George Justice, Editor

The Translator of Lovers’ Vows

I’ll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald

By Annibel  Jenkins.

The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
596 pages.
25 b/w and color illustrations. Hardcover. $39.95.

Reviewed by Penny Gay.

Elizabeth Inchbald’s 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.

For Austen 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.

A determination 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).

Jenkins’ 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.

JASNA News v.20, no. 1, Spring 2004, p. 21

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