Principal Players of the Long Eighteenth Century

In keeping with our Theatrical Thursdays theme on principal players, this post is dedicated to three eighteenth-century celebrities: Mary Robinson (1757-1800), Dorothea Jordan (1761-1816), and Sarah Siddons (1755-1831). All three make an appearance in our 1798 volume of The Lady’s Magazine which I’ve previously written about here as well as other theatrical works and women’s periodicals held in Special Collections and Archives. Women’s periodicals of this time are particularly fascinating for how they contributed to, and participated in, a growing consumer and celebrity culture. They were as much interested in what women did as what they wore – and we’re going to follow suit and explore both too.

By the time our copy of The Lady’s Magazine was published in 1798, Mary Robinson was destitute – financially and physically – having suffered a mysterious injury during a carriage ride that left her crippled. In her early twenties, she was an eighteenth-century Icarus, shooting to public attention as the Drury-Lane actress that captured the young Prince of Wales (later George IV), becoming his acknowledged mistress and taking her Shakespearean role of Perdita off-stage and off-script. She became a target for all sorts of media attention, from gossip columns to satirical prints. Also acknowledged, however, was her astonishing sense of style, which rivalled that of the Duchess of towering-plumes Devonshire – who was, incidentally, also her literary patron. Despite her tragically short life, her literary achievements number several novels, plays, poems and political tracts. In April 1798, The Lady’s Magazine printed ‘Farewell to Glenowen’ from the risqué novel Walsingham (1797), a story which charts the adventures of the cross-dressed heroine ‘Sir’ Sidney Aubrey. This deceit of dress was a popular plot device in the eighteenth century; irl, it was reserved principally for the stage, though aspersions were cast that Robinson assumed breeches during her dalliance with the Prince. She penned her own version of events in her Memoirs (1801), and Special Collections and Archives holds a late nineteenth-century copy filled with delicious details of her dresses, and illustrated with black and white plates (copies of portraits made during her lifetime). Fig. 1 gives a glimpse of early 1780s fashion, and Robinson is deliberately cultivating a domesticated look here with her pigeon-breasted fichu and mob-cap.

Image of Mary Robinson, the frontispiece to her Memoirs.

Fig. 1 Mary Robinson, Memoirs of Mary Robinson, “Perdita” (1894) – Reading-Rayner Theatre Collection (SPEC COLL SCRP 6.33)

Whilst Robinson is represented in The Lady’s Magazine principally as a poet, Dora Jordan and Sarah Siddons ranked amongst the most famous actresses of their day, and were respectively famed as the muses (aka queens) of Comedy and Tragedy. These lofty titles reflect the neo-classical flavour that came to characterise Regency culture, from the ionic columns in architecture to the elongated silhouettes of high-waisted muslins. Thalia (Comedy) and Melpomene (Tragedy) were, moreover,  positioned above the proscenium arch and thus part of the iconography of Drury Lane Theatre where Jordan and Siddons were seen to perform. What is interesting, however, is how these actresses’ titles became cemented through the press, and through women’s magazines in particular.

The Lady’s Magazine reported eagerly on London’s theatre scene throughout its run, giving regular accounts of new plays and comments on performers. The February issue for 1798 mentions Jordan in relation to Thomas Holcroft’s Knave or not, newly penned and produced at Drury Lane on 25th January that year. Unlike Mary Robinson, Dora Jordan survived the scandal of becoming a royal mistress – rather than a fling, she and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) had a proper relationship; he became her protector, and by 1798 they’d had four children and were enjoying domestic harmony together at Bushy House. This stability perhaps enabled Jordan to keep up her industrious stagecraft and professional identity, and she never needed to pen memoirs to resuscitate a fallen reputation (despite the castigation she endured from the satirical press). Jordan was especially renowned for her singing voice and shapely legs, the latter discerned through her portfolio of breeches and travesty roles: Rosalind, Viola, Fidelia, Sir Harry Wildair, etc. The report of her performance in The Lady’s Magazine is complimentary in general, and emphasises the ‘commensurate applause’ she received. Jordan portrayed the character Susan Monrose, described as ‘an awkward but honest and sincere country girl.’ This part is designed to contrast with the ‘chaste, elegant, and pathetic’ part of sentimental heroine – Aurelia Rowland – played by Marie Thérèse Du Camp (who would, incidentally, become Sarah Siddons’ sister-in-law on marrying her actor-brother Charles Kemble in 1806).

The ‘country girl’ was a stock character of eighteenth-century comedy; she had a licence to flirt but stayed safely on the side of virtue – she was, in short, an incarnation of the comic muse. In the context of The Lady’s Magazine, ‘country girl’ is used as a shorthand that truncates Jordan’s theatrical repertoire into a single denomination – it ensures that this becomes the primary part-type for which she is known. Jordan made her London debut in 1785 playing the part of Miss Peggy, the titular heroine of David Garrick’s The Country Girl (1766) – an adaptation of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, to whom copies are sometimes falsely ascribed (as is the case of the copy in Special Collections, see Fig. 2).

