I’ve mentioned Dorothy Jordan in passing before, but we have just published a two-volume biography of her which paints an interesting and sympathetic portrait of this actress and royal mistress, as well as giving a great deal of information about the theatre in Georgian and Regency Britain.
Its author, James Boaden (1762–1839), was educated with a view to his entering the family firm (his father was in the Russian trade). But (possibly to his family’s despair?) he took to journalism, and, in the heady year of 1789, became the editor of a literary journal. Like many well-to-do young gentlemen of his day, he studied the law – or at any rate was admitted to the Middle Temple: but though he was a member for over thirty years, he was never called to the bar. Instead he moved from journalism to drama. His first play was a musical romance called Ozmyn and Daraxa (the music supplied by Thomas Attwood), and he subsequently adapted the Gothic novels of Mrs Radcliffe and ‘Monk’ Lewis for the stage. None of them was hugely successful, and he stopped writing (melo)drama in 1803.
Although of independent means, Boaden apparently suffered a financial reverse in 1824, and must have taken advantage of his close association with the theatre to turn to biographies of actors, starting in 1825 with John Philip Kemble, the famous actor-manager. He went on to memorialise Kemble’s even more famous sister, the tragedienne Mrs Siddons, the comedienne Mrs Jordan, and the actor/playwright Mrs Inchbald. He also edited the letters of Garrick, and weighed into various Shakespearean controversies of his day. However, he was forced to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for support from 1831 (according to the ODNB, he complained that publishers these day were interested only in ‘the writings of the whimsical Boz’), and died almost destitute.
His memoir of Mrs Jordan is a mixture of personal remininscence, evidence drawn from her letters, and the recollections of others. The background detail of her theatrical career often swamps the narrative. There are anecdotes of Kemble and Siddons, Mrs Inchbald and Mrs Abington, the veteran Macklin and young Master Betty, as well as the great conflict between the two theatre factions in London, the rebuilding of Drury Lane in 1791–4 and the disastrous fire of 1809, which led to Sheridan’s famous and bitter joke, ‘A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.’ There are even broader excursuses, on Romney’s career, the European tour of the bluestockings Mrs Montagu and Mrs Carter, the impresario Kelly and the playwright O’Keeffe, and the iniquities of making cuts in ‘Shakspeare’ (as he is consistently spelled).
It is difficult to imagine this 1831 book being published ten or twenty years later. The cheerful acceptance of mistresses, adulterous liaisons and illegitimacy at the highest levels of society was an aspect of the Georgian and Regency periods which Queen Victoria regarded with horror, and the apparent resurgence of the tendency of her ‘wicked uncles’ in her eldest son caused her and Prince Albert great anguish. But Boaden is frank about Mrs Jordan’s three children by Richard Ford and ten by the duke of Clarence (King William IV when the book was published), to say nothing of her miscarriages. ‘Mrs’ was a courtesy title – unlike Mrs Siddons, Dorothy never married – and ‘Jordan’ was a stage name adopted in circumstances which Boaden claims to make clear but in fact doesn’t (or not to me at any rate).
After a coercive relationship with her first employer in Dublin (which resulted in a child), the twenty-year-old actress arrived in England in 1782 with her mother, sister and brother in tow – she was the family breadwinner. After a time in a company which toured the cities of northern England, she moved to London and was taken on by Sheridan at Drury Lane. She came ‘under the protection of’ (Sir) Richard Ford, who was a major shareholder in the theatre, soon afterwards, and lived with him as his wife, often signing her letters as ‘D. Ford’. They had three daughters, but when the duke of Clarence (on shore leave from his naval career) became captivated by her in 1790 and offered her a more lavish establishment, she seems to have asked Ford if he would make an honest woman of her, in which case she would reject the duke. He wouldn’t (Boaden reports that Ford was such an unimpressive figure that nobody could remember anything about him), and she moved first to Clarence Lodge, Roehampton, and later to Bushey House, where she lived in quasi-respectable domesticity with the duke, who provided for her, her daughters, and their own increasing family – though she continued to appear on stage at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and touring the provinces. She apparently shared her own income with her royal lover (which, needless to say, the caricaturists had a lot of fun with).
Mrs Jordan excelled in comic roles and ‘travesty’ parts, where the young ‘hero’ being played by an attractive woman was part of the joke. She specialized in ‘low’ rather than ‘high’ characters – Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love, or Peggy in Garrick’s The Country Girl, adapted from Wycherley’s The Country Wife. (The frontispiece, reproduced on our cover, is an engraving of Romney’s portrait of her in this role.) One of her greatest successes was as Viola in Twelfth Night, and she was also an outstanding Rosalind in As You Like It. According to Boaden, who was a personal friend and a great admirer, she had the capacity to make people laugh just by coming on to the stage and smiling, but she was also a committed actress with a wide repertoire who worked very hard at her craft.
She and the duke were partners (with never a cross word, she claimed) for twenty years, and she had ten children with him. In October 1811, she was appearing in Cheltenham, when she received a letter from the duke saying that they needed to talk. Meeting her at Maidenhead, he announced that he was in debt, that he must marry somebody rich, and that they must part. And they did. He made some provision for her and her younger daughters, but she had to go back on the stage, in spite of ill-health: it later turned out that her generosity to friends and family had resulted in her being defrauded by her son-in-law. Her last stage performance was in July 1815 in Margate: soon afterwards she left for France, dying alone in Paris a year later.
The abandonment of his faithful mistress made the duke hugely unpopular. His energetic pursuit of an English heiress came to nothing, and he eventually married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in 1818 (the death of the heiress presumptive Princess Charlotte in 1817 having led to an undignified scramble among her uncles to produce a legitimate heir). In true Hanoverian form, William IV was often at loggerheads with his and Dorothy’s eldest son, a tragic figure who committed suicide five years into the reign of his cousin Victoria.
Boaden gives as the epigraph to his biography the lines of Milton’s L’Allegro which invoke the nymph who brings with her
Jest and youthful Jollity,/ Sport that wrinkled Care derides,/ And Laughter holding both his sides.
Mrs Jordan does seem to have been a delightful figure – talented, funny, generous and loyal. A marble sculpture of her with two of her children, commissioned by William from Sir Francis Chantrey in 1831, and intended to demonstrate ‘maternal affection’, is now in Buckingham Palace. It was meant to be erected as a memorial to her in Westminster Abbey, but the dean refused to accept such a tribute to a twice-over sinner.