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An Actress of Repute!

The Real-Life Inspiration for An Actress of Repute

I am an avid amateur genealogist. As an adopted person, I often was stumped by the secrets of my birth origins. Whenever my mysteries became too much to bear, I knew I could always turn to my wife’s ancestry for hours of easy historical tracing. As the descendant of four generations of Church of England vicars, her family history was an absolute breeze to figure out. The lives of clergymen tend to be extremely well documented. They also tended to marry well, as a man of the cloth was seen to be a respectable match for a Lord’s 7th or 8th daughter to be betrothed to. With a small dowry, they would send their well-bred daughters away to live the rather mundane life of a rector’s wife.

But there was one ancestor that really jumped out at me in my research. Elizabeth Searle was noted in some of the peerage books that I referenced as ‘an actress of repute’ or ‘Covent Garden actress’. I was intrigued. I had recently read Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. The idea that women’s histories had been side-lined over time truly resonated with me. I grew to love the late Georgian era and all the fascinating women of the time. I found myself devouring biographies about equally fascinating characters from the time period, such as Caroline Lamb – lover of the poet Byron, Elizabeth Fox (who became Lay Holland after a notorious divorce), the courtesan and tattletale Harriette Wilson and Admiral Nelson’s lover – the beautiful Emma Hamilton.

As Miss Searle was ‘of repute’, I expected to be able to discover more about her life. This was in the early days of the internet, but even now – the facts of her life are sketchy. She has been the first brick wall in my wife’s genealogy that I haven’t been able to fully break through. But the elusive Miss Searle has provided me with over 20 years of fascinating research and inspiration. It has led me to archives, museums and stately homes – all in the search for further insights into her life. Along the way, I have garnered a greater understanding of the life and times that this young woman lived in. I have been determined to breathe life into her story that has been lost in the mists of time. There were certainly lots of intriguing clues and facts scattered around for me to work with.

Elizabeth Searle most likely was born at the very end of the 1780’s. Her father was wrongly labelled as ‘J. Searle’ in the reference books I consulted (never trust a book completely – just because it is in print does not mean it is the truth). I later found a Thomas Searle that had signed her marriage license as her father. There is very little documentary evidence that I have been able to find on any Thomas Searles that live in London, but I did manage to find a tax book record of him living on Hart Street in 1806 and a 1786 fire insurance policy for Thomas Searle – a dance master in Queen Street near Golding Square. The description of his occupation seemed to fit. I know that Hart Street is correct as the house was listed in the newspaper advertisement of Miss Searle’s benefit night as the location to purchase tickets for the special evening. The house still exists – and if you ignore the hairdressers occupying the ground floor, there is much that looks similar to the time in the early 1800s. Nearby is the Church of St. George’s, beautiful Bloomsbury Square and the British Museum, which originated in Montague House.

Elizabeth’s mother was also named Elizabeth Searle. This was confirmed from a legacy left to her in the will of Miss Elizabeth Searle’s future husband when he died. A Thomas Searle was born to Thomas and Elizabeth Searle in 1790 in Westminster. I am quite sure that this is Miss Searle’s younger brother, and he evolved into the character of ‘Little Tom’ (in actuality, he is probably only one or two years younger than Elizabeth). Other than these facts – the Searle family remain a mystery. In my internet searches for ‘Elizabeth Searle’, I encountered a legend or story of the famous Regency dandy, Beau Brummel. The story relates how he first met George the Fourth, for many years a good friend of Mr. Brummel. Mr. Brummel supposedly met the prince at the farm of his Aunt who was named Elizabeth Searle. Mrs. Searle’s farm was described as being off the Queen’s Walk in Green Park and included the description of Princess Marie’s involvement in the décor of the farmhouse. Whether true or not, I felt this was too good of a story to let go of. It reminded me of Marie Antoinette’s faux peasant gardens at Hameau de la Reine – just outside of the palace at Versailles where she could enjoy a quaint approximation of impoverished farm life in safety and comfort. But having three Elizabeth Searles would be too much for any reader, so the farming Elizabeth Searle became Aunt Harriet.

One of the most appealing aspects of writing about Elizabeth Searle was the rich array of characters that she encountered in her life. As I learned more about her theatre career, I was introduced to a host of interesting actors and actresses, theatre managers, directors, writers, dancers, musicians, and entertainers of all sorts. I feel so fortunate to have such a rich wealth of fascinating personalities to people Miss Searle’s story with. That required some considerable research into the world of late Georgian Theatre. The on resource that I am much indebted to (and an exceptionally good read that I heartily recommend) is Andrew McConnel Stott’s The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian. It provided a great insight into the workings of the dramatic world and detailed many interesting anecdotes about Miss Searle’s colleagues (she even gets a very brief mention herself, as does her brother Tom).

