Twelve years old in 1662, Ellen grows up with an alcoholic mother in Coal Yard Alley on London’s Drury Lane, and narrowly avoids sinking into prostitution like her older sister, Rose. First an oyster girl and then an orange seller at the Theatre Royal, Ellen’s liveliness and skill in dancing are noted by members of the company, who devote time to nurturing her gifts.
Through their tutelage, Ellen develops from an uncultured girl into a talented actress. Her unfashionable red hair and bubbly outlook give her the common touch that audiences adore, especially when she’s given roles that fit her personality. Her inner circle includes the famous names of the day – John Dryden, the Earl of Rochester, Peg Hughes – and she has liaisons with two suitors. However, no man seems worthy of her until she attracts the notice of Charles II. Like Ellen, he keeps his most private self offstage.
Interspersed with Ellen’s diary entries are short sections that replicate primary sources of the day: personal notes, recipes, broadsheet columns, memoranda, and other announcements. Taken together they form a sweeping portrait of the Restoration era, from the playhouses to the intrigue-filled royal court, and from the Second Anglo-Dutch War through the Great Fire and after. Through Ellen’s eyes, we get her gossipy impressions of Barbara Castlemaine, the king’s grasping longtime mistress, and of his barren Portuguese queen, who she comes to admire rather than pity.
Ellen’s early life couldn’t be more distant from that of Queen Henrietta Maria, writing advice-filled letters to her son and daughter, but her world and the royal family’s world gradually intersect. Parmar lets us observe Ellen’s transformation through her narration, which adjusts as she grows in sophistication and confidence. Her famous wit may seem lacking early on, but it emerges later in the story.
Some of the middle sections move more slowly than the rest, and some of the fonts used in the book are too small or ornate to invite close reading, but all in all it’s a most enjoyable novel. Whether or not you believe the real Nell Gwyn would have been a devoted journal writer, it’s an imaginative re-creation, an engaging portrait of a vibrant young woman and the age in which she lived.
Exit the Actress was published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in February at $16.00 ($18.99 in Canada). Trade pb, 446pp.