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Georgian Era Theatre, History

‘Bridgerton’ and the Plight of the Female Theatrical Performer

 I am always up for a good period drama series, and so I binge-watched the delightful series of Bridgerton on Netflix recently. As an author of a novel set in a late Georgian-era theatre, I was particularly pleased to see some scenes taking place at an opera house (presumably a portrayal of the King’s Theatre in Haymarket). I often find my eye homing in on minute details, such as the stage settings, lighting, seating for the audience (all very well done, I might add) and other trivial matters that most probably don’t even notice. But one area that drew my attention was perhaps one of the most touching side stories in the whole show: the plight of the opera singer Siena Rosso (beautifully portrayed by Sabrina Bartlett).

Ladies in the theatre business had some challenging social mores to try and manage.

Bridgerton is hardly a reference work for the realities of Regency life, but the story of Siena probably came the closest to authenticity out of all the characters in the drama. Life for a woman in theatre was not easy. Primarily, it was still not a path that was considered respectable for a woman to follow. Despite the requirement for a great deal of talent, women in the profession were often perceived to be of a lesser order, even ladies of ill repute. There were many associations with performers of the past who were notorious for being high class courtesans: mistress of Charles II – the witty and brazen Nell Gwynn, talented Irish actress Peg Woffington, the astoundingly beautiful Frances Abington, among countless others. The stage was a showcase for a beautiful woman, and it could afford her the opportunity to be introduced to men of the upper class. From that point, perhaps financial arrangements could be secured to garner funds from wealthy protectors and suitors. A wise woman would be able to save up for a rainy day – when one’s looks had faded and the wandering eye of the affluent rake had moved elsewhere. It was a precarious and dangerous business, as men held all the power and sometimes (well – maybe often) reneged on their promises of support. This was the situation the actress Mary Robinson found herself in when the prince, George IV, promised her the moon for her attention (or £20,000) – then didn’t cough up the funds when his interests began to wane. It was an oft repeated situation and there was little recourse for the betrayed woman – unless they were skilled at blackmail. Even for someone as talented and admired as Dora Jordan, destitution was only a broken promise away. The Duke of Clarence was quick to abandon her and all their children together when the opportunity to accede to the throne as king came up, but with the requirement that he had a ‘respectable’ wife.

Mary Robinson, named as ‘Perdita’ by George IV – who promised her his undying love and devotion.

Women at the time had few options as far as career choice went. All importance was placed on a beneficial matrimonial match. Mere actresses were of a lowly status and would not even be in the competition alongside the fine and honourable ladies of the Ton, with their attractive dowries and respectable titles to lure a worthy husband. But times were beginning to change at the end of the 18th Century and there were some key figures that contributed to elevating the status of the female performer. First was the highly respected actress Sarah Siddons. A consummate professional, she was among the first women to be recognised for her talents and had a most honourable reputation. But the actress that really blew the doors wide open was the sensational Elizabeth Farren. Glamorously painted by the up and coming artist Thomas Lawrence, she persevered until she became the Countess of Derby. How accepted she truly was, I do not know but the barn door had been unbolted and the opportunity was there – it was possible for an actress, a singer or a dancer to move to a more prominent stage; as wife of a man of fortune and title. The path had been paved and there was a precedent.

Miss Farren, later to become Countess of Derby

However, it still was not easy to battle the stigma of the entertainment world that stubbornly persisted. Even Drury Lane Theatre owner and manager Richard Brinsley Sheridan forbade his wife, Elizabeth Linley – a talented soprano and well-known beauty, from ever performing again in public once they had married. Essayist Leigh Hunt explored the phenomenon in great detail in several of his essays in the late 1820s, including Duchess of St. Albans and Marriages from the Stage. Mr. Hunt uses Harriet Mellon as a case study of sorts (eventually she became the Duchess of St. Albans). She was a minor character in my novel An Actress of Repute, and her lovely countenance graces the cover of my book most handsomely). Mr. Hunt was eventually a champion of the women of the stage, admiring their talents He noted their patience with having to put up with the tiresome men of great means and stating that they were often better suited than the ladies of the ‘Ton’ as life partners. Indeed, as he wrote – “When an actress of celebrity now marries, the surprise of the public is, that she puts up with a private gentleman.” Slowly, some modicum of respectability was becoming achievable by women that were lucky enough to marry into title and good fortune. Hunt listed the names of these fortunate performers – one being a certain Miss Elizabeth Searle, who also just happens to be the main character of my novel. She may have to wait to find her dream match (a couple of sequels down the road, I suspect), but I am so happy that Miss Searle’s future is indicating that prosperity and success may be just around the corner for her.

