The first ‘It Girl’, or why I like Nell Gwyn, from the Radio Times

The first It Girl. ‘Pretty, witty’ Nell Gwyn used her body to get to the top, but it was her brains that Charles II desired, says Lucy Worsley

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, Tuesday, 9pm, BBC4

If I challenge you to name a seventeenth-century woman, the chances are that you’ll come up with Nell Gwyn. She was, of course, the rages-to-riches orange seller who caught the eye of King Charles II and became his mistress, and you’re bound to have visited one of the many pubs named after her.

Nell was the cheekiest and most likeable of the women I encountered for my series ‘Harlots, Housewives and Heroines’ (BBC4).  But I believe that she also broke through boundaries for women.

‘Cinder Nelly’, people called her, after Cinderella, and in the later, richer years of her life she did indeed purchase herself a coach of glass.

She was (probably) born in the squalid streets of Covent Garden and grew up flogging fruit to the audience in the London theatres. She soon got promoted from the pit to become one of the very first professional actresses on the London stage.

These female players were one of the remarkable sights of Restoration London. 1660 saw the return of Charles II to the throne after Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. During this drab period the powerful Puritans had closed down the frivolous theatres altogether.

When Charles II came back from exile, he re-opened them, and allowed women to play the female parts for the first time. Previously they’d been reserved for boys or men.

Nell’s particular talent was comedy. She had to respond to gibes and catcalls from the rowdy Restoration crowds.  But she effortlessly put down the hecklers with her rapier wit: ‘pretty, witty Nell’ was how man-about-town Samuel Pepys described her. She also excelled in the ‘breeches parts’, in which females played women disguised as men. This was partly to show off their legs in trousers, but also to mock masculine values.

Despite shooting up to the social stratosphere when the king himself took a fancy to her, Nell retained her army of fans among ordinary Londoners.  Proud of ‘their’ Nell, they supported her vociferously against rival mistresses, especially the unpopular, French and Catholic Louise de Kerouaille.

Charles II too was proud of his Nell.  He’d often play a trick on the friends he invited into his bedchamber to see his paintings.  First he’d show them a rather dull landscape – then swing it back on a hinge to reveal a portrait of the naked Nell hidden behind.

Like many a modern ‘celebrity’, there’s no doubt that Nell used her body to get to the top. Yet her quick wits, loud voice and fearless opinions were just as much part of her attraction.  She really shook things up at the palace. ‘Anybody may know she has been an orange-wench by her swearing’, the snooty courtiers said.

And it seems that Charles II really wanted to hear what Nell had to say. To be fair, it wasn’t just her: he ran through at least fifteen mistresses, treating them as companions and political advisers as well as using them as sexual playthings.  Ironically, it’s at the court of this Lothario that we can also see a king taking women’s views seriously for the first time.

Charles II made his and Nell’s son a Duke, and a grateful government paid her a pension.

I loved handling what’s said to be Nell’s own silver fruit knife.  Did she keep it to remind herself, every time she peeled an orange, that in the midst of all her success she was just a London girl made good?

Interviewing Nell’s historians and biographers, I was struck by the way they all seem quite genuinely to like her.  I do too.

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