One of the most formidable tasks that I had to consider was interpreting the world from the viewpoint of a young fourteen-year-old girl. I considered presenting Miss Searle as an adult, but I felt that this would not remain true to her story and the characteristics of the world around her would have shifted considerably had she been an older character. I did not want to portray a rose-tinted view of the life that young women had to face in London at the time. As a father to a daughter, it makes uncomfortable reading to know that young teenage girls such as Emma Hamilton and Harriette Wilson were involved in prostitution. Human trafficking was present in the age of Jane Austen. Statistician Patrick Colquhoun estimated that there were as many as 50,000 women working in the sex trade in London in 1800. The world of the theatre was a centre for such vice. Courtesans used the theatre boxes almost as advertisements of their desirability. There was almost more of a show taking place in the seats than there was on the stage. Many of the beauties on the stage were also admired and in demand for non-theatrical activities. Choreographer and ballet master James D’Egville was rumoured to have been able to procure ballet dancers for clients at the right price. I thought it important to highlight the dangers that young Elizabeth had to navigate backstage during her career.

I also had the challenge of trying to negotiate the romantic feelings that Elizabeth had for Mr. Henry Erskine Johnston. Mr. Johnston married at the age of nineteen. His wife Nanette was only fourteen. This situation was by no means unusual for the time, although it would most certainly raise eyebrows today. I used as a guide whether girls of a similar age today may develop a love crush on someone in their late twenties. Just as young girls may have posters of Robert Pattinson or Timothée Chalamet on their walls, I felt it equally likely that Miss Searle could begin to harbour an obsessional infatuation with her older co-worker. But as Miss Searle’s mother reiterated to her repeatedly – virtue was Elizabeth’s most valuable asset. As for any young lady of the time, it was important to maintain one’s respectability in order to access a chance at a good future. Men continued to hold almost all the power in Georgian times. Women’s futures continued to be very dependent on the whims of the men around them. Ladies had only one card to play and they had to play that well. Decisions as to whether to enter a relationship for love or monetary gain had to be made. Elizabeth had the opportunity to witness her colleagues making these important life choices around her. She would have been very aware of the improprieties and social stigma attached to the romantic relationships established by Miss Mellon and Mrs. Jordan. She would have seen the prejudices against those women in the acting profession as being perceived as unsuitable for matrimony – such as the hardships experienced by Maria Decamp. Or settling for a comfortable arrangement that suits rather than romance, such as Miss Bristow’s marriage to the grieving, widowed Joe Grimaldi. As a woman in Georgian times, you only had one opportunity to get the relationship issue right. Any mistake could be ruination for life. And sometimes, vulnerable females were powerless victims to the circumstances that they found themselves in – but would be blamed the same as if it were a choice of their own making (in fact, Mrs. Jordan’s first child  – by manager Richard Daly, may have been the result of an assault – presenting her with a difficult situation to overcome very early on in her career).

I was amazed to discover that Miss Searle (as far as I know) got her start at the most prestigious theatre in the nation and was quickly in demand at the newly opened Royal Circus. She must have been extremely talented. I had always been intrigued to see what she looked like. For a long time, I had not a single clue. But then I discovered an etching of her in an old catalogue that outlined the art collection of Sir John Leicester. The line drawing was still a bit too vague, making it still a mystery as to watch she looked like. Fortunately, this clue led me to the original painting. Cornish painter John Opie completed two versions of Miss Searle portraying Miranda from The Tempest. One is a head and shoulders version (currently in the Tabley House Collection, outside of Manchester). The other can be seen at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire – a most impressive, full length version with Prospero in the background. I can see why so many were infatuated by her beauty. This was amongst the last paintings completed by Mr. Opie before he died. Mrs. Jordan had seen it and commented on it in her private correspondence, saying “it shewed rather more of her beauty than is usually displayed – yet right modest.” I am still searching for one last known image of her – a portrait miniature of Miss Searle in the character of Iris by the painter François Huet Villiers. If anyone knows the whereabouts, please get in touch!

I am happy to report that I have many ideas for further novels about Elizabeth Searle. I haven’t revealed everything I know about her yet. I am working now on the sequel involving Miss Searle’s time at Covent Garden Theatre and her travels to one of my favourite places in Britain – the resort town of Brighton. There are many new characters to meet (including everyone’s favourite Regent – George IV), and in subsequent novels I hope to write – I intend on reunions with many of my favourites from this first novel: the Byrnes, the Johnstons, the Grimaldis, Miss Decamp – just to name a few. I do hope you enjoyed going back in time with Miss Searle and that you will join us for further adventures. To keep up with future releases, I would be most honoured if you subscribed to my blog or followed me on your favourite social media platform.

Many Thanks!

Ronan Beckman  

June 2020

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