Tag Archives: actresses

“Cut Out For a Man, Only the Devil Ran Away with the Pattern”

“Circumstances conspired to make Charlotte Charke one of the most striking impersonators of male character, and one of the unhappiest creatures of her time.  Her father, Colley Cibber, was ill-advised enough to give her a training more befitting a boy than a girl, with the result that after years she evinced no delight save in purely masculine amusements.” – Gentleman’s Magazine, January to June 1896

Who was Charlotte Charke really?  It’s the question her contemporary biographers would’ve asked themselves without ever coming to a satisfying conclusion.  From what I’ve gleaned, she was a woman in possession of great temerity, evading definition and inviting bias as well as scorn.  In our time and in hers, her puzzling personas allowed for many curiosities.  She was an actress, mother, playwright, transvestite, philanderer’s wife, estranged daughter, gentleman’s valet, a gentleman called Mr. Brown, would-be blackmailer, and novelist.

An eccentric, to be sure.

In her memoirs, Charlotte remembers being unconventional from the get-go.  Femininity was a rigid construction of another’s making, a role lacking in both sports and sciences.  She, frankly, wanted to do with it.  To the chagrin of her family, who tried to amend the error of her ways, “housewifely perfections” held no appeal.  She recounts of her introduction to womanhood and its labors: “Many and vain attempts were used to bring me into their working community, but I had so great a veneration for cattle and husbandry, it was impossible for them, either by threats or tender advice, to bring me into their sober scheme.”

From her earliest memories, Charlotte’s passions centered around riding, shooting, and emulating the males around her.  At age four, she had already cultivated an attachment to periwigs and male dress, stealing her brother’s and father’s clothes to strut in a ditch and bow to passersby.  When a crowd—perhaps her first—gathered to gawk at the unusual child, Charlotte took the attention as a mark of esteem.  She’d succeeded in playing the squire, and what else could she play?  Doctor, certainly.  She learned this noblest of professions via a short stint aiding her cousin, a country physician, and absent his tutelage, found herself unable to give up the practice.   Invalids were everywhere, complaints, aplenty, and Charlotte treated—gratis—all who might honor her with a visit.

She dispensed medicines procured from an apothecary widow, quackery salves and potions made by her own hand, and only her father’s ire at being billed the dear expense of her treatments put a stop to “Doctor Charlotte”.  But the world was open to her now.  Next she was a gardener, a porter, a horsemaster—truly there were no end to her roleplaying, except in love.

Love was one of her great disappointments.

“I thought it gave me an air of more consequence to be called Mrs. Charke than Miss Charlotte,” she glibly recalls in her memoirs, but marriage produced the opposite effect.  After a courtship of six months, she had foolishly tied her lot to Richard Charke, he of the Drury Lane groupies.  This new role, not a theoretical assumption but a role steeped in reality, was a terrible error in her judgment.  On later reflection she would call her precocious vows, “My indiscreetly plumping into the sea of matrimony, and becoming a wife before I had the proper understanding of a reasonable child.”

The child of seventeen, it seemed, had much to learn.

Soon after Charlotte’s nuptials, she was pregnant and trolling the streets around the theatre, looking for the romantic violinist whose affections, once liberally bestowed on her, proved liberal by general direction.  The year of her marriage also coincided with Charlotte’s first onstage part–an event that would attract the attention of Fortuna and fix Charlotte permanently on the wheel.

But for now Charlotte was pleased with her prosperity.  Although unhappy that her premiere role was attributed to “a young gentlewoman” in the bill (her father’s way of testing her abilities before claiming them), she found inspiration and encouragement from the retiring Anne Oldfield, an occasional breeches role actress.  Commencing with her first performance, Charlotte’s talent proved sufficient and from 1733-34 she studied the art of playing a man.  The vagaries of success followed, and after numerous productions under different management, including her father selling his shares in the Drury Lane Theatre, she joined the theatre in Haymarket to play Lord Place in Henry Fielding’s Pasquin.

The play was among those banished from the stage in the Licensing Act of 1737, due, in no small account, to its attack of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole’s government.  As one might expect, Charlotte’s role was embarrassing, if not outright damaging, to her father, the then Poet Laureate.  Colley Cibber was no stranger to criticism, but unlike line 97 of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad “the Pigeon at thine ear/Be rich in ancient brass, tho’ not in gold“, the mouthpiece of Lord Place was his daughter.  He believed her public disrespect of him an unjust blow, and the incident afforded Charlotte a deal of paternal and personal discord.  The Licensing Act interrupted her salary at the theatre, and prompted her to work as a puppeteer, a field ungoverned by the new restrictions.

