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THE ACTRESS E S.
NELL GWYNN-MRS. HUGHES-Mrs. KNIPP-MRS. DAVEN
PORT-MARY Davis—MRS. BARRY-MRS. BETTERTON -MRS. MOUNTFORT-MRS. BRACEGIRDLE.
Of all the frail beauties and lewd dames of Charles II.'s Court, the only one whom the public regarded with any tolerance or liking was Nell Gwynn. Perhaps this condonation of her errors was due to the fact that she had sprung, as it were, from the ranks—was “one of themselves;” perhaps it was based upon her goodnature, her frank vivacity, her lively humour. However this may be, it is certain that to the day of her death she was a popular favourite ; and the anecdote collectors and annalists, treating her with equal indulgence, have so touched her portrait that even in this later time, with its higher views of womanly purity, a popular favourite she continues still. In comedy and in opera she has proved an attractive heroine; while none of Charles II.'s utterances are remembered with more sympathy than that dying one which expressed his hope that “poor Nelly” would not · be allowed to starve.
The ancient world could not agree upon Homer's birth
place, and seven cities claimed him as citizen. Almost as much dubiety attends the birthplace of Eleanor Gwynn. At Hereford you are shown a small mean house in Pipe Lane, as the scene of her birth; but this is disputed by Coal Yard, Drury Lane; and yet another caveat is lodged by Oxford, where, it is said, Nell's father-a “captain," according to one authority, a “fruiterer,” according to others—died in prison. As she was indisputably of Welsh extraction, I am disposed to support the claim of Hereford. Tradition relates that at a very early age she ran away from her country home; and, while in her first “teens,” gained a meagre livelihood as a vendor of cheap fish. So says Rochester :
“Her first employment was, with open throat,
To cry fresh herrings, even ten a groat.” Nature had gifted her with a fine voice and a sharp wit; and basket in hand she wandered from tavern to tavern, delighting their frequenters by her songs and repartees, and captivating the hearts of susceptible link-boys. For a time she seems to have officiated behind a bar. Listen to Pepys :-“Nelly and Beck Marshall falling out the other day, the latter called the other my Lord Buckhurst's mistress. Nell answered her, 'I am but one man's mistress, though I was brought up in a tavern to fill strong waters to gentlemen; and you are mistress to three or four, though a Presbyter's praying daughter.'” And it may at least be said to the credit of poor Nell that to her “protector” for the time being she was always faithful.
After a temporary passage through the hands of Madame Ross, who kept a notorious bagnio, Nell Gwynn found her way into the pit at the King's Theatre, where
she sold oranges and pippins to the gallants, and bandied jests and jibes which, it is to be feared, were not always very delicate. The fresh and piquant beauty dazzled the wondering pit, and soon attracted the attention of the actors, especially of Lacy and the dashing Charles Hart. She lived with the latter for some months, and under his instruction appeared upon the stage of Drury Lane, early in 1667, as “Cydacia” in Dryden's “Indian Emperor” ...“a great and serious part” which, according to Pepys,* she did “ most basely.” For such characters she was suited neither physically nor mentally; and it was not until she assumed comic characters, in which she could give free vent to her infectious laugh, and show her pretty ankles and tiny feet, and sing with a natural feeling which charmed every hearer, that she became the darling of court and city. Lord Buckhurst (afterwards Earl of Dorset) soon beguiled her away from the scene of her triumphs to keep wild revel with him at Epsom.
Under the date of July, 1667, Pepys records :-“Mr. Pierce tells me what troubles me, that my Lord Buckhurst hath got Nell away from the King's House, and gives her £100 a year, so as she hath sent her parts to the house, and will act no more.” And on the 14th he writes :“ To Epsom, by eight o'clock, to the well, where much company. And to the town to the King's Head; and hear that my Lord Buckhurst and Nelly are lodged at the next house, and Sir Charles Sedley with them; and keep a merry house. Poor girl, I pity her ; but more the loss of her at the King's House." It may be that Nell's brusqueness of manner and freedom of speech offended the fastidious taste of Buckhurst;* at all events, their intimacy was not of long duration. As early as the 26th of August, Pepys writes :—“Sir William Penn and I had a great deal of discourse with Mall, who tells us that Nell is already left by my Lord Buckhurst, and that he makes sport of her,t and that she is very poor, and hath lost my Lady Castlemaine, who was her great friend ; she is come to the play-house, but is neglected by them all.”
* Pepys has several allusions to Nell Gwynn in his 1667 diary. In January he was introduced to her one day, after she had acted Cælia in Beaumont and Fletcher's “Humorous Lieutenant" :-“ Knipp," he says, “ took us all in, and introduced us to Nelly, a most pretty woman, who acted the great part of Cælia to-day, very fine, and did it very well; I kissed her, and so did my wife, and a mighty pretty soul she is." Again he writes: “After dinner with my wife to the King's House to see “The Maiden Queen,' a new play of Dryden's, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit, and the truth; for there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimel, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again by man or woman. The King and Duke of York were at the play. But so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girl, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the motions and carriage of a spark, the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.” And, again, on the 1st of May :"To Westminster, in the way meeting many milk-maids, with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly standing at her lodging's door in Drury Lane, in her smock sleeves and boddice, looking upon me; she seemed a mighty pretty creature.”
This neglect must have been very transient; for before the end of the year she was again the ornament of the stage and the delight of the play-going public. Her Florimel in “The Maiden Queen,” and her Jacinta in “ The Mock Astrologer,” were particularly admired; and her enlarged experience enabled her to treat serious characters with greater success than before. Her Almahide in Dryden's “ Conquest of Granada” (1674) was the talk of the town, and had not been forgotten when Lord
* Nell Gwynn seems to have had, however, a real attachment to the accomplished nobleman, whom she called her “Charles I.” In that case, Major Charles Hart, the actor, would be her “ Charles II.,” though it is generally supposed that he had the precedence of Buckhurst. The King was, of course, “her Charles III."
† From what we know of Buckhurst's character, this seems difficult of belief.
Lansdowne, a quarter of a century later, referred to the impression it had produced upon King Charles :
“ Past is the gallantry, tbe fame remains
Transmitted safe in Dryden's lofty strains ;
In Dryden's play Major Charles Hart, Nell's old lover, played Almanzor ; and his relation to Almahide and King Boabdelin being exactly that which off the stage he held towards Nell Gwynn and King Charles, every passage touching upon it was received by the audience with a laughter which pointed the joke.
At the rival theatre Nokes, the comedian, had recently saved a tedious play by wearing an immense hat. Dryden immediately caused one to be made for Nell, of the size of a cart-wheel. She wore it while delivering the prologue, and her quaintly humorous appearance and piquant manners produced quite “a sensation.”
It was as Valeria in Dryden's “Tyrannic Love” that the audacious quean completed her conquest of the easy heart of Charles. Dryden, we are told, wrote the part with this result in view, and also the lively epilogue, spoken just as the dead Valeria is about to be carried off by bearers. We transcribe it here; and the reader can easily imagine with what dash and vivacity Mistress Nelly would deliver it. How, suddenly starting to her feet, and assuming an air of mock indignation, she would rattle away at her wouldbe bearers,
“Hold! are you mad ? you d-d confounded dog,
I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue.”
Then, with a complete change of voice-a smile, and a pert moue-turning to the audience: