Exit the Actress is Priya Parmar’s debut historical fiction novel. The central character is Eleanor Gwyn, an oyster girl who won a position as orange girl at the King’s Company Theatre. From this lowly occupation, Eleanor ascended the stage, after a great deal with training, with incredible success (and a few flops) and, ultimately, become the mistress of King Charles II of England.
Priya Parmar chose to write Exit the Actress in a unique style, interspersing Eleanor’s (who preferred to be called “Ellen”, but was dubbed “Nell” or “Nelly” by theater patrons and the press) journal entries with London Gazette Gossip Sheets penned by the mysterious Ambrose Pink in flowery language (“Cherish it, my petals!”), Official Notations for Privy Council Meetings written by Secretary of State Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, correspondence between Charles II, his beloved sister, Minette, and his mother, Queen Henrietta Maria and letters between Eleanor’s grandfather and great-aunt.
In addition, recipes, such as Venetian Ceruse and Plague Water, from the Lady’s Household Companion are inserted at appropriate times in the plot.
Many peripheral characters inhabit Exit the Actress. Ellen’s mother, Nora, sister, Rose, her grandfather, Dr. Edward Gwyn, her great-aunt, Margaret, and the ghost of her long deceased father, Thomas, cause deep concern for Ellen for both their well-being and financial support. She is horrified by her mother’s alcoholism and her sister’s prostitution.
The King’s Company actors Theo Bird, Nick Burt, Charles Hart, Peg Hughes, Teddy Kynaston (the last cross-dressing stage actor in England), John Lacy, Becka Marshall and Thomas Killigrew (manager) and John Dryden (playwright) are prominent in Ellen’s life and she considers them her “theater family”. When crises arose, theater family meetings were called to determine resolutions.
Finally, royalty and courtiers who were involved intimately in Ellen’s life were:
- Charles II;
- his wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza;
- Ellen’s nemesis, Barbara Castlemaine;
- Charles Blackhurt, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex;
- Sir Charles Sedley;
- George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; and
- Johnny Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.
Thankfully, Priya Parmar included a list of characters at the front of Exit the Actress; otherwise, I would have been lost with the numerous characters.
Exit the Actress chronicles Ellen’s life from the time she is 12 years old until she is pregnant with her first child by Charles II and stages her farewell performance. Priya Parmar imbues Ellen’s well-known love of living life to the fullest, singing, dancing, acting outrageously and surrounding herself with the Wits of the day (also referred to as the “Merry Gang” and “Bad Boys”).
Where Exit the Actress differs from many historical novels about Ellen is that she is attributed with emotions not commonly associated with her. Doubts, self-recriminations, strong principles, her fierce ambition to remain independent, her desire to love the man, Charles II – not Charles the King – her refusal to participate in political intrigues and her loyalty to her family and lovers.
During her lifetime, Ellen had three lovers, all named Charles: Charles Hart (actor), Charles Blackhurst (Earl of Dorset and Middlesex) and King Charles II. She remained faithful to each of her lovers during the relationships, even continuing that faithfulness after the death of Charles II until her own death two years later.
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, spent prodigious amounts of money to groom Ellen as Charles II’s next mistress in hopes of promoting his own position at Court. His cousin, Barbara Castlemaine, did nothing to gain him further royal rewards, so he put all his hopes (and money) into Ellen.
Priya Parmar infused Exit the Actress with a wry sense of humor. I often found myself smiling or chuckling at acerbic thoughts and comments by various characters. “Taxes, Charles, taxes create revenue. This should not be difficult for you to grasp. You are king – rule, for God’s sake!” (Letter from Queen Henrietta Maria to her son, King Charles II.)
Although the format of Exit the Actress may be somewhat unconventional, I found it a delightful read. The ancillary letters, gossip sheet, etc., made it possible to gain insight into events of the day that Ellen could not reasonably have known or, if she had, included in her journal entries.
The author fictionalized Ellen’s journal entries. The only extant documents related to Ellen Gwyn are some rather exorbitant accounts for clothing and shoes. However, the characters and events (i.e. plague and Great Fire of London) described in his historical novel are factually based.
Rating: 4 Stars **** (Excellent)
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