The years 1736-37 were unlucky years.  By this time she was separated from her husband, and, as a single mother, sorely in need of funds.  Although her marriage had dissolved by mutual agreement, Richard Charke had done more than abandon wife and child; he had abandoned England.  After staking his future in one too many gaming hells, Charke had fled his home in 1736 to avoid debtor’s prison.  Misfortune met him in the turquoise waters and he died in Jamaica shortly after his arrival in late 1737, early 1738.  When the reaper returned to take her mother–who had been ill since Charlotte’s childhood–the twenty-four year old Charlotte, estranged from father, husband, and stage, was forced her to depend entirely on herself.

This led to a series of  peculiar employments.  Among the most interesting was the Albert Nobbs-esque position as valet to Richard Annesley, the 6th Earl of Anglesey.  For the service of dressing her new master–an intimate position that was decidedly not sexual in nature–she was paid a guinea a week.  Lord Anglesey had heard “the piteous account of [her] misfortunes, which his lordship very tenderly considered,” and offered her relief.  The ruse, however, was up five weeks after it had begun.  Upon threat of being exposed as a cross-dressing woman with the impudence to work as a valet, Anglesey was compelled to terminate her employment.  And Charlotte was again left grasping for money.

She made sausages; she acted at the theatre; she even opened the Charlotte Charke Tavern on Drury Lane.  But no matter her choice of profession, she enjoyed little stability.  The eating house failed and she became a strolling-player, a pastry cook from London with aspirations to become a farmer and a hog merchant, and, somewhere along the way, a vagabond.  During this period, she had remarried to one John Sacheverall, possibly in a marriage of convenience (he died), and she had played Mr. Brown to a Mrs. Brown, an arrangement that some have suggested points to lesbianism.  The introduction to her memoirs simply state an account of “her adventures in men’s clothes, going by the name of Mr. Brown, and being beloved by a lady of great fortune, who intended to marry her.”  But the meat of her story with the widowed heiress Mrs. Brown contains no real meat, only clues.

In 1756 she did write a novel about homosexuality wherein a gay man professes his love for another man, dresses himself as a woman, and proceeds to kiss his beloved.  He is then beaten by his beloved and his beloved’s friends.  What to make of this?  Was the plot a social commentary that hits closely to home, or merely a tale similar to what she would’ve experienced playing travesty parts?

Fictions, of course, became Charlotte’s life, and whether or not she wrote autobiographical novels is up for debate.  Based on her memoirs alone, it appears Charlotte and Mrs. Brown were co-conspirators while Mrs. Brown awaited her legacy from her father.  In a time of need, Mrs. Brown had offered Charlotte comfort, a dream of a new undertaking that might turn the tide of fortune, and Charlotte in return offered her distinct blend of brashness and resiliency.  They were confidantes in the toils of making it in an ambivalent world, and whether Charlotte was a lesbian or a subversive doesn’t really matter.

Her character does.  If anything, Charlotte was enterprising, the kind of woman so independently willed that she was a patriarchal anarchist.  Her temperament made her foolish and wayward, but she was always looking out for opportunity, a gamester of life, if you will.  She wore many hats, gentlemens’ and ladies’, and wasn’t afraid to keep on when she was at her wits’ end.  When she died in 1760, she was penniless, but she had left an indelible imprint on the people who knew her.  Despite her domestic estrangements, which were never resolved, she had a talent for engendering friendships in tough places, and when she sat down to write The Narrative of the Life of Mrs. CharlotteCharke, she didn’t forgot the kind words she owed to others.  

The Gentleman’s Magazine may have said of her that she was “cut out for a man, only the devil ran away with the pattern,” but Charlotte was the heroine of her own life.  Today her memoirs remain the romp of a singular woman with ambition–just as they must have been when she was out collecting the original memories 250 plus years ago.

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A Breech or a Travesty? When Actresses Wore the Pants

Mrs. Robinson was known to don breeches.  Her compeers Dorothea Jordan, Anne Oldfield, and Charlotte Charke likewise shimmied out of stays prior to treading across the boards, and they did so with considerable aplomb. Increasingly they and others in their select group were part of a tradition that reversed another tradition–men playing women’s roles–that dated back to ancient Greece.