Georgian Era Theatre, History

Tears of a Clown – the Great Joseph Grimaldi

Joe Grimaldi as a clown by George Cruikshank

I was recently doing a bit of research on one of my main character’s co-stars, prompted by a photographic memory of a most unusual church service held in London every year which I attended. The service is attended by clowns in full costume, all in tribute to the man considered to be the ‘King of Clowns’ – Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837). His biography was edited by none other than the great Charles Dickens. Joseph was brought up in the world of theatre as his father, Joseph Giuseppe Grimaldi, was an actor and dancer – eventually becoming ballet master at Drury Lane Theatre. But his father was a vile and cruel man, fathering children from various mistresses. He was rumoured to have punished children at his dance school by placing them in cages suspended from the ground and was renowned for his bad temperament (those in the know called Grimaldi “Grim All Day”).

Miraculously, Joe came away from this troubled upbringing possessing his father’s great theatrical talent, but being a very kind-hearted, dedicated man. It was this reputation for kindness, and a possession of a saddened heart (his first wife died in childbirth) that drew me into writing him in as a supporting character in my novel An Actress of Repute. Joe Grimaldi was also married to the sister of my main character’s first ally at Drury Lane Theatre – Miss Bristow. Mr. Grimaldi continued to be an important co-star and colleague throughout Elizabeth Searle’s career – later following her move to Covent Garden Theatre and working together on their greatest theatrical success, the smash hit pantomime Mother Goose and the Golden Egg.

Sadly, Joe Grimaldi’s life continued to have more tragedy than mirth. For all the laughter and smiles he brought to the world, he was racked by depression and physical disability brought on by the physicality of his onstage acrobatics. His only child, a troubled son who was seeking to follow in his father’s theatrical footsteps, died before him. Unable to work, he was dependent on charity and lived his remaining years in poverty. His legacy does live on, however. There is a musical memorial near his grave, in a park named after him, not far from King’s Cross Station. Shaped like a coffin, you can ‘dance on his grave’ – the tiles playing the notes of his most famous song Hot Coddlins.

To learn more about the remarkable Mr. Grimaldi, I highly recommend Andrew McConnell Stott’s touching and highly readable biography – The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi. I found the book indispensable for helping me understand the backstage politics of London’s main theatres of the time. Miss Searle herself (and her future husband) actually get very brief mentions in the text, as does Elizabeth’s little brother Tom, along with insights into several of Miss Searle’s fellow actors and actresses. It was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and you can listen to some excerpts on Mr. McConnell Stott’s webpage: Literary Remains — Andrew McConnell Stott I had heard that a musical based on this biography was in the works a few years back, being developed by Daniel and Laura Curtis. I was pleased to see that there were casting sessions for the musical just last month, and I believe that the show is being developed for television as well. The soundtrack is available to listen to on Spotify, and other music services: The Pantomime Life Of Joseph Grimaldi – Single by Daniel and Laura Curtis | Spotify

Joseph Grimaldi by John Cawse 1807
Georgian Era Theatre, History

Miss Searle and her Abolitionist Performance

One of the most interesting aspects of my research for my novel An Actress of Repute was discovering the fascinating topics of the performances my main character, Elizabeth Searle, took part in at the Royal Circus Theatre, south of the River Thames. The Royal Circus was a non-patent theatre, meaning dialogue was not allowed. However, theatre manager John Cross was very clever at finding ways to bypass these restrictions. By performing ‘Burlettas’, mini-operatic pieces could be sung. This could sometimes disguise more contentious topics. If more explanation was needed, draperies and banners that featured key descriptions would be unfurled during performances. This would have a similar effect as words flashed onto a silent film, as seen in the early twentieth century.

Slaves in Surinam, from John Stedman’s autobiographical account

Mr. Cross often chose sensational topics for the time in order to lure in audiences and sell tickets. In the summer of 1804, Mr. Cross wrote and produced Johanna of Suriname. This was based on the best-selling account of soldier John Gabriel Stedman entitled The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. The autobiographical book outlined the shocking accounts of inhumane acts against slaves in the Dutch colony. His romantic involvement with a slave by the name of Joanna – who became mother to his son, is also revealed. Stedman’s disgust at the harsh treatment of the enslaved captives of the plantations is clearly outlined and the horror was amplified by the graphic prints (engraved by two of the top artists of the time – William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi) of the torture endured by the unfortunate souls at the hands of their captors. The book became very influential and was circulated widely amongst those in support of the abolitionist cause to bring an end to the evil slave trade.

