Scandalous Women in Fiction: Exit the Actress
Author: Priya Parmar
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, February 1, 2010
From the back cover: 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.
Scandalous Women says: When I first heard about this book, I thought, does the world need another book about Nell Gwynn? Especially after Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell just came out in January. And I was a little put off by the notion that the novel was going to be partly narrated by Nell's diary, since from my research, I had read that she was pretty much illiterate. The author, Priya Parmar, writes in her afterward that she had a hard time with the idea that Nell could be an actress and illiterate but given how many bards memorized huge poems like The Iliad and The Odyssey who couldn't read, I have no problem with that idea that Nell could perform 2 or 3 plays a week without being able to read. Some heavy weight names in historical fiction provided blurbs for the book including Sandra Gulland, Philippa Gregory and one of my idols Sharon Kay Penman, so naturally I was curious to see what they saw in the book.
So I decided to give the book a try and I'm glad I did. From the first page I was sucked into this book and I couldn't put it down until I finished it. Parmar has perfectly captured the effervescent, spunky, and delightful personality of Ellen Gwynn as she calls her in the book. Her decision to also use playbills, letters and gossip columns (Ambrose Pink of The London Gazette) was genious, I really got a sense of the period and what was happening in the outside world without having to have characters either discuss it in dialogue or huge amounts of story thrown at me in narrative. I particularly loved the letters from King Charles's mother Henriette Maria, the busybody who keeps sending unwanted and unsolicited advice and the tender letters from Madame of France, the King's beloved baby sister Henriette Anne who died tragically too young.
I have to say that my favorite parts of this book and why it became an automatic keeper for me were all the scenes backstage at the theatre. Nell's interaction with her fellow actors, the description of the plays that they were doing, the playwrights of the age including John Dryden (who knew he was such a dandy) and Etherege were exciting. I felt as if I was eavesdropping in the Green Room. I could smell the greasepaint, and the grotty rehearsal clothes, the candle wax dripping on the stage, the need for the actresses to provide their own costumes. As a former actress, I felt instantly at home in this world that Nell leaves behnd when she falls in love with the King. At the heart of the book is a story of a woman forced to choose between the profession that she loves and the man that she loves. Who can't relate to that? This is the first book where I really felt that I got to know Nell Gwynn the actress, and not just Nell Gwynn, royal mistress. We finally get to see Nell's struggles to get on the stage, her first tentative forays into this career that became a passion, how she was miscast as a tragedienne when she really excelled at comedy and how she finall;y convinced the powers that be to give her a chance to do what she was really good at.
All the usual suspects are here, Barbara Palmer, Rochester, Buckingham, but the characterizations never felt stale in Parmar's hands. Nell's affection and respect for Catherine of Braganza touched my heart. Nell finds herself wanting to befriend the Queen at the same time that she is falling for her husband, which she knows cannot end well. My heart broke as Nell's did when she realizes how she's hurt the Queen.
Parmar won me over in the end, and I'm excited to see what she writes next. She has a natural feel for narrative drive as well as for portraying characters that the audience roots for. Who doesn't want to see Nell win the King's heart? In Parmar's hands, Nell's conquering of the King is not a slamdunk, she bungles the first attempt, and Buckingham of all people, tries to give her advice to woo the King! Parmar's book is going on my keeper shelf next to Jean Plaidy's series set during the reign of Charles II, and Susan Holloway Scott's books.
Verdict: Highly recommended. A behind the scenes peek at the world of Restoration Theatre seen through the eyes of pretty, witty Nell Gwnn.