David Garrick in Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife — Johann Zoffany (1763)

Here and there instances of women in pants are recorded, but as much as modern readers might find actresses traipsing around in breeches a liberation of sorts, it didn’t gain favor with the general western populace until the 20th century.

Despite an excess of cross-dressing heroines in literature, women rarely surrendered their skirts, either at home or, as we are presently concerned, on the stage.  In fact, before the Restoration such a thing would’ve been verboten.  All throughout the Middle Ages and the English Renaissance, boy players dolled up their faces, but fashion, as always, was in flux.  By the end of 1661, women were once again permitted on the stage, and, as one may expect wherever the rib of Adam* is involved, the sexualizing of breeches roles commenced.

An Actress At Her Toilet, or Miss Brazen Just Breecht — John Collet (1779)
Playbill states: “and the part of Capt. Macheath by Miss”

Perception and Reception

The sharp outline of buttocks and thighs, not to mention the inherent amusement in perverting society’s established dress code, titillated many, but not all found breeches roles charming.  In 1702, the premiere of Nicolas Boindin’s Bal d’Auteuil was met with outrage.  To her great indignation, the Duchesse d’Orleans (who—let’s be honest—appears no stranger to idle amusements here) had to suffer through a shocking lesbian flirtation wherein two girls in men’s clothes meet, and, each truly believing the other the opposite sex, make unseemly overtures.  However common breeches roles were at this stage, Boindin’s comedic attempt went miserably awry.  At his youngest daughter’s insistence, Louis XIV announced that officials would be appointed to approve every play prior to production and naughty intrigues were forced to darker places.

Mrs. Jordan in the Character of Hypolita (1791)
Mezzotint by John Jones after John Hoppner portrait of Dorothea Jordan

Under the Clouds of an English Sky

Although actresses ‘usurped man’s prerogative’* by endeavoring to play breeches roles, rules existed to distinguish the actresses as female.  Lest anyone remain confused, the beguiling Monsieur Incognito was to expose her honest assets, typically an ankle or a snowy breast, thereby reaffirming the act as merely a fetish* of women in menswear.  Because the actress unmasked herself during the play, the impersonation was harmless.  Her virile performance aroused and regaled, and in most cases, she did not appall her audience.   Travesty roles, on the other hand, took the artifice to a deeper level, chipping away at the rudimentary distinction between men and women that some found distinctly distasteful.

The great travesty actress of the 18th century was Charlotte Charke, née Cibber.  She will be the subject of an upcoming post, so I don’t wish to spoil her larks with anecdotal abundance, but the most pressing fact I will share is this: she was the only actress of her time to assume a masculine identity both  onstage and off.  Unlike breeches roles, which she learned in 1733-34, travesty parts were sly in that they never revealed the true sex of the actor.  There was no exposure, no wink-wink, nod-nod, followed by gay laughter all about.  By necessity the actress was not a classical beauty.  Rather, she was masculine by virtue of vigor, bearing, or, in the best cases, both.

Dictum number one stated that she had to pull off the role without anyone being the wiser during performance, and as luck would have it, Charlotte Charke excelled in this.  She possessed what might be described an Italian boyishness: dark, slanting brows; wide, hooded eyes; and a strong nose set atop smaller lips.  Not an unattractive look by any means, but one that caused young ladies to swoon at the sensitivity inherent in such a gentle mien.  As Charke writes in her memoirs, she was even “the unhappy object of love in a young lady, whose fortune was beyond all earthly power to deprive her of, had it been possible for me to have been what she designed me, nothing less than her husband.”  But there were also punishments for straying too far outside conventionality.  When Charlotte died in 1760, she was penniless, estranged from her late father, Colley Cibber, and merely a footnote in history until a 21st century interest in cross-dressing and homosexuality resurrected her as a cause célèbre.

*Rib of Adam was a justification in the Gentleman’s Magazine The Actress of Usurper of Man’s Prerogativefor why women chose to play male parts.  This seemed sensible to them since, as women were a part of men, women would logically at some point wish to emulate them at one point or another:  “Even in those who are most gently feminine there remains an inkling of the primeval rib, only needing a special environment for complete development. . .  When woman assumed her proper position in the economy of the theatre, a subtle atavism induced her to retaliate.  Having tasted blood in ‘breeches parts’,” like Rosalind, she was not content until she had fastened her teeth in sternly virile roles.”  

