The life of “celebrated Mrs. Centlivre,” as she is commonly known to stage history, is poorly documented. A Susannah Freeman, born in Lincolnshire, probably to William and Ann Freeman of Whaplode, who had her baptized on November 20, 1669, is thought to have become Mrs. Susannah Centlivre. She was educated at home, but she left in her teens, evidently to escape a stern stepmother. Legend has it that she had some “gay adventures” during her early wanderings. One contemporary of Mrs. Centlivre related that when she left home, she stopped by the side of the road one day to rest, where she was spotted by a passing student from Cambridge University, Anthony Hammond, who—as the story goes—took pity on the fatigued and tearful girl and brought her to his quarters at the university. Disguised as Hammond’s cousin Jack, Mrs. Centlivre is said to have studied at the university for two months, after which she left with Hammond’s letter of recommendation. The story is probably apocryphal, but it exemplifies the kind of mythology that contemporaries used to explain Mrs. Centlivre’s mysterious early years.
Mrs. Centlivre joined a company of strolling players around 1684. By most accounts she was always attractive to men, including, some sources say, a Mr. Fox, who either married her or simply shared the same quarters with her for a while. Fox apparently died, and she seems to have married a Mr. Carroll, an army officer, in 1685. Carroll died within a...
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