Exit the Actress
Nell Gwynn has been enjoying a revival in historical fiction of late, and it is no wonder. She’s the quintessential heroine, her meteoric rise from impoverished orange seller to actress to one of Charles II’s lovers enshrining her in our imagination as that plucky girl who achieved fame and fortune yet never lost her common sense. In Priya Parmar’s exuberant Exit the Actress, Nell is brought to life through fictional diary entries, interspersed with letters between members of the royal family, scandalous broadsheets, and occasional recipes. Here, Nell narrowly sidesteps her sister’s downslide into prostitution when she catches the attention of the proprietors of a popular theatre. Despite her unfashionably slim build and red-head coloring, Nell’s vocal talent and comedic flair eventually steer her toward leading roles; it is during her time on stage that she captures the randy king’s attention and becomes, according to the novel, his most beloved, if short-lived, mistress.
Parmar’s enthusiasm for her subject is evident in a keen feel for the period’s tragedy and frivolity, sweeping the reader from London’s seedy brothels to the raucous glamour of Covent Garden and backbiting galleries of Whitehall, as well as touching upon the major events of the time, such as the horrific plague epidemic and Great Fire. Parmar also shows a deft hand with her supporting cast, recreating the eccentric camaraderie and foibles of a 17th-century theatre troupe. While Nell’s tittle-tattle air limits her introspection, Exit the Actress offers a playful recreation of a woman whose spirited optimism helped her survive a tumultuous age.