*I almost hate to call it a fetish because it seems quite ordinary today, but the sexualization of women in menswear persists.  Starched white businessman’s shirt, naked woman underneath, firstly comes to mind.

The Story of a Diva: Mary Ann Yates, Forgotten Actress

Portrait of Mrs. Yates as Mandane in The Orphan of China – Tilly Kettle (1765)

Mary Ann Yates began her career as an afterthought.  Originally criticized as a feeble-voiced, small-talented nobody–“her figure so much encumbered with corpulence” that she should be paid to stay away from the stage–she would make her critics reconsider their words.

Before Sarah Siddons eclipsed her as the tragedienne of the age, Mary Ann was a leading actress at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden.  By the time she retired at age 55, she and her husband Richard Yates had banked £36,000-40,000 for retirement.  No small sum in those days.

She had spent 31 years on the stage, debuting in Dublin in 1753 and then performing bit parts in Drury Lane’s 1754-55 season.  One can suppose she often sulked around Drury Lane muttering, “Damn that David Garrick!”  The actor-cum-theater manager was underwhelmed by her and merely tolerated her which was why, in 1756, when he refused to offer her a contract for the next season, she did what any rational young creature would do.

She got married.

Her choice was prudent.  Richard Yates was a comic actor in his fifites, a widower whose former spouse (also an actress) had left him a considerable sum.  Incidentally, he was known for his ability to develop promise in his fellow actors–and he polished Mary Ann until she was golden.

Mary Ann returned to Drury Lane the same year she married, but it wasn’t until 1759, when she served as understudy to Mrs. Cibber, that she blindsided Garrick with a sly interpretation of Mandane from Murphy’s Orphan of China.  Mrs. Cibber, whose inability to perform ocassioned the opportunity, would have been displeased to discover that Mary Ann’s coup was the result of a well-laid scheme.

The story goes something like this:  When Mrs. Cibber falls ill, disagreements over the schedule ensue and a postponed premiere makes for an impatient playwright.  The hungry Mary Ann readily agrees when the playwright proposes to teach her in secret how to play the role.  At the first rehearsal, she demurs to Garrick (who highly opposes Mary Ann as a substitue) saying she is unfamiliar with Mandane.  That way, Garrick is absolutely flabbergasted at the second rehearsal when he realizes she is Mandane.

From then on, it was a lot like this for poor Garrick . . .

David Garrick as Richard III – William Hogarth (1745)

During her years at Drury Lane, Mary Ann enchanted the crowds, and for a while, Garrick was pleased.  He went on a continental tour in 1763, and despite his absence, Drury Lane flourished.  When Mrs. Cibber died in 1765, ridding Mary Ann of her only competition, Mary Ann rose to the height she had formerly dreamed of.

She flirted with a generous contract from Covent Garden for both her and her husband, and by 1767 she switched theater houses.  She was a bit of a diva at this point, and although she stayed at Covent Garden until 1771, she fought with her fellow actors and declined roles that inconvenienced or displeased her.

She left London to play two seasons in Edinburgh but had difficulty finding employment upon her return to London.  The famous playwright Oliver Goldsmith championed her work, yet still nothing came her way.  It was only after a friend and admirer of hers wrote a novel exposing what went on behind the curtain of a certain theater and with a certain *wink, wink* manager that she gained a little attention . . . and a lot of avoidance.

Garrick rightly pinpointed Mary Ann as the source of gossip, but nevertheless, by 1774 he offered Mary Ann a generous salary, hoping she might return to Drury Lane.  She replied as follows:

Whatever amounts they settled on concerning the letters of Spring 1774, Mary Ann bedeviled Garrick for the remainder of his life.  She missed premieres and showed up to rehearsals late or not at all.  As a “capital actress”, she refused roles undeserving of her talent, and even when she requested particular roles, she would abandon them upon her whim.

Over the years, her absences only increased and she partied hard, flitting around town from one masquerade to the next.  As Garrick had spent his career making Drury Lane a first-rate theater, he was justifiably incensed.  But this was the way with them.

Mary Ann was a talented tart; we’ve no doubt about that.  Some of her roles were so well played that other actresses refused to attempt them for the remainder of her life.  She had leagues of admirers and likely just as many critics, making her a person of great interest during the Georgian period, but why then didn’t her contemporaries write biographies of her?  Why wasn’t she the subject of national obsessions like many of her fellow actresses?