Scenes of plantations in the Dutch colony of Surinam

Miss Searle was chosen to portray the slave Joanna. I was very honoured to include the fact that the main character of my novel was taking part in such a noble endeavour. Yet it also brought about some troublesome issues that I thought could potentially offend the modern reader. First and foremost was the idea that Miss Searle might perform in what is now known as ‘blackface’. I am not sure that Miss Searle would have darkened her face and skin to portray the character of Joanna, but I feel quite certain that there would have been no qualms about doing so back in Late-Georgian times. As far as I am aware, there were no performers of colour on the stage at the time in London ( the earliest I am aware of is Ira Aldridge in the 1840’s – I tweeted a link to information about his career awhile back: https://twitter.com/ronanbeckman/status/1281818253304750080?s=20 ) – so Elizabeth would have been cast in the role without a thought (she portrayed a Chinese princess at Covent Garden in later times). I felt that, in the context of the times, it was important to describe Elizabeth Searle portraying her role onstage as it would have been at the time. I hoped that the positive effects of educating her audience about the evils of the slave trade would outweigh the modern feelings about portraying someone of a different ethnicity onstage.

A mixed race slave in Surinam. She would have had a higher status than other slaves due to her partial European ancestry – yet she would still be regarded as a slave regardless.

A ‘tweet’ that I saw led to a very last minute and final edit to my chapter regarding the performance of Johanna of Suriname. The tweet highlighted the fact that there were 10,000 people of colour in Regency Era London, yet they never received even one mention in modern Regency fiction. I felt so moved that I want to play my part to rectify the situation – but my novel was due to be published in just two weeks. I did a very quick rewrite that I hope went some way to addressing this issue. At such short notice, it was difficult for me to imagine a character to place appropriately within my book. The performance of Johanna of Suriname was an ideal opportunity I felt. So I made one evening’s performance a special one – to serve as a benefit event for the abolitionist movement. Who might attend such a prominent event? I thought of someone who was perhaps amongst the most prominent person of colour and someone from London’s history that I adore. I included Dido Elizabeth Belle in the audience. Dido was the daughter Sir John Lindsay, and greatly loved by her family in England. I thoroughly recommend the amazing 2013 film of her life – Belle ( https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2404181/ ) Some little bits of karma that made me feel that this was the correct decision: Dido Belle was baptised in the church of St. George’s in Bloomsbury – just 3 doors away from where Elizabeth Searle lived. The church features prominently in my novel, and you can explore it virtually in this brief video: https://youtu.be/QESj0z2lvSc Dido Belle sadly passed away in the month of July 1804 – the same month that the play was performed. In my novel, Dido and Elizabeth have the opportunity to meet each other and speak about the performance. She gives Elizabeth her approval and blessing, as I would have hoped she would have done in real life. And deep down, I truly hope that they did indeed meet each other in reality.

Close-up of Dido Elizabeth Belle by Johann Zoffany

Georgian Era Theatre, History

A Tour of Miss Searle’s London

Elizabeth Searle lived near to this church, which features prominently in An Actress of Repute

I had the opportunity to spend the day in London in late July. Post-lockdown London was quieter than usual, providing me with a chance to visit some of the locations that are explored in my novel, An Actress of Repute. Seeing the locations in real life breathes life into the world I wrote about and it was a very inspiring tour for me as my novel was just a week away from being published. I have just now gotten around to uploading a series of six short videos onto YouTube. The last is a short reading from the book in Bloomsbury Square – just yards from where her home was. Please click on the link if you would like to follow along with me on this little journey through Miss Searle’s London

Georgian Era Theatre, History

Henry Erskine Johnston – a Regency Heartthrob

It seems that most novels set in the Regency era have their very own ‘Mr. Darcy’ type of character to make the female readers swoon.  An Actress of Repute is no exception, featuring the devastatingly handsome real-life Scottish actor Henry Erskine Johnston. Only there a few differences. He isn’t immensely wealthy. He is a bit more bawdy than brooding. Oh yeah – he’s married as well (but unhappily so – does that help?). Perhaps most importantly, his legs must’ve looked great in a kilt as that seems to be the most famous and copied image of him. And my main character had a few opportunities to admire those muscular calves.

