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.
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.
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.
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.