This reading group guide for Exit the Actres includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Priya Parmar. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It is seventeenth-century London: England is at peace, King Charles II has been restored to the throne, and young Ellen Gwyn has a decision to make. Does she obey her mother and follow her sister Rose into the demi monde of prostitution or does she risk all and chart her own course? Ellen, better know to history as ‘Nell’ defies her family and becomes an orange girl, selling fruit at Covent Garden’s famous Theatre Royal. Her risk brings speedy rewards and at the theatre she soon rises to become the most popular actress in London.
Outrageous, bright, and brimming with wit, beauty and grace, she charms all who meet her, quickly befriending Poet Laureate John Dryden, playwright Aphra Behn, famed libertine Johnny, Earl of Rochester and the last of the cross dressing actors, Edward Kynaston. She is courted by men named Charles: Charles Hart, leading actor, Lord Charles Buckhurst wealthy, young wit and finally the most famous Charles of all: King Charles II of England.
Weaving back and forth from the theatre, to the King’s court, to the backstreets of Drury Lane, Exit the Actress follows Nell, through her fictionalized journal entries, letters from the royal family, playbills, recipes, and many other creative and comprehensive documents. It chronicles this engaging and delightful heroine’s meteoric rise from humble orange-seller to beloved royal mistress as she rises and falls in the high stakes game of intrigue that constantly surrounds the king she loves.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Throughout the novel Ellen comes back to the idea of there being multiple Ellens. The last instance of this occurs in the final chapter when she writes, "stepping forward I gathered up my many Ellens like a fisherman pulling in a net and held them to me for this moment." What do you think she means by her "many Ellens"? How many can you identify, and what are the defining characteristics of each one?
2. In a shocking moment early in the novel, a very young Nell sees her sister Rose being groped in public, which leads to an even more shocking revelation when Rose utters “You think [Mother] did not ask me to be here?” While Nell is determined not to live her sister’s life, this certainly seems like the plan that her mother has for her. Why do you think she is able to escape her fate, and Rose, ultimately, is not? Do you think Nell eventually succeeds in rescuing Rose from her life of prostitution, or is it too little too late?
3. Who do you think writes under the nom du plume Ambrose Pink? Do you think one of the main characters doubles as the gossip column writer, or is it someone that we are never introduced to? Is Ambrose Pink a man or a woman?
4. Nell’s relationship with Charles Hart was hardly a casual affair. Hart seems deeply in love with Nell, and showers her with gifts and affection. Why do you think Nell is never able to completely fall in love with him? If their child together had survived, do you think their relationship would have suffered as it did?
5. “The game is afoot” says Lord Buckingham, as he makes up his mind to place Nell as the next maitresse en titre. Lord Buckingham has many reasons for choosing Nell, but makes it clear that he expects her to help increase his standing with the King, and perhaps more importantly push his cousin Lady Castlemaine out of favor. As Buckingham notes, “Her bright, whorish light is going out.” Do you think Nell could have become one of the King’s mistresses without the help of Lord Buckingham? To what extent do you think she understands her relationship with the king to be a “game”?
6. Lord Buckhurst’s pursues Nell Gwyn, in a manner that is persistent, but hardly romantic. He first offers to pay her one hundred pounds per year to be his mistress, and then declares in a letter “I have decided you will be mine.” Why do you think she still chooses to run off with him and the rest of the ‘merry mob?’ Should she have left Buckhurst earlier than she did, or was she right in trying to save face by not coming back into public life immediately?
7. Nell's relationship with the Queen is a fascinating combination of admiration and pity. Do you think she betrays the Queen to the same degree the other mistresses do, or does she redeem herself because of her seemingly unique approach to the affair?
8. John Dryden and Aphra Behn both play prominent roles in the novel and help to place it not only in historical context, but also in an artistic one. Allusions are made to many of their plays and poems throughout. Discuss Nell’s prowess as an actress and comedienne. What parts of her personality allowed her to excel on stage and why do you think she was so beloved by the patrons of the theatre? What modern actresses would you compare her to?
