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!
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!