So often in history the ones we remember are either those with power or those who will do anything to get it. The focus follows them as the many people who float in and out of their lives inevitably take a back seat. It takes a strong character to break through this secondary status and not only become visible but become loved. Priya Parmar, author of Exit the Actress, has narrowed this historical focus and found just that rare gem in Nell Gwyn.
Ellen “Nell” Gwyn grows up in poverty on poor, dirty Drury Lane in 17th century London. While she watches her mother drink away the little they have and nudge Nell’s sister, Rose, into prostitution, she determines she will not follow down their paths. Somehow, some way, she will survive to live a better life.
When she secures a job as an orange seller at the famed Theatre Royal of Covent Garden, her natural wit, charm and honesty sets her apart and brings her to the attention of the theater owners. She is given a position as an actress and quickly becomes one of the favorites of the company. She finds a kind of family in this new life, surrounding herself with fellow actors, eccentrics, writers and wits. In no time, her star is on the rise. Many adore her, a few truly love her, but only one man seems to spark within Nell that genuine allure and emotion that is missing with her other lovers: King Charles II.
Nell becomes one of many mistresses of this famed libertine king, but soon sets herself apart. She doesn’t care for his title or wealth but truly loves the man underneath. She easily transitions back and forth from her family on Drury Lane, her bohemian life of the theater, and the glitz and glam of the court while always staying true to who she is. But loving the ruler of England comes with its prices and Nell must decide what she is willing to bargain with, and what she isn’t, in the name of love.
This is my first look into the life of Nell Gwyn and I am now, and forever, a fan. Priya Parmar does a beautiful job of bringing the Restoration period of England alive through letters, advertisements, gossip columns and colloquial remedies while highlighting Nell’s humor and heart through her journal entries. She presents for us a woman who seemed able to use her many facets to fit in with and find affection in everyone from the lowest scullery maid to the upper echelon of society. She held her heart for the one she truly loved and, in return, earned the love and respect of the king.
My only complaint with Exit the Actress is that it ended so soon and while Nell was still in her prime. I am now itching to read what happens next in Ms. Gwyn’s life, and I have Ms. Parmar’s skill as a writer to thank for that.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son and pet fish. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Touchstone. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.