What makes one person forgotten and not another?

An 1839 edition of Bentley’s Miscellanya literary magazine first edited by Dickens, by no means provides answers to these curiosities, but the following exchange between a pew opener and a group of gentlemen touring a Richmond graveyard is a testament to Mary Ann’s one-time popularity:

“But, surely, sir, you’ll go and see the grave of the great Mary Ann Yates?  Lord bless you, sir, more people go to see that grave more than any other in the church.”

“The great Mary Ann Yates!” said we in some perplexity; for, to our shame be it spoken, we had forgotten the name, and we did not like to expose our ignorance to the pew opener.”

“She was very celebrated,” said she [the pew opener], after a pause; “and, indeed, I’ve heard that Mrs. Siddons wasn’t anything like equal to her.”

More Images of Mary Ann:

Additional Resources:

“her figure so much encumbered with corpulence” was said of Mary Ann by Thomas Sheridan, actor-manager in Dublin

Ban and Mary: A Lover’s Wager

For a fellow who had earned the nickname “Bloody Ban”, Banastre Tarleton was quite the ladies’ man.  Although not a large man, his compelling physical presence belied his short stature.  He was strong and athletic with reddish hair and dark eyes.  It was his arrogant charm, however, that tantalized the ladies as much as (if not more than) his handsome features and his heroism.

Mary Robinson as Perdita, John Hoppner, 1782

One of the most desirable women in England at the time, the actress Mary Robinson, better known as Perdita, met him through the Prince Regent.  Upon his return to England, Tarleton was hailed as a hero, an honor which granted him membership into Prinny’s exclusive set.  Mary Robinson had been one of Prinny’s many mistresses and had lately found a new protector in Lord Malden.  Much like Tarleton, Malden was convinced of his sexual prowess.  He bet that Mary would remain faithful to him even if Tarleton attempted to woo her away from him.  An account of the bet in the salacious Memoirs of Perdita claimed Tarleton “would not only win her from Malden, but also jilt her.”

Nice guy.

Ever the gambling man, Tarleton’s wager was well placed.  Several weeks after the planned seduction, Mary was in Tarleton’s bed and Lord Malden was astonished.  Up until this point, the three had been a mischievous trio, amusing themselves by playing tricks on Mary’s admirers and would-be suitors.  Now they had a fracture.

Ban in his green coat uniform

Mary was furious when she discovered herself the victim of their scheme.  As his hubris had made him a grand fool, Lord Malden relinquished his role as Mary’s protector, though he did settle upon her an annuity and also a house in Berkley Square.  Tarleton, never truly ruffled by anything, weathered the storm.  He was at Mary’s side in June when she suffered a traffic accident in Hyde Park and this dilligence in attending to her awarded him her forgiveness.

Although their passionate affair evolved into one of increasing strife and reconciliation, Tarleton remained Mary’s lover for 15 years.  They were the celebrity couple of their time.  Wherever they went—to balls, operas, political gatherings—people whispered.

Considered the most fashionably dressed in any room, the young couple made a beautiful pair and the papers loved them for it.  The war hero and actress were fodder for the insatiable public, appearing in the papers with as much frequency as celebrities in today’s supermarket newsrags.  James Gillray, a fledgling cartoonist at the time, published his scathing cartoon, “The Thunderer” (subtitled “Vide; Every Man in his Humour, alter’d from Ben Johnson”) in 1792.

The featherhead is none other than the Prince Regent (the triple feather was his father’s emblem).  Tarleton (with a noticeably large package in his breeches) is regaling Prinny with tales of war.  Mary is the whirligig above the door with a sign reading “A la mode beef, hot every night.”  Every man, we are to assume, gets to have a go at her.  The dialogue reads as follows:

Throughout his relationship with Mary, Tarleton was criticized for keeping around a loose woman who was nothing but a hindrance to him.  His family keenly disapproved, in part because while around Mary, he could not seem to live within his means.  From the previous post, we know this problem predates Mary, but perhaps they thought Mary a bad egg, worsening Tarleton’s profligacy through influence.  They would not be the first family to do so.

