's special skills appears to be character analysis. What an interesting comment on Cromwell's real values was his desire to be adorned in royal regalia after his death. This account of Nell's story is full of similar colorful insights and anecdotes.

I'm familiar with the hardcover edition, and thought those color plates extremely good. Impressively, they are also very well done for this handsome paperback.
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on 14 July 2006
Far more than a mere recitation of dry facts, Charles Beauclerk's biography of the magical life of Nell Gwyn displays rare insight into the human condition, which insights one soon realises are acutely applicable to the here-and-now of politics, art, and the mysterious attachments of the heart. To history, Nell Gwyn was all to often misunderstoond to be merely (pg. 297) "...the stuff of legend, the girl from the slums who had won the heart of a king." In the author's hands, however, this story of love reciprocated (for such it was) is more than romance- it shines a spotlight on the theatre of politics and power which was the 17th century and still is today, in which nothing is as it seems to be, and fame provides a most convincing disguise for the truth. Beauclerk's evident erudition is worn lightly, and in this biography the richly comedic serves to illustrate the philosophical. Beautifully written, the author's style is both polished and relaxed, not unlike the later diaries of James Lees-Milne, with a limpid clarity of prose interspersed with surprising imagery, like his description of the Protestant rabble-rouser Titus Oates, (p. 279) "His mouth, we are told, was in the centre of his face, and he was built like an orc, with short bandy legs and long lifeless arms." On nearly every page one finds apt insights as, for example (p. 293) referring to the death of Nell's mother, " many alcoholics, old Madam Gwyn probably found a way of abandoning decent surroundings for a life of misery somewhere." The world of Charles Stuart and Nell Gwyn was a theatre, both metaphorically and literally, and whether on stage or at court everyone acted a part. In his biography of Nell, the plays of Dryden, Marvell, and others are neatly dissected by Charles Beauclerk to reveal unexpected depths of meaning. Nell was above all a comedienne, a star in her own right whose alliance with the saturnine, tricksy Charles Stuart made them the most successful double act of the 17th century. And there is, of course, the well-known account of Nell, whose coach being attacked by a mob mistaking her for the King's French (and Roman Catholic) mistress Louise de Keroualle, ordered her driver to stop, and flinging open the window (p. 307) "...cried out good-humouredly, 'Pray, good people, be civil, I am the PROTESTANT whore!' Immediately, the curses turned to cheers, caps were tossed in the air, and a path cleared for her coach. Waving and smiling, she passed on." And so, waving and smiling, Nell's brightly shining spirit has been well and truly awakened in this present biography.
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on 1 June 2006
Alarm bells rang for me when I realised that Charles Beauclerk is a direct descendant of Nell Gwyn and Charles II. He does make it clear that the book is subjective from the start. 'That's reassuring' I thought.. But it didn't take long before it became apparent that he has a bit of an axe to grind: Firstly in his rather polemic running down of Cromwell, the republican state and especially his odd take on women and puritanism - "Women... whose independent spirits did not allow them to submit either ran mad or became prostitutes." ...! What, all of them?! Secondly his glowing descriptions of Charles II - Can he and Pepys have been referring to the same bloke?! Pepys routinely refers to Charles as rather banal with nothing much to recommend him, an appalling public speaker, remarkable for his inattention to business and his love of pleasure. Mr Beauclerk quotes selectively to back his cause, but even royalist Evelyn agreed with Pepys that Charles's inadequacy lost the powerful Navy and the international standing of the state Cromwell had built, culminating in the Dutch attack on the Medway.

The filling in of Nell's childhood musings and games with her fellow urchins have to be purely imaginative speculation. Right at the beginning of chapter one we are left with a strong impression that Mr Beauclerk's idea of 'evidence' is a little shaky: "Astrologers seem agreed that the (birth) chart drawn up by Ashmole gives a true portrait of Nell Gwyn, which makes it more than likely that the birth data supplied were accurate." A slightly circular assertion that relies on a belief in astrology. He refers to Pepys as the 'Secretary to the Navy' going over as part of the expedition led by Montagu to the Hague to bring back Charles.. Pepys was to become Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board a month or so later. Pedantic I know, but it just illustrates the sense of unreliability that comes across from the start. Mr Beauclerk seems to be trying to give a leg up to his ancestors, who as far as I can see were a tart and a twit. He needn't have done really because the family seem to have done allright on their own merits which is why the Epilogue: The House of Nell Gwyn is the best bit!

All in all a disappointment. This could have been a really good book, but it wasn't the book on Nell Gwyn I was looking for. It would have been better written by somebody like Claire Tomalin. I'd get 'The Unequalled Self' if I were you.
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on 25 February 2012
I am very much enjoying this book. It arrived in a timely way and is in excellent condition. Thank you very much for this book which records a remarkable piece of history!
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on 7 January 2016
Book came looking like it had been in a fight with a librarian 😕
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on 22 December 2015
I am loving this biography !!
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on 30 January 2015
I gave up reading it after 20-30 pages, life's too short and there's too many other good books read.
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