Henry Johnston seems to have had a very intriguing backstory as well. He was born in May 1777 in Edinburgh. There is a lot of conjecture about his early life, with some reporting that he was the son of a hairdresser, that he was apprenticed to a writer for a notary or signet, and that he had been apprenticed to a draper for three years. He showed much theatrical promise as an amateur, and was spotted by Stephen Kemble, of the famous Kemble acting family, who was responsible for first getting him on the stage. He soon became very well known for his portrayal of Norval in the play Douglas, which gave him opportunities to show off his fine physique in a very heroic role.Henry became besotted with the beautiful Scottish actress, Nanette Parker, and would throw roses to her onstage at her performances. He was a young 19 when he married her (she was even more youthful – being only 14 years old). They became a power couple in the theatre and often performed together. They had six children together, but the marriage appeared to be very stormy. There were many arguments witnessed and accusations of infidelity (which rather stuck to Nanette, as she abandoned her young family for an affair with Covent Garden manager Henry Harris). In 1807, Henry began a court case in Dublin accusing her of adultery with a Richard Curran, a barrister and son of a Master of the Rolls. The couple remained separated until Henry managed to get an annulment of their marriage in 1820.

Henry was no angel himself, I suspect, and had a bit of a reputation as a hot-headed firebrand. He started a big dispute over contracts at Covent Garden Theatre, signing a list of grievances with seven other actors during the 1802-3 season. There were also some implications from his wife Nanette that he would beat her. She made these accusations slipping out of character during a performance onstage in Glasgow. Henry’s character had to recite dialogue stating how if he were to lays his hands on a woman, he would be a wretch. Nanette interrupted his performance saying “Ugh! You brute!” He then qualified his dialogue, implying hitting a woman was wrong “unless she richly deserved it”.

Domestic disputes aside, Henry was known as “the biggest boy in the world”. He had a playful persona and enjoyed making others laugh, using his great talents of mimicry and impersonation. Much of his ability to do so was through his physicality. Without uttering a word, those around him knew who he was imitating solely through his movements. He was expert at mimicking animals, as well as being skilled in ventriloquy. The Monthly Mirror summed up much of Mr. Johnson’s appeal: “His voice is unusually flexible, and its tones various; soft, sweet, melting, strong, piercing, full, capable of any depression, or any elevation…His countenance is expressive, his figure is pretty… His action is animated and often graceful; the same may be said of his deportment…” It summed up that he had finer requisites, figure excepted, than any other actor on the stage.” High praise indeed, and a perfect résumé for my novel’s main love interest – don’t you think?  

by Edward Mitchell, after Henry Singleton, hand-coloured stipple and line engraving, published 1806
History

Hay-on-Wye : A Magnificent Town of Books

We recently popped by one of my favourite towns in Britain. On the Welsh border, the town is situated in a lush, green valley with the expanse of Hay Bluff in the distance. The mighty Wye is a fun river to canoe and there are loads of interesting gift shops, quirky places to stay and tasty dining to be had in the small town’s restaurants. Amazing second-hand bookshops abound. For a booklover, this is like reaching Nirvana! An American, Richard Booth saw an opportunity here. Setting up a bookshop in the semi-derelict castle, he bought up unwanted books by the shelf-load (mainly from American libraries). This provided the stock and soon other shops joined forces – making it the second Hand Book capital of the world. Hay is host to a major prestigious literary festival. This was able to continue virtually during the worst of the COVID lockdowns, but I was worried if the town had suffered by not hosting a major tourist draw. The town is lovely as ever, I’m happy to report. If you are ever in the area, make an effort to stop by and support the local shops. If you are not nearby – change your plans! It really is an amazing area to spend time in. For a very brief video preview, here is my YouTube video: https://youtu.be/0G5n693qIT8

Georgian Era Theatre, History

Bella Menage – Portrait of a Nemesis

I really love a bad guy (or gal, in this case). An arch-rival or nemesis can really ramp up the tension and suspense in a book. Face it – it is often the ‘baddie’ that we remember most in the stories we read. Looking through the cast members of the Drury Lane troupe for the 1803-4 season, I soon came across my delightful winning candidate. Her name was sublime: Bella Menage. It just oozes wickedness! And my historical research seems to back it up. The most notable actress of the time, Sarah Siddons, called Arabella Menage ‘a naughty little dancing girl’. Mrs. Siddons was distantly related to Bella’s future husband – the painter Mr. Michael William Sharp. She lamented the upcoming marriage, stating that “it will afflict his poor mother and sister.” Certainly not very complementary!

