Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Restoration Love Story: Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar

Nell Gwynn
When I was reading Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar I noted that many marked it as 'want to read' because they enjoyed Parmar's previous book Exit the Actress about the Restoration actress Nell Gwynn.

I had read about Nell in Samuel Pepys' Diary. At university I kept hearing about this Samuel Pepys dude. I bought an 1890s three volume set of Pepys Diary edited by Henry S. Wheatly and read it; later my husband gifted me the complete diary published by University of California.

"And so to bed." (how Samuel Pepys ends his diary entries)

I went to bed with Pepys for years. And it was my husband's idea.

Pepys loved the theater (read excerpts of his diary about his theater going here.) Under Oliver Cromwell's government the theaters had been closed. With the restoration of the monarchy, and Charles II on the throne, the country made up for all those years of enforced Christian perfection. Bawdy and sexy and profligate things were happening. (Starting at the top with Charles, The Merry King himself!)

Men had traditionally played female roles. One famous actor, Edward Kynaston, or Teddy in Parmar's book, was complimented by Pepys as being 'the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life." Now females were pushing their way into the theater. Of course they were all prostitutes. Why, Nell Gwynn danced on stage and SHOWED HER LEGS. Scandalous!

"Creed and I walked out to see what play was acted to-day and we find it "The Slighted Mayde"...we saw it well acted, though the play hath little good about it, being most pleased to see the little girl dance in boy's apparel, she having very fine legs, only bends in the hams, a I perceive all women do."
Samuel Pepys Diary, Monday, February 23, 1663

On March 2, 1667 Pepys and his wife went to see the Mayden Queen by Dryden. Pepys wrote, "there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or woman...so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girle, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant,; and hath the notions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her."
Charles in 1653 when in exile
Nell Gwynn was famous for being rising from an orange seller in the theater to becoming one of its stars. Nell was also admired by theater lover Charles II and she later became his mistress. Catching the eye of Charles II was not the hard part. He had seven mistresses and they bore his only living children. Nell remained a favorite and on his death bed he remembered her and hoped they didn't let "poor Nell starve."
Charles II. The model for Captain Hook.
Parmar's version of Nell's rags to riches story is full of ambiance and details about the 17th c.
The book is written in the form of diary entries by Nell, interspersed with letters, recipes, and gossip columns. The reader 'hears' Nell's voice first person. (It was during this time period that personal 'closets' allowing privacy became fashionable--leading to diary writing.) Letters between Charles II and his sister offer readers some insight into the royal world. Readers will enjoy the camaraderie of the theater denizens and their lively antics. 

I had so much fun with Nell and The Wits. They are better company than Vanessa and Virginia could ever be. I suddenly want to revisit Pepys and Fielding and Restoration drama. 

Exit the Actress
by Priya Parmar
Simon & Schuster
Publication 2011
available in ebook, paperback, and hard cover