Tarleton’s lavish lifestyle with Mary eventually caught up with.  In 1783 his family offered to pay his most pressing debts, a total of £5,000, if he would leave for the continent without his lover.  In desperation, Mary borrowed to prevent this eventuality and chased after him.  She suffered a miscarriage on her journey and, as her biographer Paula Byrne has speculated, experienced partial paralysis of her lower limbs, possibly at the hands of a malpracticing midwife.  Tarleton was greatly aggrieved to hear the news and the couple swiftly reunited in France.

Mrs Mary Robinson – Perdita by Thomas Gainsborough, 1781

Mary’s condition seems to be of no impediment to their relationship.  Although they were on occassion known to be unfaithful, they lived together for many years after her health problems commenced and became known as “the wandering couple”, a reference to their travels while under pressure of debts.

Regarding one affair of signifcance, Tarleton simply shrugged off Mary’s liason with Charles James Fox, saying, “I shall ever applaud the Perdita for being the most generous woman on earth.”  Mary was not so equanimous when Tarleton diddled with another lady.  From the late 1780s, she was known to write poetry and novels portraying Tarleton as a villain and whatnot.

The details of their eventual breakup are not known, but we do know that Tarleton had political ambitions.  He first ran for parliament in 1784, but he didn’t win a seat until 1790.

Over the years, Mary, plagued by her condition, evolved into an independent woman of letters.  Her peers called her “The English Sappho”.  She wrote prolifically, producing numerous poems, six novels, two plays, and a feminist treaty a la A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Wollstonecraft.  She was also working on her unfinished memoirs.

Her liberal, feminist leanings did no favors for Tarleton’s political career.  Compared to his Tory brother (whom he actually ran against once), Tarleton did vote for parliamentary opposition as a Whig, but he was also well known for his support of the slave trade.  One can see how this would not go over well with Mary.

Contemplation, Mrs. Mary Robinson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1783-1784 (Wallace Collection)

The couple eventually parted ways in 1797.  Mary was left with thousands of pounds of debt, presumably shared, but her relationship with Tarleton had been costly.  When he first ran for MP in 1784, creditors found the couple, living again in England, and took possession of a large majority of Mary’s property.

Tarleton, although a war hero and the author of the successful History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, had very little to live on, essentially half military pay of £341.  Mary also earned  income off her novels, but the numbers were dismal.  Over her writing career, she earned approxiately £460.  Given her and Tarleton’s financial disappointments, perhaps the same woman who published the poem Sappho and Phaon in 1796, a markedly different poem than her “Ode to Valour“, had reason to be bitter.

A year after their final breakup, Tarleton married Susan Priscilla Bertie, the illegitimate daughter of the 4th and last Duke of Ancaster.  They were married for 35 years, but had no children.

After  years of poor health, Mary died in 1800, but in an interesting twist of fates, Susan Tarleton befriended Mary’s only daughter, Mary Elizabeth Robinson.  When Mary Elizabeth, a novelist herself, published the anthology The Wild Wreath in 1804, the engravings were based on drawings of “Mrs. B. Tarleton”.  Their friendship is not entirely surpising given that Mary Elizabeth was raised around Tarleton.  Since she likely had an enduring connection to the  man who was father to her for over 15 years, it was even to be expected.

For more about Mary Robinson and Banastre Tarleton:

My previous post: Handsome Devil’s and their Deeds: Banastre Tarleton

The Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide: Tart of the Week: Mary “Perdita” Robinson

Perdita, a biography by Paula Byrne

Mary Robinson’s bio and links to her works from the University of Pennsylvania’s Celebration of Women Writers

Mary Robinson: A Life Lived Extraordinarily (Jane Austen Centre) 

A short article on Sappho and Phaon from The Guardian

The First Actresses Exhibition: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

All for Love: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson by Amanda Elyot (a novel)

The Prince’s Mistress: Perdita, a life of Mary Robinson by Hester Davenport

For the numbers on Ban and Mary’s pay scale see, Mary Robinson: Select Poems, edited By Judith Pascoe

Handsome Devils and Their Digs: Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 8th Duke of Hamilton

Douglas Hamilton with Dr. John Moore and Sir John Moore, 1775-1776, by Gavin Hamilton (yes, a relation–son of James, Duke of Chatellerault)

Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 8th duke of a headache-inducing number of titles– including Duke Hamilton of Scotland, Duke Brandon of England, Duke Chatellerault of France, Marquess of Hamilton, of Clydesdale, of Douglas; Earl of Angus, Arran, and Lanark; Lord Macanshire, Polmont, Abernathey and Aberbrothock of Scotland; Baron Dutton and Hamilton in England . . . Still got your attention?  Good.  Our handsome devil (more devil than handsome, a certain lady wife might say), whom we shall call Double Douglas just once in this post, lived in a big, lovely house called Hamilton Palace.