Miss Bella Menage (I love the erupting volcano in the background!)

Arabella Menage was from an established theatrical family. Her brother became well known for portraying a chimpanzee at Covent Garden Theatre in the play Perouse. This led to further monkey business on his part, with further simian roles to play. Her sister and parents reached a reasonable degree of success in the patent theatres, but Bella was by far the star amongst the family. She appeared onstage at a very young age, having studied under Monsieur Didelot and the rather nefarious James D’Egville. Drury Lane’s manager at the time – John Philip Kemble ensured that she had opportunities to add vocal parts to her demanding dance roles. The future Mrs. Sharp seemed to have a reputation for a very sharp tongue backstage – and was very much at ease when insulting her elders, one example that I relay in my novel An Actress of Repute. Small, dainty, elegant and possessing very fine features, I am sure that Bella was quite aware of how wonderful she was – and probably went to great effort to ensure that others knew this too. Let’s all celebrate the marvellously mischievous Miss Menage!

Self-Publishing Experiences

The Scary Decision to Publish

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Self-publishing can be a daunting prospect. Follow along with me as I discover mistakes and hopefully find some successes!

For over six years I have been working on my novel. I have enjoyed the historical research and spent many hours ensuring that I had the background correct to the best of my ability. I have spent hours in archives and trawling the internet for the most minute details to fill in the background of my characters. But the Covid-19 lockdown finally gave me the kick I needed to complete my work. Now the scary part begins!

What had started as a hobby is now becoming a reality. Do I take the daunting step of releasing and sharing this work with the public? Perhaps I am lacking in confidence. For so long I have wanted to get this story out of my head and ‘out there’. I have decided to self-publish, as I don’t think I could cope with the rejection of agents and publishers. My work is a bit ‘niche’ as well, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m ok with that, but a traditional publisher probably would not want to take the risk.

I had a good chance to see the workings of the real publishing world through the challenges experienced by an author friend of mine – Anne Doughty. She struggled to get mainstream publishers interested in her Northern Ireland based historical fiction. When she did, it was small publishers. She had untold hours of rewrites, edits and nonstop toil to alter her work to the specifications of her editor. And all for a rather paltry recompense (I remember once she got an advance of £200 after months of grafting). For me, the process of writing was difficult enough. I’m getting older and I don’t have the time to go through the traditional publishing grief.

But quality control is important. I’ve enlisted my own ‘Beta-Readers’ and have taken note of what needs to be reworked and fine tuned. It seems like I have been editing nonstop – and I still manage to find mistakes! And now, I think it is ready. I am feeling very nervous about putting this out – but I do hope people like it as I have at least 4 sequels ready to go swirling inside my brain. I will update this regularly and hopefully all who are interested can learn alongside me – mishaps and (hopefully) successes included!

 

Georgian Era Theatre

The World of Regency Theatre

Theatre_Royal_Drury_Lane_1813

The late Georgian and Regency era saw some of the most exciting times witnessed on the stage. Theatre was an important part of the entertainment scene in London 200 years ago.

I will be posting regularly about the many fascinating characters to be found in the theatre scene at this period of time. Many of these people figure in my first novel, An Actress of Repute.

Self-Publishing Experiences

The World of the Self-Promoting Author

It isn’t an area that I really thought about when embarking on my writing journey, but to be a successful writer these days requires a great degree of self-promotion.

I have to admit that I am not at my most comfortable putting myself in the spotlight. For some, this might be no problem whatsoever. Social media has helped to make the job of self-promotion easier. However, I don’t feel that I have an Instagram ready face and I feel a bit uncomfortable at the prospect being under further scrutiny. However, I know from following my favourite authors on twitter that it can be a real pleasure to engage with those who are writing books that interest you. And it gives authors the opportunity to reach out to those who share their interests -their readers. As a self-published author, you cannot rely on anyone else to do the promoting for you. It is all down to you – so it is sink or swim time. Let’s take the plunge!It is important to try to avoid being daunted by social media and try to embrace it. It provides an opportunity to write about other topics of interest. In my case, I get the chance to write about my favourite era in history. With Pinterest and tumblr, I can share my favourite visuals. On YouTube I will get the chance to share my favourite locations to help my readers get a better sense of the places they are reading about in my book. On twitter, I can ask historians for their input on any problematic areas of research that I have encountered. And facebook is an all around great platform for engaging with others. We will see if I can maintain the positive attitude over the next few months! I will be happy to report back what I discover in the world of social media and self-promotion.