Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar
Published by Touchstone
Publication date: February 1, 2011
Genres: Fiction, Historical
I’m sticking with historical fiction this week. Monday was mythological history with Stone Blind but now I’ve got a real bit of history set in 17th century England. Exit the Actress is by Priya Parmar and is the story of Ellen Gwynn, a poor commoner in 1600s London who goes on to become one of the world’s first celebrities and King Charles II’s longest lasting affair. Both notable accomplishments for a girl with no schooling, no title, and certainly no money.
By the time Ellen was 12, her father is dead and her mother is an alcoholic madam who prostitutes Ellen’s 14-year-old sister, Rose. In an effort to avoid this fate Ellen goes to work at a theatre selling oranges to audience members. At the time, Charles, as the new king, has decreed, for the first time, that women could appear on stage. Up until then, pretty young men played all the female roles. Time at the theater was time away from home so Ellen spent hours watching rehearsals and mimicking the actors. She was soon noticed for her ability to quickly learn both dance and her photographic memory. She began getting small parts.
Roles for women were few and the prevailing ideal of beauty at the time was tall, brunette, and voluptuous. Ellen was slender, petite, and a redhead. Also, the theatrical style was dramatic and tragic, neither of which interested her. Everything from dialogue to movement on stage was stiff and stylized while she liked to move, to engage the audience. However, her quick wit and work ethic was such that by the time she was 16 she was getting leading roles and gained the nickname she came to be known for, Nell. By 18, she was Charles’ mistress. He was 38.
Nell’s life and relationship with the king is at the center of the book, but they lived in tumultuous times and Parmer uses those as a backdrop in Exit the Actress. 1665 was the last year the bubonic plague made its devastating appearance in England. A year later the great fire of London lasted 4 days and destroyed over 15% of the city’s housing. The details of the catastrophes and their impact on Nell’s life are a startling counter-balance to the more frivolous nature of court and the world of theatre life. All are enhanced by snippets from personal letters and newspaper articles of the times.
Not surprisingly, but even in the face of such noteworthy historical events, Nell remains the star of Exit the Actress. She defied all the conventions of the times—she moved too much, laughed loudly, and was exuberant rather than reserved. She was a commoner who made the King laugh, neither of which was something expected in that day and age. She was a woman who, by and large, lived life on her own terms and it makes for fascinating reading.
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