Book feature: EXIT THE ACTRESS

It’s 17th century England, and King Charles II has been restored to the throne. On the backstreets of Drury Lane, young Ellen Gwyn — or ‘Nell’ as history knows her — is determined not to resort to prostitution to make ends meet, a fate both her alcoholic mother and her sister have fallen to.

Instead, Ellen finds a job as an orange girl, selling fruit at Covent Garden’s famous Theatre Royal. She’s bright, witty, and disarmingly honest — and she quickly charms those around her with her beauty and sparkle. Among her new friends are such luminaries as Poet Laureate John Dryden, playwright Aphra Behn, famed libertine Johnny, Earl of Rochester and the famous cross dressing actor, Edward Kynaston.

Seeing her potential, the leading actor, Charles Hart, and theatre manager Thomas Killigrew allow Ellen to audition and she quickly earns a place in the company. Unlikely as it may seem, her roles steadily evolve from supporting to starring, until she becomes one of London’s most popular and beloved actresses.

And it isn’t long until she captures the heart of certain royal luminaries as well, most specifically, the king. “Ah, you patrons and saints of the theatre… in the world at the edge of the world, where the king comes down from his mountain top to love the orange girl.”

She eventually becomes the mistress and favourite of Charles II. Despite his reputation as a philanderer — and the brutal court politics, gossip and scandal that accompany a royal romance — Ellen wholly wins over his heart. It is a true love match from the beginning and in time, Nell bears the king a son.

Priya Parmar’s fictionalized account of this irrepressible and unconventional heroine is told through a collection of vibrant seventeenth-century voices ranging from Ellen’s diary to playbills, letters, gossip columns, and an assortment of home remedies. While the daily details of London’s saucy actress and ‘mad, mad girl’ are the invention of the author, the main events and characters of the novel are rooted in historical fact.

The reader is drawn into the delights, dangers and disasters of Restoration England — and into the life and times of the extraordinary, courageous and always entertaining ‘Nell’. It is a rags-to-riches story that will delight.