Elizabeth Inchbald Inchbald, Elizabeth - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Inchbald 1753-1821

(Born Elizabeth Simpson) British playwright, novelist, critic, and editor.

After beginning her career as an actress in London during the late 1700s, Elizabeth Inchbald turned to writing, becoming a prominent dramatist, novelist, and critic in London literary and theatre circles. Her success grew out of her insightful characterizations and depictions of intense emotions. Considered by some critics to be a simple reflection of her time, her work had been neglected until a recent rejuvenation of interest in her criticism as well as in her novels—A Simple Story (1791) and Nature and Art (1796)—the latter of which are valued for their concern with social and moral reform.

Biographical Information

Elizabeth Simpson was born near Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, into a large, Roman Catholic, farming family. Although she received no formal education, she was intelligent and avidly interested in literature. When she was eighteen and in spite of a pronounced stammer, she secretly left home to pursue an acting career in London. After two months, in June of 1772, she married Joseph Inchbald, an older actor, and frequently played opposite him in touring companies until his death in 1779. The following year she signed a four-year acting contract with Covent Garden; she also made acting appearances at the Haymarket and in Dublin. In order to maintain a steady income, she began writing. Her first play to be produced was the farcical comedy A Mogul Tale (1784); her comedy I'll Tell You What was produced the following year to popular acclaim. Between 1784 and 1805, nineteen of her dramatic works (either original plays or adaptations) appeared on the London stage. Her celebrity and financial security were assured by continuing popular success, although her work was considered overly sentimental or didactic by some critics, and scandalous by others. By the turn of the century, she had retired from her acting career, in which she had achieved only moderate renown, in order to focus upon writing, but she retained strong connections to the theater, including friendships with Sarah Siddons, Tate Wilkinson, and John Philip Kemble. As a well-established and independent literary figure, Inchbald also pursued political interests, particularly the education of women, and the defense of theater against religious attacks. She was also associated with the prominent Jacobin intellectuals Thomas Holcroft and William Godwin. Reflecting her increased interest in religion, her final years were spent in a Roman Catholic residence; she died in 1821.

Major Works

Inchbald's dramatic works and novels reflect the sensibilities of her time, and in her critical prefaces to the plays collected in The British Theatre she addressed conventional values and also displayed a keen insight into the crafting of dialogue, setting, and character. Her plays are primarily comedies and farces, many of which illuminate the humor, as well as the pathos, of domestic life and romantic love; the most popular of these include I'll Tell You What (1785), Such Things Are (1787), Animal Magnetism (1788), and Every One Has His Fault (1793). She also adapted and translated many plays from France and Germany. Her best-known drama, Lovers' Vows (1798) is an adaptation of August von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe, and is the play rehearsed in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Inchbald often drew from her own experience as an actress in constructing her plays, and her timing, attention to detail, plot design, and use of props enhanced the development of mood and the expression of emotion. Inchbald wrote a total of twenty plays, and during her lifetime all but two of these were produced, and all but five were published. Her two major novels, A Simple Story and Nature and Art, met with moderate success. Slightly polemical in tone, they focus on the consequences of a lack of education for women. Both works follow, over the span of two generations, the development and repercussions of romantic love. The plots and characters of these novels reflect a profound attachment to the conventions of sentimental fiction, even as Inchbald portrayed the problems inherent in the contemporary ideal of domesticity. This has led some critics to assert that Inchbald appropriated events and characters from her own experience for use in her plays and novels. In 1805 Inchbald was asked to write critical and biographical prefaces for the 125 plays collected in twenty-five volumes of The British Theatre. Though she did not participate in the selection of these plays, her contribution of critical introductions was significant—at the time it was commonly believed that women did not possess the critical faculties to evaluate another's work, and many of her contemporaries took offense at her assessments. Four years later she edited two collections of dramatic works: A Collection of Farces and The Modern Theatre. She also contributed numerous critical articles and reviews for a number of British publications, including the Artist and the Edinburgh Review.

Critical Reception

Although Inchbald's contemporaries considered her work to be examples of popular sentimentalism rather than serious literature, recent critics have argued that she profoundly subverted the conventional values of her day, particularly in her two novels. As a playwright and novelist, Inchbald focused on the situation of women, portraying the tragic consequences—the perversion of feminine sensibility into obsessive love and inner conflict—of a lack of education for women. She also attributed redemptive powers to femininity, particularly when it is cultivated and utilized for social and moral reform. In addition, scholars note that her use as well as mockery of the devices of sentimental fiction prefigure the demise of the ideal of domesticity, and indicate a self-conscious manipulation of conventional literary devices. However, many commentators criticize her convoluted plots and her frequently didactic tone. There is a general consensus that her achievement rests not only in her early success as a dramatist, novelist, and critic, but in her ability to characterize intense emotion and the dynamics of private life.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

A Mogul Tale (drama) 1784

I'll Tell You What (drama) 1785

Such Things Are (drama) 1787

Animal Magnetism (drama) 1788

A Simple Story. 4 vols. (novel) 1791

Every One Has His Fault (drama) 1793

Nature and Art. 2 vols. (novel) 1796

Lovers' Vows [adaptor and translator; from the drama Das Kind der Liebe by August von Kotzebue] (drama) 1798

The British Theatre; or, A Collection of Plays. 25 vols.[writer of critical and biographical prefaces] (dramas) 1806-09

A Collection of Farces and Other Afterpieces. 7 vols. [editor] (dramas) 1809

The Modern Theatre: A Collection of Successful Modern Plays, as Acted at the Theatres Royal, London. 10 vols. [editor] (dramas) 1809-11

The Plays of Elizabeth Inchbald. 2 vols. [edited by Paula R. Backscheider] 1980

William McKee (essay date 1935)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Technique of Her Novels" and "The Art of Her Novels," in Elizabeth Inchbald: Novelist, The Catholic University of America, 1935, pp. 55-74 and 75-102.

