Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar

Title: Exit the Actress
Author: Priya Parmar
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 444 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars (largely for the strength of the source story, less so for what’s done with it)

Exit the Actress is cute and a bit quirky, but ultimately falls short of my hopes. The book tells the story of Eleanor Gwyn, called Ellen or Nell, who rises from selling oysters in the streets of London as a child, first to the ranks of the theatre, then to the royal court as a mistress to the famously libidinous King Charles II. Along the way, she gets entangled with the other famous names of the day — Thomas Killigrew (chief shareholder of the company), Edward Kyneston (of Stage Beauty fame), Charles Hart (the famous leading man of the period), Margaret Hughes (first known English actress), Aphra Behn (first professional female playwright), John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester (infamous libertine), and a host of other playwrights, poets, actors, actresses, and courtiers. The period of the Restoration is utterly fascinating for how riotous and contradictory it was, and Parmar does a satisfactory job of bringing that atmosphere across.

Parmar tells the story chiefly through Gwyn’s imagined diary, but also through playbills, gossip columns, letters between the king and his family, recipes, and other paper detritus — all of it fictional or fictionalized, which is a bit of a shame, because including some of the originals would have been fascinating. It’s clear that Parmar (a former dramaturg) is familiar with the sources, because plenty of juicy tidbits, anecdotes, and fun facts find their way into the novel, but they all feel somewhat watered-down. It’s definitely a creative way of telling the story, though, and it helps Parmar escape the trap too often presented by telling a story in the first person. The letters, particularly, let the reader see a world larger than Ellen’s, full of politics, war, and intrigues, and they expose a great deal more of the Stuart family dynamics

On the whole, it seems a rather sanitized version of Nell Gwyn’s story. The world certainly glitters — perhaps a bit too much. Parmar elevates Gwyn from guttersnipe origins to something rather more genteel — her mother is only an occasional bawd, her sister the better kind of prostitute. Ellen herself is not harassed or threatened — she merely encounters hints that maybe she ought to follow her sister into the morally questionable life. It’s not nearly so dark a vision as I’d more easily imagine for a penniless family ruled by a drunkard in the 1660s. The very harshest moment in the entire book is when Charles Hart calls her a whore — and even that dramatic moment pulls its punch a bit. Cleaning the story up robs it of a lot of potential. The familial stresses between Charles, Henrietta Maria, James, Jemmy, and the rest are mentioned but largely glossed over. Barbara Castlemaine, a fantastic harridan with the potential to be a hugely compelling character and worthy antagonist, remains almost entirely off-screen, as it were — referred to often but almost never seen in the moment. Nell’s rivalries with other actresses get dismissed as mere rumors, because sweet Ellen would never be so wicked. Even Johnny Rochester’s considerable troubles, violent nature, and vicious wit are somewhat fobbed off as lovable roguishness — they also almost all happen off-screen, again pulling the punch. I also have trouble believing that the backstage world of the Theatre Royal was quite so consistently chummy and supportive. There’s sporting rivalry with another company, but none of the cutthroat competition you’d expect. Additionally, for all the talk of Ellen the Actress, who gets her courage from the theatre and loves it so passionately, the discourse of the story spends precious little time actually involved with theatrical matters. I enjoyed a lot of the tidbits Parmar threw my way, particularly concerning obscure titles, but I wanted more of that and less of Ellen rusticating in the country.

We also see none of “pretty, witty Nell” — this is not the story of an impishly charming redhead whose quick wit, bold manner, and cheerful disposition win the hearts of London and King Charles II. Instead, this is the story of a tongue-tied, hesitant mouse, who has significant trouble asserting herself and who lands favours and attention based primarily off of the machinations of scheming courtiers and well-meaning friends alike. There’s no fire in this Ellen, no spark of mischief, no brilliance, and precious little passion. As a result, in the moments when she ought to be most scintillating, she comes off as rather dull or sappy. It feels a bit as though Parmar didn’t want her heroine to occasionally do nasty things, and so she hedges around them, excuses them, dismisses them as rumor, or leaves them out entirely. Her Ellen is just a little too impossibly perfect. Everyone loves her, but Parmar never offers compelling evidence as to why. She fails to bring across the irresistible charisma that the historical Nell Gwyn reportedly had.

Even more frustrating, Parmar leaves the story off with her ascension to maitresse en titre and mother to a king’s bastard — which seems an odd choice, considering that Ellen spends most of the book declaring that she wants to be something more than that. We never actually see her have to deal with the implications of her elevation. It also robs us of the opportunity to see her famous rivalry with Louise de Kérouaille — perhaps because Nell’s recorded behaviour towards the French mistress didn’t quite fit with Parmar’s vision of a gentler-spirited Ellen.

So, overall, readable, but not quite what I was hoping it would be. I’ve also got The Darling Strumpet waiting to be read, so we’ll see how that fares in comparison to this first read on the same subject.

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