9. While Lady Castlemaine plays the villainess throughout the novel, there is no denying the fact that she was a very powerful woman. Her fertility was legendary, and the money, titles, and property that she received from the King were enough to last her several lifetimes. Nevertheless she seems sad as the novel progresses, and ultimately loses the fight to remain on as the King’s mistress once her looks have faded. In what ways is she similar to Nell Gwyn and how is she different? Do you think in her role in Charles’ life she was even more important than the queen at times?
10. King Charles II’s letters to his sister Minette, the Madame of France, were brilliant glimpses into the kind of ruler he was. They showed vulnerability, indecision at times, and ultimately a playfulness and levity that seemed to define his reign. Discuss some of their correspondence. Do you think Minette ever offered a piece of bad advice? How much influence do you think she had over her older brother?
11. Johnny Rochester provides comic relief throughout the novel, but also serves as a confidant to both Nell and Charles. Though he is wittier than most and very well liked, his destructive streak eventually forces his exile. Nell remains a loyal friend until the end, however, writing in her final letter to him, “I do not understand the blackness at the bottom of you. All I can do is love you with all the light I possess.” What do you think of Johnny Rochester? Why do you think his darker moments are so painful for the King and Nell to endure? And finally, why do you think he and Nell get along so well?
12. It is very important to Nell that she own her own property and pay for it herself, resulting in her purchase of Bagnigge House. Later, however, she also accept a house at Newman’s Row from the King. Why do you think she insisted on purchasing her own property but then eventually accepted the Newman’s Row residence? Does this undermine her independent spirit in any way or would she simply have been foolish to continue to shun the benefits of being the King’s maitresse en titre?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- The novel contains several wonderful little snippets from the Lady’s Household Companion. Try a few of them out with your book club. Perhaps the “Remedy for the Sickened Body” would be a good place to start:
- A pot of lemon posset (don’t worry, it’s a hot milk-based drink…not as bad as it sounds)
- Thicken it with the yolks of six eggs
- Sweeten it with sugar and kindness
Does it work? How much kindness did you put in? If you are feeling a little less adventurous, try the recipe for “French Macaroons” on page 63.
A CONVERSATION WITH PRIYA PARMAR
- To get your book club into a seventeenth-century mood, read aloud some of the timeless poems by two prominent figures in the life of Nell Gwyn: John Dryden and Aphra Behn. Poetryfoundation.org has a wonderful collection of poems from both writers, as well as excellent biographies and further reading suggestions.
- Did you know that the British Monarchy have their own website? There are profiles going all the way back to the first official King of England, King Athelstan. This site has a great profile of Charles II, as well as his father Charles I, and features a collection of royal portraits to show you what they looked like. Check it out at www.royal.gov.uk.
Did you choose the court of Charles II as the setting for your novel, or was the character of Nell Gwyn your primary interest and the court simply came with her? Did you consider any other of Charles II's mistresses as a focal point?
Nell was the first woman I encountered while researching my doctorate and she caught my interest and refused to let go. I was fascinated by her contradictions. She was a woman working in the raciest profession, in the raciest court in Europe but she was known to be utterly faithful to her lovers. She was described by Samuel Peyps as «a mad, mad girl» but she moved easily in the most exclusive literary and sophisticated social circles of her day. She was small boned and red haired at a time when voluptous dark beauty was the ideal. I wrote about the Restoration London because that is where Nell lives.
How did you come up with the fantastic idea of telling the story through letters, playbills, diary entries, and other historical documents? How accurately does the format you wrote in reflect the findings of the research you did to write the novel?
I really like primary documents. With respect to history I am most interested in contradictory paper trails—the conflicting perceptions, misconceptions, jealousies, petty likes, dislikes, beliefs and lies that are the ingredients of what cook into hard, historical fact. Telling the story this way allows me to let characters speak for themselves and explore the roots of misunderstandings, legends, reputations and rumours.
Nell herself left very little in the way of documentation. What we mostly have from her are enormous bills for dresses and shoes and a Will that displays her extraordinary generosity. The London Gazette
existed at this time but Ambrose's column is fictional. Similarly, the playbills reflect the company at the time but it is often difficult to guess who would have been cast in each role. The recipes are patterned after authentic dishes and the tone of the letters between Charles and Minette is inspired by existing correspondence. I tried to create their singularly easy relationship within a difficult, uneasy family. Some of the small details such as the barge for Minette, the gift of sealing wax, and even Charles ending a letter by being called off to dance are entirely accurate.
