Exit The Actress by Priya Parmar is historical romantic fiction set in England between the years 1662 and 1670 during the Restoration reign of King Charles II. A young orange girl named Ellen Gwyn becomes a celebrated actress known as Nell, who finds herself involved in a succession of relationships with three men, all named Charles. Her story, which is based in fact, is revealed through a series of journal entries, letters, broadsheets and other historical documents.
According to Wikipedia: “Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn (or Gwynn or Gwynne) (2 February 1650 – 14 November 1687) was a long-time mistress of King Charles II of England.
Called “pretty, witty Nell” by Samuel Pepys, she has been called a living embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England and has come to be considered a folk heroine, with a story echoing the rags-to-royalty tale of Cinderella.
Elizabeth Howe, in The First English Actresses, says she was “the most famous Restoration actress of all time, possessed of an extraordinary comic talent.”
However, it also states that “Gwyn was illiterate her entire life (signing her initials “E.G.” would be the extent of her ability to read or write), adding an extra complication to the memorisation of her lines.”
While those last two “facts” didn’t quite come across, Exit The Actress is an intriguing imaginary account of Ellen’s life right up until the end of the book when a short and disappointing Epilogue rather awkwardly ties up the story.
Other than that, there are two other things that I didn’t care for, the first being how small the regular font is and how hard the secondary scriptwriting font is to read throughout. The second thing I noticed is that for a poor, barely educated oyster girl of 12 years old (at the beginning of the book), Ellen writes suspiciously beyond her years and this just doesn’t ring true for me. I concede that women had to grow up fast in the 17th century and were often married off very young, but still…
The story begins in May 1662 in London and King Charles II has just taken Portuguese Infanta, Princess Catherine of Braganza, as his queen. Exit The Actress is well researched and Parmar paints a gorgeous tableau. However, in the midst of Ellen’s journal entries we are interrupted by correspondence from different characters within the Royal family, the Royal court, and a mysterious, flamboyant gossip columnist named Ambrose Pink (who immediately reminded me of Perez Hilton) – again printed in a tiny scriptwriting font – and I found this intrusion at first annoying because it broke my connection to Ellen, but eventually got used to it. Parmar includes a cast list of all the characters in the front of the book so you can go back and refer to it. The main characters are remarkable and fully realized and I particularly enjoyed Edward “Teddy” Kynaston, Ellen’s cross-dressing and not so closeted homosexual actor friend as well as King Charles himself.
Ellen’s mother is a drunken tavern maid and Madam who pushes her oldest daughter, 14 year old, Rose, into prostitution to help bring in money for the family. Ellen writes about her life and how the actions of the Royal family influence everyone around her, and when on her 13th birthday she is asked to become an orange seller, she accepts the position gladly as she will smell of oysters no longer. Not even a year later, the orange girl, falls in with the King’s acting troupe and soon, the lithe, red-haired beauty with tiny feet becomes the darling of theatre society.
It took me a few chapters to get used to the structure of Exit The Actress and the letters from the Royals, but once I did, I enjoyed it more. The book’s sections are broken down into the different periods of Ellen’s life, starting with London Ellen, then Orange Girl Ellen, Theatrical Ellen, Actress Ellen, Independent Ellen, etc., all the way to section 10 – Exit The Actress. There is also an Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, a Reading Group Guide, A Conversation with Priya Parmar, and tips on How To Enhance Your Book Club. It seems that books are now including Special Features, just like DVDs.
Significant historical events included London’s Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of London in 1666, and Charles II’s war against the Dutch. However, I was most fascinated by Lord John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester – the poet that Johnny Depp so brilliantly portrayed in The Libertine – whose considerable role as Ellen’s and King Charles’ friend and confident was revealed. Whenever he is mentioned, I found myself even more interested in the scene, as he is a colourful and complex character, known as a writer and Wit who constantly battled his demons and eventually allowed alcohol and promiscuity to lead him to an early grave. He died at age 33 from syphilis. Rochester’s story is perhaps even more interesting than Ellen’s as her plot line contained very little conflict aside from having to share King Charles with his long line of mistresses.
Overall, Priya Parmar has written a fine although somewhat uneven debut novel but I will look forward to her future work.