Friday, May 17, 2013

Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar

Do you remember all the hubbub around the Royal Wedding back in 2011?  Around that time, everyone was Monday-morning quarterbacking William and Catherine’s relationship, assessing the when, how, and why of it.  Common knowledge attributes Will’s interest in Kate as more than just a friend to a fashion show, and this little number that Kate rocked down the catwalk:

When I saw this picture, I said “Nell Gwyn would be so proud…” and people looked at me like I was nuts.  Most people don’t know who Gwyn was, so I let it slide.  My latest read, Exit the Actress, by Priya Parmar, does a wonderful job at educating the reading public about the force of nature that was Gwyn.

Parmar’s work tells the (very) personal story of Ellen Gwyn, from her early teens to her death in Restoration England.  Ellen, born to a middling-sort family who fell on hard-times, began her professional career as an oyster seller before becoming an orange-seller at the Royal Theater, then an actress at the same local (with the stage name of Nell Gwyn).  It was during her time as an actress that she began rubbing shoulders with the upper-classes of society, eventually become a mistress and close confident of King Charles II.  

Historically, Ellen life is part of a very interesting period of England’s national story.  Charles II was the son of King Charles I (real original, I know) who was executed by Oliver Cromwell and his bunch following the civil war for what was seen as abuse of his position.  Charles the younger went into exile at the age of 12, and only returned to England when the Protectorate set up by Cromwell fell apart after his death (that’s an interesting story in hypocrisy and madness, if you’re interested in doing some extra reading).  Charles returned to the land of his birth, and took is place as King.  But he was reigning in a new dynamic – personally and ‘professionally’ affected by his father’s death, Charles spent years trying to regain what he saw as the rightful powers of the kings of England.  This goal was further complicated by his personal life.

Charles was a consummate ladies-man.  Married for political reasons (as all Kings are, and that’s another interesting story, if you’re looking for yet more extra reading), Charles was loyal, but far from faithful, to his wife.  Before being married, Charles’ official mistress (maitress en titre, a convenient court posting borrowed from Louis IVX of France) was Barbara Castlemaine.  Barbara bore the King multiple children, in stark contract to his wife, who was unable to give him an heir.  Barbara, however, took advantage of her position, and bled all the money, titles and gifts she possibly could from the King, making Charles permanently broke.  In an era where the King was trying to regain his prestige and power, he was constantly having to go begging (to Parliament or money lenders) for more cash.

This is where Ellen enters the stage (see what I did there?).  The business about the King’s positions and finances is well known in history, but what I enjoyed so much about Parmar’s work is that she brings Ellen into the story in such a way that allows the readers to humanize bigger historical events.  Told through Ellen’s journals, news clippings, and court circulars (all fictionalized, of course), the reader is taken to the era of 1660s London to explore the restored monarchy, the court intrigues, and larger historical events (such as the plague and Great Fire of London).  Parmar deftly winds her fictional account of Ellen (Nell), Charles, Barbara, and a whole host of historical and fictional characters into a readable and enjoyable history lesson for the general public.  In terms of character development, I found Parmar’s skills to be robust and engaging; her writing style is fast-paced and fluid; and her ability to fictionalize reality without loosing a sense of authenticity is to be commended.

I want to stress before signing off that, when I likened Kate Middleton to Nell Gwyn, I meant no disrespect (which, many who know the surface history of the situation might think).  As Parmar’s work reminds us, some women burst onto this pages of history by very public and alluring means, and then live their lives to the fullest from there.  Nell is a perfect example, and I think Kate is following nicely in her footsteps. 

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  As I’ve said before, it can be hard to find historical fiction about Britain that’s not Tudor-based these days, but Exit the Actress is a wonderful account of Restoration England.*  Parmar’s skills as a writer seems to promise a long career, and I, for one, and am looking forward to following her efforts in the future.

*I’d also recommend Forever Amber, by Kathleen Windsor, for another excellent piece of Restoriation fiction.

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