Georgian Era Theatre, History, Self-Publishing Experiences

Readings at Stowe Gardens

Stowe Gardens, near Buckingham

I recently (well…last Summer) published a hardback edition of my novel An Actress of Repute. In celebration of the event and to coincide with the first anniversary of the novel being published, I decided to go to one of my favourite National Trust properties: Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire. I then ran around the place, filming myself reading chapter excerpts in beautiful, scenic surroundings. I’ve uploaded the links here so that you are able to join me. Forgive my reading style, as I’m not the greatest narrator. But I hope the lovely surroundings will compensate, and you will get a flavour of some of the events and characters in my novel. I hope you enjoy it!

Here’s the introduction to my time at Stowe. For more views of Stowe and to hear more readings, follow the links below.

Chapter 2 Excerpt at the Pebbled Alcove

Chapter 3 Reading from The Temple of Friendship

Chapter 4 at the Palladian Bridge

Chapter 5 Miss Searle goes for an audition. Read at the Gothic Temple.

Chapter 6 Miss Searle meets actress Dorothy Jordan and, unexpectedly, a member of the Royal Family.

Chapter 7 Introducing the main villain – dancer Bella Menage.

Chapter 8 The Johnstones were the ‘Brangelina’ of British theatre.

From Chapter 9, I stay at the magnificent Temple of Concord and Victory for several readings.

Chapter 10 Ballet Director James D’Egville had a disreputable sideline that Miss Searle was unaware of.

Chapter 11 Miss Searle’s mother goes all out to save her daughter’s reputation.

Chapter 12 This theatre South of the Thames performed amazing spectacles, featuring horses, dogs and acrobats, as well as dancing and singing

Chapter 13 Miss Searle is falling for the flirtatious Mr Johnstone.

Chapter 14 Evil Bella Menage continues to be a horrible person, taking great pleasure at tormenting Miss Searle.

Chapter 15 Delightful Madame Volange has a tale or two to share backstage.

Chapter 16 An opening night disaster requires Miss Searle to take charge of the situation.

Chapter 17 There were understudies in Regency theatres. Guess who has their Cinderella moment?

Chapter 18 The moment she dreamed of has arrived…

Chapter 19 Miss Searle is completely smitten by the beauty of a very married man.

Chapter 20 It appears that all is not well with the Johnstone marriage.

Chapter 21 Bella Menage is an expert at being obnoxious.

Chapter 22 A playbill seller has an embarrassing revelation to divulge to Miss Searle’s parents about Elizabeth and a certain gentleman.

Chapter 23 Dangerous secrets find their way into Bella Menage’s hands.

Chapter 24 Elizabeth has to deal with her tiresome little brother.

Chapter 26 Miss Searle’s career is evaporating away before her eyes.

A bit of an historical link between Miss Searle and Stowe.

Chapter 27 Maria Decamp takes up Miss Searle’s cause. Will Elizabeth be brave enough to carry out the plan?

Chapter 28 Mr Cooke was one of Britain’s greatest actors. He was also a hopeless alcoholic. Miss Searle puts the plan into action.

The Temple of Venus was used in filming a scene for the TV drama Bridgerton.

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

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