As a first time novelist, what drew you to the genre of historical fiction? Does the historical context that your novel is placed in enhance your imaginative facilities or hinder them?
I have always loved reading historical fiction. I love re-understanding an event or period through a fictional character. I am fascinated by the specifics of history; the small everyday earmarks of a time that feel so foreign to us now.
It was wonderful to write inside a historical frame. It offered a way into the characters. I could easily imagine Nell’s walk in her cumbersome skirts and contrast it with the lissome freedom she must have felt dancing in breeches. There are the rooted in the ground facts we know about her and then there is all the fun, creative space in between. For instance, I know that Nell ran off with Charles Sackville, ostensibly leaving the stage for good. Shortly after she returned to the Theatre Royal and, according to Samuel Peyps, played parts that did not quite suit her. Why? It was hugely fun to construct a plot congruent with her fictional character that would explain such a series of events. Are the recipes from the Lady’s Household Companion real? They are such a great touch and add a practical aspect to the lives of the seventeenth-century characters. Have you tried any of them yourself?
They are real but I am a nightmare in the kitchen! My meringues were pancake-flat and my macaroons tasted like salt. I tried snow cream but it turned out looking like runny whipped cream from a can. I am sure that someone more adept in the kitchen would fare much better than me!
I can guarantee your readers are dying to know if Ambrose Pink is a man or a woman and who he/she was. Was the character based on an actual gossip writer from the era, or was it an imaginative conceit?
Ambrose is entirely fictional but all the gossip is based on real events of the day. There were writers chronicling the lives of celebrities such as Nell, Lady Castlemaine and Peg. Much like today, the public wanted to know all about their beauty routines, diet and personal life.
I assumed Ambrose was
an outside character, and it was only halfway through the novel that I realized it was someone I knew--Teddy. He is positioned to understand all of the overlapping circles of her life: the court, the theatre, and London itself and he loves Nell dearly. He was so much fun to write.
Did your past work as a dramaturg on Broadway and in the West End of London help in the research and writing of this novel? How do you think theater culture has changed since the seventeenth century and what are some of the most striking similarities?
I loved being in the theatre. There is something exciting and electric when the cast is backstage and the audience is coming in. The air crackles and the actors are on the edge of a moment and then the lights dim and they jump. It is thrilling. I think it would have been hard for me to understand the controlled, organized chaos that is a performance without that experience.
The theatre was a rough and rowdy place in the seventeenth century. It was a noisy dialogue between the audience and the actors and it was not uncommon for a popular scene to be repeated three or four times at the audience’s request. This was an exciting era for theatre. Extensive stage machinery and set construction was becoming more common and theatre took on an aspect of spectacle. Audiences came to expect a higher production value and were vocal if disappointed. That is the essential difference: there was no protective balm of politeness as there is now. It was an interactive and sometimes brutal experience. Do you read historical fiction as well as write it? What are you reading right now? Are there any particular writers which have inspired or influenced your style?
My mother taught me how to write. She has always encouraged me to look at why a line works and to see the vertebrae of good writing wherever I find it, whether it is on a shampoo bottle or in a Jane Austen novel. I hear her voice in my head as I pare down a line or find the footstep of a phrase. Her constant question is “Do you need that word?” Usually when she asks that I don’t!
In terms of literary influence I love the economy, heft, and precision of poetry. It is such a marvelous combination of tangential evocation and steely discipline. I love the way poetry stretches the capability of a word or punctuation mark. W.H. Auden, Czslaw Milosz, Constantine Cavafy, Pablo Neruda are some of my favorites. Are you currently working on any other works of historical fiction? Will you continue to set your novels in the seventeenth century or will you delve into a different era altogether?
I am currently working on my second historical novel which takes place in London during the First World War. I hope to return to the seventeenth century some day as I truly love it but for now I am riding on omnibuses through leafy, even squares, summering in Sussex and hoping this war will be over by Christmas.