“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. Charlotte Charke, 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.