Nelly or Ellen? Revamping the first English actresses in contemporary popular culture


  • Laura Martínez-García


The first British actresses have been the focus of extensive scholarly study, transposing the boundaries of academic life and irrupting in popular culture and becoming a part of the public imagination and folklore. This paper studies the perception we have inherited of “Pretty, Witty Nell,” probably the best-known actress of the Restoration, through the analysis of two novels—Priya Parmar’s Exit the Actress and Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet—that reconstruct Gwyn’s life turning the “Protestant Whore” into a learned lady and a devoted mother. This revamping of her figure not only entails the erasure of the subversive potential of actresses’ break with the public-masculine/private-feminine dichotomy, but it also works as an attempt at neutralizing the threat that these “public” women pose to the gender roles that became normative in the seventeenth century and that are still seen as such nowadays.


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