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.