The Translator of Lovers’ Vows
I’ll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald
By Annibel Jenkins.
The University Press of Kentucky,
25 b/w and color illustrations.
Reviewed by Penny Gay.
most famous literary productions in her lifetime were her novel A Simple Story (1791) and the
“Remarks” that prefaced each of the 125 plays published in the series
Bell’s British Theatre (1806-1808). She considered the latter massive
undertaking to be hackwork, though in fact it is a good example of the
ever-growing possibilities in the early 19th Century for a respectable
lady to earn a living by her pen.
readers, of course, her most famous production was another piece of
hackwork, the adaptation of the German Kotzebue’s play Das Kind der Liebe in 1798 as the
wildly successful Lovers’ Vows.
It was performed at the Bath Theatre Royal 15 times during the period
1801-6 when the Austens were living in Bath, and given the detailed
knowledge of not only the text but the directions for actors that
Austen demonstrates in Mansfield Park,
it seems likely that she saw it. She certainly knew it, and presumably
had access to a copy: how else would she know that Count Cassel, Mr.
Rushworth’s role, had “two and forty speeches”?
Inchbald was a
professional actress before becoming a playwright and commentator on
contemporary drama. While she was acting for the Covent Garden company
in the 1780s she was already writing plays, the first of which, the
farce A Mogul Tale, was
produced by George Colman the Younger at the summer-season Haymarket
Theatre in 1784. Annibel Jenkins takes the somewhat old-fashioned line
of describing the plot of each of Inchbald’s plays and novels in
overwhelming detail (for example, the play I’ll Tell You What, also 1784, is
given a blow-by-blow account in 13 pages). This unnecessary practice
clogs up the biographical narrative. The life of this extraordinary
woman is, after all, what fascinates.
to become an actress (despite a stammer which Jenkins mentions several
times) led the country-born girl to join one of the hand-to-mouth
touring companies that played all over the United Kingdom in the 18th
Century. Like many actresses at this time, she had “breeches roles,”
including Hamlet, in her repertoire, though her preference was for
ingénue roles. A Roman Catholic, she married the widower Joseph
Inchbald—a not very successful actor and portrait painter—in 1773 (the
ceremony by a Catholic priest had to be repeated by an Anglican one the
following day to make it legal). They had no children, though Joseph
was the father of one legitimate son and several bastards. Elizabeth
looked after her stepson George, as well as her own siblings,
devotedly, though choosing, after Joseph’s death in 1779, to live alone
in lodgings for the rest of her life. She died in 1821, a well-off
woman who had always been careful with the sporadic earnings that she
gained from the theatre.
A very pretty
woman, as the portraits reproduced in this book show, Inchbald seems to
have had various affairs and offers of marriage—among others, from
William Godwin, and from the actors Dick Suett and Thomas Holcroft
(also an active member of the Godwin political circle). She had a
long-standing but extremely discreet relationship with the separated
Sir Charles Bunbury; and, most interestingly of all, there is plenty of
evidence of a lifelong (though probably unconsummated) mutual love
between her and the greatest actor of the age, John Philip Kemble.
Kemble was also a Roman Catholic, and he is fairly obviously the
physical and psychological model for the enigmatic Dorriforth of A Simple Story. Jenkins speculates
that Inchbald was too fond of her own hard-won independence either to
marry any of the men who were fascinated by her (and wanted her as a
trophy, a 1790s New Woman) or to give in to her own fascination for the
domineering and charismatic Kemble (a fascination chronicled in A Simple Story, with its
extraordinary anti-romantic second part).
biography utilizes the series of “pocket-books”—miniature diaries
noting daily events and her extensive reading—that Inchbald kept
throughout her life. Ten of these are housed in the Folger Shakespeare
Library, along with other manuscript material; the British Library has
further holdings. The indefatigable James Boaden wrote a substantial
biography based on this material in 1833, including his own commentary
on the theatrical milieu, in which he was also involved. Jenkins has
also gone to such records as the York
Chronicle and General
Advertiser to give readers a feeling for daily life in the
centres of provincial theatre. This is wonderful stuff: “In the January
3, 1777, issue, there is a long account of the American Revolution,
reported from the ‘lately arrived’ Captain Gardner, who was General
Howe’s aide-de-camp,” along with “the usual notices: a list of prizes
in the lottery; a list of those who had deserted from a recruiting
party”; a few weeks later there is a substantial description of a
masquerade party. Reading material like this brings one close to the
world of Pride and Prejudice.
This is an
overly long, at times somewhat old-fashioned book, but the rewards of
working through its occasional longueurs are many. The reader
experiences a rich immersion in the details of a woman’s life that
encompassed the period of Jane Austen’s. Inchbald’s choice of the
theatre as a profession, however, gave her unimaginable independence
and the stimulation of extraordinary intellectual and social
adventures. That she maintained her respectability while living and
working without family support marks her as a pioneer of feminism,
despite the careful conservatism of her published writings.
Penny Gay is an
associate professor in the English Department at the University of
Sydney, Australia. In 2002, she published Jane
Austen and the Theatre with Cambridge
University Press. Her current research project further explores women’s
roles on the 18th-Century stage.
v.20, no. 1, Spring 2004, p. 21
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