[In the excerpt that follows, McKee examines the plot design and character development of A Simple Story and Nature and Art. (Only those footnotes pertaining to the excerpt below have been reprinted.)]

The Broken Plot of A Simple Story

We turn now to an examination of those theories set forth by critics in explanation of what they consider Mrs. Inchbald's sacrifice of unity in A Simple Story. The reader will remember that, in reviewing events of this...

(The entire section is 9242 words.)

Paula R. Backscheider (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Plays of Elizabeth Inchbald, Volume I, edited by Paula R. Backscheider, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1980, pp. ix-xlv.

[In the following essay, Backscheider provides a historical account of Inchbald's career as a playwright and novelist.]

Elizabeth Inchbald was a strange combination of consuming ambition and personal charm. In spite of a severe speech defect, she worked her way from the theatres of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Bristol, and York to Covent Garden, where in her first season she played such roles as Mariana in Measure for Measure, Lavinia in The Fair Penitent, and Anne Bullen in Henry VIII.1 Her husband, the...

(The entire section is 11050 words.)

Terry Castle (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Masquerade and Utopia II: Inchbald's A Simple Story," in Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction, Stanford University Press, 1986, pp. 290-330.

[In the essay that follows, Castle characterizes A Simple Story as subversive because it both uses and mocks sentimental literary conventions.]

Moving from [Fanny] Burney's novel to Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, one travels a great distance. Inchbald offers the reader a new terrain, a fictional world that has been utterly transformed. The difference is in part aesthetic. [Burney's] Cecilia, for all its interest, can...

(The entire section is 14221 words.)

Roger Manvell (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Critic and Historian of the British Drama," in Elizabeth Inchbald: England's Principal Woman Dramatist and Independent Woman of Letters in 18th-century London, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 127-45.

[In the essay that follows, Manvell examines Inchbald's critical prefaces to The British Theatre—a collection of British drama from Shakespeare to the end of the eighteenth centuryclaiming that her interpretations generally reflect conventional social values of her time.]

By the turn of the century Elizabeth Inchbald had become one of the most respected of writers in the mainstream of literary output in England. It was a transitional...

(The entire section is 6669 words.)

Mary Anne Schofield (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Inchbald and Jane West," in Masking and Unmasking the Female Mind: Disguising Romances in Feminine Fiction, 1713-1799, University of Delaware Press, 1990, pp. 175-87.

[In the following excerpt, Schofield contends that Inchbald manipulated sentimental images of women in her novels and in doing so, subverted traditional romantic conventions. (Only those footnotes pertaining to the excerpt below have been reprinted.)]

By the end of the century, the masquerading romances had a decidedly different look from those of the earlier years. The adventures of the heroine still made up the mainstay of the romance plot, and the writers continued their feminist...

(The entire section is 3211 words.)

Katharine M. Rogers (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Britain's First Woman Drama Critic: Elizabeth Inchbald," in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1991, pp. 277-90.

[In the essay that follows, Rogers examines Inchbald's role as a professional drama critic, focusing on the difficulties she faced as one of the first female critics and what her criticism reveals about her own literary work.]

When the publisher Longman decided, in October 1805, to bring out a collection of 125 current acting plays, he asked the popular dramatist Elizabeth Inchbald to provide biographical-critical prefaces. It was an...

(The entire section is 5389 words.)

Anna Lott (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sexual Politics in Elizabeth Inchbald," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 635-48.

[In the following essay, Lott claims that Inchbald questioned the patriarchal social mores of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Britain.]

Of Elizabeth Inchbald's collection of biographical and critical prefaces to popular plays, her near-contemporary biographer James Boaden wrote: "There is something unfeminine . . . in a lady's placing herself in the seat of judgment."1 Merely by acting as critic, Inchbald challenged basic assumptions about gender roles, and Boaden's reaction to the essays, he claims, is...

(The entire section is 5682 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Joughin, G. Louis. "An Inchbald Bibliography." Studies in English: The University of Texas Bulletin, No. 14 (July 8, 1934): 59-74.

Contains production and publication information for Inchbald's plays and novels. Only those works that were available publicly (whether printed or staged) are listed.


Littlewood, S. R. Elizabeth Inchbald and Her Circle: The Life Story of a Charming Woman (1753-1821). London: Daniel O'Connor, 1921, 135 p.

Detailed biographical account of Inchbald's life from her early years in Suffolk, through her...

(The entire section is 419 words.)