This biography of the second most famous actress of the eighteenth century, Dorothy (or Dora) Jordan, concentrates on her most important and heartfelt role: as mother to the children of William, Duke of Clarence, who eventually became William IV of England. Her status as mistress, together with her disreputable (however lucrative and successful) occupation of actress, precluded her ever being accepted, or even presented, at the court of George III. The closest she could get to legitimacy and contentment was at Bushy House, where for twenty years she held her family of thirteen children (ten of them by the Duke) together in a semblance of domestic bliss.
At the same time she built a career for herself on the London stage, notably Drury Lane, where her comic roles won her the acclamation of critics and historians alike. In the “provinces,” too, she brought in large audiences and profits for her managers. She was noted not for her stunning good looks, but rather for her charm and wit and her ability to breathe life into the comic roles of the time, such as the title role in David Garrick’s version of William Wycherley’s THE COUNTRY GIRL. Sarah Siddons, the great tragic actress of the times, often worked with Mrs. Jordan in roles requiring two major female talents, and spoke very well, in her letters and journals, of her rival and friend.
Clare Tomalin’s treatment of her subject, chosen from an array of female stage figures of the...
It is difficult for the modern reader to realize the importance of the eighteenth century English stage as a social force. At the time the most popular form of entertainment and, next to the church, the most influential mass medium available for news and gossip, stage entertainment started each day around mid-afternoon and lasted as long as six to eight hours. The theater house contained every kind of spectator from every class—royalty, near royalty, merchants, students, servants, and the idle poor—and with every degree of theatrical sophistication. The entertainment was of two kinds: that which took place with some preparation on stage and that which spontaneously erupted in the audience from the mix of personalities gathered there each playing day. The mimetic world of the stage (with its often unstated but still rigid rules of moral conduct) and the real world of London’s chaotic Age of Reason did not always share the same values. Dora Jordan’s story is the story of the clash of those two worlds.
Relying heavily on the letters of Jordan to her children, Claire Tomalin has written a biography that treats its subject with decency and care but leaves to the imagination the responses of the royal family to Jordan’s presence in the complex political and social milieu in which her drama was acted out. There is a conspicuous absence of evidence about the response of her lover, Prince William; his letters to Jordan, which had been collected, were apparently destroyed sometime during their relationship. Tomalin’s study was begun as a general survey of actresses of the period, but her interest in Jordan’s particular situation transformed the research into a book-length biography of Jordan alone.
Dora Jordan flourished in the theater world. Born Dorothy Bland in 1761 in Ireland, she found herself well suited to the rigors of stage life. She had large stores of energy, a prodigious memory, remarkable versatility, and (although she was not a classic beauty) a magnetic stage personality that projected across the footlights into the heart of the most jaded theatergoer. From her London debut in 1785 to the day the Duke of Clarence made a “legal settlement” upon her (a sign of his accepting her as his mistress) in 1791, she carved out a successful career rivaled only by that of the immortal Sarah Siddons. Not only in London, where she was a staple of Richard Sheridan’s Drury Lane Theatre, but also in all the other major cities of England, Dora’s presence on the playbill virtually ensured a profitable run for manager and cast of comedies and classics. Among her enduring roles were the country girl in David Garrick’s version of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) and Hippolita in Colley Cibber’s She Wou’d and She Wou’d Not (1702). She played all the important Shakespearean heroines, defining for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the characters of Rosalind in As You Like It (1599/1600), Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well (1602/1603), and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (1598/1599).
The life of an actress was hard work, demanding and tenuous, with failure lurking in the shadow of success at every curtain. Actors and actresses as popular and busy as Dora Jordan had literally hundreds of roles in their heads, ready to perform, on any given day. They had to be able to sing and dance as well as act. They journeyed hundreds of miles in shabby carriages, from theater to theater, trying to find fresh audiences, avoid exploitation by unprincipled theater managers, and make some kind of life for themselves between performances. At the same time, sprightly beauty, quickness of mind, and overall attractiveness made actresses objects of desire, however venal, by the members of the audience, especially the titled young men of London passing the time until their inheritance included the responsibilities of the privileged class. The social status of an actress was close to that of a prostitute; she was work made for hire, to be enjoyed with the eyes and ears and to be dismissed when the world of business and ceremony called. Actors and actresses were lionized by the rich, even invited to parties, but were never taken seriously, never given political power, and certainly never welcomed into a prestigious family by benefit of marriage. Not unlike modern celebrities, they sometimes amassed enough money to live comfortably, but the doors to society were closed to them regardless of their success on stage.
There is some question, then, whether the Duke of Clarence’s entrance into Jordan’s life was a happy or a tragic one for her. Her...