While selling oranges in the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, sweet and sprightly Ellen "Nell" Gwyn impresses the theater’s proprietors with a wit and sparkle that belie her youth and poverty. She quickly earns a place in the company, narrowly avoiding the life of prostitution to which her sister has already succumbed. As her roles evolve from supporting to starring, the scope of her life broadens as well. Soon Ellen is dressed in the finest fashions, charming the theatrical, literary, and royal luminaries of Restoration England. Ellen grows up on the stage, experiencing first love and heartbreak and eventually becoming the mistress of Charles II. Despite his reputation as a libertine, Ellen wholly captures his heart—and he hers—but even the most powerful love isn’t enough to stave off the gossip and bitter court politics that accompany a royal romance. Telling the story through a collection of vibrant seventeenth-century voices ranging from Ellen’s diary to playbills, letters, gossip columns, and home remedies, Priya Parmar brings to life the story of an endearing and delightful heroine.
In Exit the Actress, Priya Parmar sweeps the reader back to 17th Century London and the life of a poor young woman named Ellen “Nell” Gwynn who must sell oysters and oranges to London’s theatre patrons in order to scrape out a living. Nell struggles to support herself rather than falling into the same traps as her alcoholic mother and sister who work as prostitutes.
At the theatre, she falls in love with a seasoned actor by the name of Charles Hart, but their relationship fails when she realizes she does not love him. Gradually, as Nell’s career progresses onto the stage as a talented actress, Nell catches the eye of King Charles II, a man 20 years her senior. It is a true love match from the very beginning. In time, Nell bears the king a son.
If there is one word to describe this biographical fiction novel, it is the word, creative. The book itself is a work of art. The book is written in diary format, decorated with bits and pieces of fancy stationary, easy to read diary entries, flourishes, newspaper articles of the time, theatre brochures, personal letters between members of the royal family, and delightful recipes for cures from The Lady’s Household Companion. It truly is a feast for the eyes as well as the intellect. This heightens the historic feel and credibility of the novel. There is a great deal of historic detail cleverly weaved together to form the story. Nell is a fascinating character, courageous and forthright, who overcame poverty and rose to the loftiest of heights. A rags to riches story not to be missed.