Hamilton Palace, built in 1695, demolished in 1921. 

**Much of the Hamilton fortune derived from the coal industry.  The mining that took part on the property resulted in the property being deemed unsafe.  So sad!  It once housed priceless art works which in 1882 were sold for £397,562, including a throne from St. Petersburg, floors and doors of black Galway marble,  a grand Corinthian portico, and green porphyry columns taken from the Basilica di Semproneo originally from Ancient Rome. More here.

He was the second son of the 6th duke who had the keen misfortune of dying from a cold after a hunting expedition.  His brother, James, the heir apparent from age two onward, died from consumption–or if we are to trust Dodley’s Annual Register , “his growing so exceedingly fast is said to have been the cause of death”–before reaching the age of 15.  The 7th duke was already 5’8 in his early teens which was apparently thought to be a medical condition on account of vertical largess (5’8 or so being the average male height during C18).

Having lost her first heir, Hamilton’s mother panicked and shipped the newest duke off to the Continent as he was also known to suffer from a delicate constitution.  After four years touring Europe with his tutor, Dr. John Moore, Hamilton returned to England, his vitality restored, his mother happy, and all well and right with his world.  The parson’s mousetrap, however, caught up with him.  Two years after his homecoming, Hamilton entered into an imprudent match with Elizabeth Anne Burrell, daughter of a Mr. Peter Burrell.  This is where the road gets bumpy.

Duchess and Duke of Hamilton, a now extinct portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted 1779, a year after they were married.  A sweet portrait; the affection between them is palpable.

To say the least, Mother Duchess was not pleased.  Given the inequality of the untion, one can only assume this relationship between Miss Burrell and Hamilton began as a love match, but it quickly descended into unhappiness.  From Famous Beauties of Two Reigns, it is said of Hamilton,

One gets the sense he was not exactly a gentleman of moderation, at least not when it came to women.  Like many Georgian-era lords, Hamilton did have a regrettable tendency to be the paramour of his loose lady friends–one of the reasons his duchess later divorced him.  Although divorces were rare for the period, the action brought before Parliament by Duchess Hamilton was not an overwrought dramatization of a marriage gone wrong.  On the contrary, it was a sensible move without much bitterness involved.  It is described thusly in Alienated Affections:

“The case of Her Grace Elizabeth Anne Burrell Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon against Douglas Duke of Hamilton and Brandon was extremely amicable and had clearly been agreed on beforehand.  They had been married in 1778, and the libel stated that his adultery began in 1787, without naming the ‘Lady or Woman’ with whom he was then guilty.  The case was founded on another affair, carried on over the months preceding the summons in November 1793.  His mistress was ‘Mrs. Eisten the actress’, and he brought her to Hamilton and took her along to Arran where they could be seen together by all the servants.  Her Grace, having left Hamilton a year earlier, had no trouble obtaining her divorce.  She remarried, but not until 1800, so that could not have been the motive for bringing the divorce action.”

In the Duchess’s mind, this divorce action had roots in Hamilton’s previous affair with the Earl of Eglinton’s wife, neé Frances Twysden, around 1787.  The then 31 year old Hamilton would visit Lady Eglinton at night, including when Lord Eglinton was shortly away at supper.  Their congress occurred with such regularity that the Earl’s servant, Montgomery Lawson, was boldly asked by Lady Eglinton, “if he would admit the Duke of Hamilton into her bedchamber”.  He refused.  She admitted the married duke anyway and so continued her not-so-discreet affair.

For another 12 years, Hamilton continued in as much the same manner as he had before his divorce.  Despite the duke’s stimulating lifestyle, however, he failed to remarry and died at the age of 43.  He did have an illegitimate child with the actress Harriet Pye Bennett (at the time called Mrs. Esten), but never produced issue.  The title passed to his father’s youngest brother, Archibald Hamilton, the 5th duke’s eldest living son.  Archibald Hamilton, the 9th duke, was only 16 years older than the 8th duke, and unlike dukes 5 through 8 who succumbed to illness before their mid-forties, Archibald managed to overcome what had proven to be a delicate constitution in the exalted line and lived until the ripe age of 79.