Exit the Actress
by Priya Parmar
Using a series of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings and other ephemera, Exit the Actress chronicles the early years of the legendary Nell Gwyn, English actress and mistress of King Charles II. Her story is something like a fairy tale. Nell – who in this book, prefers to go by ‘Ellen’ - was born to poverty, with an alcoholic mother who a brothel and a sister forced into prostitution. By luck, Ellen becomes an “orange girl”, selling fruit to theatergoers. She falls in love with the theatre and becomes an actress at the tender age of fourteen. Her fellow actors and actresses become a second family, supporting Ellen through several relationships and her meteoric rise to the bed of Charles II.
Although Ellen’s diary entries make up the bulk of the narrative, the reader is occasionally given an alternative view through secret letters between Charles II and his family or gossip columns in the London Gazette. In a way, it makes the story more of an ensemble piece than a book purely about Nell Gwyn. This is further enhanced by the strong supporting cast – secondary characters like Ellen’s sister Rose and her actor friend Teddy often eclipse the king because they are far more lively and interesting.
Restoration England was a very sensual place. The King had several mistresses, and had at least twelve illegitimate children with them. (Sadly, there was no issue from his marriage to Catherine of Braganza.) Theatres were reopened, and for the first time women were allowed on the stage. With rich, descriptive language Priya Parmar brings the world of this post-Commonwealth England to life with great energy. If this were a movie, it would be done in the style of Moulin Rouge – brilliant color, grand theatrics and a clear zest for life! It’s great fun, and I enjoyed this book immensely.
4 out of 5 stars
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A portrait of Nell Gwyn c. 1675 by Sir Peter Lely