Author: Priya Parmar
Number of pages: 444 pages
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Release Date: 1 February 2011
Purchasing Info: Goodreads, Author's Website, Amazon, Kindle store, Book Depository
Grade: 4.5 stars
Goodreads appetizer: 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.
My Thoughts: I love reading historical novels because of the couple hour-long time travel they take me on. I love getting a glimpse of 15th century Engtland and the Tudor court or seeing how things (politics, wars, alliances, love and marriages) were done back then, to see how people lived their every day life at that time.
Exit the Actress brought me to a time period previously unknown to me: the Restoration period. Through Priya Parmar's debut novel I got to know England of the 17th century, and most specifically the world of theatre at that time.
Exit the Actress tells us the life story of Ellen Gwyn; how a young girl from modest background, a simple 'orange girl' rose to fame as one of the most renowned and beloved actresses of the time and became the mistress and love of the king, Charles II.
Ellen is a very likable young girl, her naivety and candour make her a trusted and genuine character. Her warmth, honesty and vivacity shine through the story and make it easy to understand why everyone flocked to her 'light', and wished to be in her entourage.
Besides Ellen as the protagonist, Priya Parmar introduced a dozen of well developed, three dimensional historical characters. My personal favourites were Hart (warmhearted, generous, loving Hart) who was Ellen's mentor, lover and a bit of a father-figure/protector, Rochester with his dark intensity and Teddy (famous actor of the time renowned for playing female roles). Teddy brought so much light, colour, humour and levity to the story! His catchphrase "quel glamour" always managed to make me smile and worked wonderfully peppered in the text, subtly nuancing Ellen's narrative. What I found amazing is that I expected the theatre company to be ruled by rivalry, cattiness but instead Hart and the company were like a warm loving family to Ellen, and seeing her less than ideal childhood it was heartwarming to see how these people genuinely cared about her.
One of the aspects of this novel I loved the most is that although most historical novels only focus on the romance storyline, in Exit the Actress Priya Parmar first and foremost focused on Ellen and her life: how she became the person she was, her family, her friends, her career and her lovers. I loved how with Exit the Actress Priya Parmar declared that Nell shouldn't only be remembered due to her being mistress to Charles II but because of everything she had achieved and the person she had been, and being a royal mistress was only one small (even if important) side of her life.
"Your sparkle came from your secret, Ellen. [...]"
"My secret?" I asked not following.
"You were yourself by your own right. However much it may have looked like you were in someone's possession. That was your great secret. That is why you sparkled beyond all others. You were free."
Though Exit the Actress is Ellen's story told mainly from her narrative through her journal entries, I enjoyed that Priya Parmar broadened the picture and scope of the novel by including snippets of correspondence between Charles II and his sister, gazette articles, home recipes and minutes of government meetings. They all helped in shaping in the readers' mind what London and England at that time must have been: bustling, colourful, busy and on the verge of important changes. Priya Parmar excelled in capturing the atmosphere of the time and brininging back to life a bustling historical period overlooked and long forgotten.
It was also wonderful how in the portrayal of Charles II in Exit the Actress Priya Parmar showed us the man behind the crown and title of king. Through Charles' correspondence with Minette and his mother we saw a personal, unreserved, playful yet due to its honesty vulnerable portrayal of the man ruling England.
The Queen Mother's letter to Charles II:
"For Heaven's sake Charles, stop frolicking through the countryside like a milkmaid and get a tighter rein on your government. [...] How can you be writing to King Louis for money? Where is your own money? Taxes, Charles, taxes create a revenue. This should not be difficult for you to grasp. You are king - rule for God's sake."
Exit the Actress is not a hictorical fairy tale, it retains its connection to reality by showing the shadier side of the time: the dirt, poverty, prostitution and devastation caused by the plague and the big fire of London. And thanks to the narrative not glossing over these important facets of everyday life back then, the story remains authentic and believable.
Verdict: Priya Parmar's wonderful debut novel is breathtaking in giving us such a vibrant, lush and colourful retelling of the Restoration period and the theatre scene back then. Priya Parmar's talent - besides painting the canvas with such colourful strokes - lies in how real the world she depicts seems: her characters step off the pages and the readers don't feel that the story they are reading about is 400 years away. Oh no, she brings 17th century London and long deceased characters back to life with such vibrant vivacity that the story comes to life.
Exit the Actress is a riveting debut novel, which I recommend to all historical fiction fans!