Nell Gwyn, daughter of a boozy, brawling bawd and a missing father, rises to fame on the English stage and to fortune in the court of her lover, King Charles II.
In this uneven debut, Beauclerk, a direct descendent of Gwyn and Charles II (a dull 27-page epilogue charts the three-and-a-half-century Beauclerk history), examines the sometimes sordid lives of his randy Restoration ancestors. Beauclerk does not favor understatement. On the first, page he declares that the relationship between Nell and Charles was “one of the great love stories of our history,” and that it had a “mythic” dimension. He succeeds only moderately in marshaling supporting evidence. There is very little known, for example, about Gwyn’s childhood, and so the author invites us to imagine it along with him. To add flesh to the very few bones he has unearthed, he writes much about the English Civil War, the death of Oliver Cromwell, the Great Fire. Beauclerk describes Restoration playhouses, menus, clothing, houses, medical practices, religious and political conflicts and intrigues. He quotes from Pepys’ diary and scandal sheets and some letters. He offers long summaries of the plays Gwyn appeared in. He tells the stories of Gwyn’s rivals, both on and off the stage. By all accounts, she was a dazzling young actress, a crowd favorite, and her rise from an urchin selling oranges to headliner to bedmate of a sovereign has appeal. The volume of detail increases when Gwyn is picked as one of the King’s official lovers, as court record-keepers charted her possessions, her expenses (she was not a lucky gambler) and her comings and goings. These chapters are the richest. Beauclerk’s style is conversational (most chapters have fewer than ten endnotes), trite at times and even adolescent—there is a naughty pun about “members” standing up in church.
Such a compelling subject demands a better telling.