During April for my 12 in 12 Challenge I am reading historical novels. The second one I have finished in the month is Exit the Actress by Priya Parmar. This is set in seventeenth century London and tells the tale of the life of Nell Gwynn, mistress to King Charles II. The author has chosen to do this by presenting the story as a diary written by the woman from her days as an orange seller to the true beginning of the affaire. Intermingled with the diary entries are letters from King Charles to his sister and mother and also letters from them to him. In addition, the author has created a gossip column in a London paper and gives certain news items relating to the ongoing story. All the diary entries, newspaper items and letters are invented although the main lines of the story are correct.
I am always wary of historical novels based on true events and people. An author writing this sort of book has to be true to what actually happened whilst creating characters that are historically plausible. Many historical novels over romanticise past events and others are often not well enough researched and so don’t ring true. I don’t know a huge amount about this period and the lives of the main characters but I don’t feel that this author fell into either of these traps.
The book starts with Nell and her family living in poverty and Nell working initially selling oysters and then oranges. When she changes her product she becomes involved with life in London’s theatres and eventually becomes an actress, attracting the attention of the King as well as others. Nell’s mother is an alcoholic and a pimp and her sister is a sex worker and so she mixes with those at the bottom as well as the very top of society.
The novel finishes as the King establishes Nell as his mistress so most of the book is about Nell’s early struggles and the theatrical life. The timeframe also takes in the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of the following year.
I really enjoyed this book. I thought that the diary style was a good way of showing how Nell’s life and character change over a period. I thought that the author created the atmosphere of the time well and the interaction between the theatre and the aristocracy. Nell is presented in a very sympathetic light with the author taking the view that she was very much in love with Charles. Charles is presented as attractive but flawed.
This is an excellent read and a very enjoyable story. I read this author’s book Vanessa and Her Sister last year about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and also enjoyed that which is why I bought this book when I saw it in a Charity Shop. I am glad that I did.