Frontispiece and title page of Wycherley's The country girl, featuring Dorothy Jordan as the country girl.

Fig. 2 William Wycherley, The country girl : a comedy (1791) – Classified Sequence (PR 3774.C6 WYC)

The image that graces this frontispiece is nearly identical to one that was published by The Lady’s Magazine which reported eagerly on Jordan’s first charismatic performance – omitting, in its imagery, the fact that this role, too, featured the adoption of breeches. Thirteen years later, the magazine uses the same terminology to describe the part Jordan plays as Susan Monrose. In doing so, The Lady’s Magazine self-consciously type-casts Jordan as a comedy actress and strengthens its own reputation for consistent and reliable journalism. When La Belle Assemblée published its own series of theatrical biographies in the early nineteenth century, it adapts a famous portrait by John Hoppner of Jordan in 1785 to accompany her memoir. (Fig. 3) The original painting depicted Jordan as the Comic Muse in company of Euphrosyne and a menacing satyr. La Belle Assemblée removes the accompanying characters and conflates Jordan with Euphrosyne in order to function as an illustration of her playing a theatrical part from John Milton’s Comus (1634). As the classical goddess of merriment, this is arguably another incarnation of the comic muse, simply the high-brow equivalent of the country girl. The magazine’s choice is therefore an act of editorial one-upmanship, supporting its own pretensions as much as securing Jordan’s status.

Plate from La belle assemblée, featuring Dora Jordan as Euphrosyne, and accompanying her biography..

Fig. 3 La Belle assemblée : being Bell’s court and fashionable magazine, addressed particularly to the ladies vol. 10 (Nov 1814) – Classified Sequence (PER AP 4.B31)

Plate from La belle assemblée featuring Sarah Siddons as the tragic muse, and accompanying her biography.

Fig. 4 La Belle assemblée : being Bell’s court and fashionable magazine, addressed particularly to the ladies vol. 5 (Feb 1812) – Classified Sequence (PER AP 4.B31)

In a neat fait accompli, La Belle Assemblée paired Siddons’ memoir with an engraving of Reynolds’ 1784 portrait of the actress as the tragic muse. (Fig. 4) It is an image designed entirely to evoke homage, and paeans to Siddons are common throughout the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century world of print. Siddons started her career on the provincial circuit before rising to fame in London in 1782 and cultivated a professional profile as maternal tragedienne. She was known to bring her children on stage with her, embodiments of her marital fidelity and mascots of virtue to stave off the satirical press. The Lady’s Magazine for 1798 offers an example of her extensive fandom, printing ‘Lines written on seeing Mrs. Siddons, as Mrs. Haller in “The Stranger,” Friday, 25th of May; and as Isabella, in “The Fatal Marriage,” Monday, 18th, 1798. By Capel Lofft, Esq.’ Mrs. Haller and Isabella were, indeed, two of Siddons’ most famous stage roles, both naturally tragic characters, and Special Collections holds theatrical works that give insight to Siddons’ performance of these parts and to Regency costuming as well. I want to finish this post with my favourite finds: Elizabeth Inchbald’s British Theatre (1806-8) and William Oxberry’s New English Drama (c. 1818-26). These series printed popular plays alongside illustrations and forewords that reflected contemporary productions, including those of The Stranger and Isabella; or, the fatal marriage. In comparing the two (Figs. 5-7) we can see an interesting contrast in theatrical wardrobes, from the white muslin of an unabashed Mrs. Haller to the Van-Dykd velvet of the swooning Isabella. The stage, of course, was (and always will be) a place where contemporary fashions and fanciful costumes vie with each other.

Plate of Sarah Siddons in the role of Mrs Haller, accompanying the play The Stranger, in Oxberry's edition of New English Drama.

Fig. 5 William Oxberry, ed. New English Drama (1806-1808) – Pettingell Collection (PETT BND.86(5))

Page detailing costume designs for The stranger to accompany the play in Oxberry's edition of New English Drama.

Fig. 6 William Oxberry, ed. New English Drama (1806-1808) – Pettingell Collection (PETT BND.86(5))

Frontispiece illustration to Isabella in Elizabeth Inchbald's The British theatre, volume 7.

Fig. 7 Elizabeth Inchbald, ed. The British theatre : or, A collection of plays, which are acted at the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket vol. 7 (1808) – Classified Sequence (PD 1269.B7)

Shopping in Special Collections & Archives

In addition to keeping the Templeman Library a welcoming place for all, our Learning Environment Assistant Christine Davies has been exploring fashion in our collections this year! We hope you enjoy this blog post by her – and look out for details of rescheduled events when we’re open again.

I am by nature whimsical and self-indulgent, and not generally inclined to resolutions that champion achievement from self-deprivation. And yet, on January 1st, 2020, I resolved not to buy any new clothes for a whole year. I have, like many others, been cluing up on the subject of sustainability in the fashion industry and if you haven’t already seen it, I can recommend Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s dirty secrets’ documentary released last summer and still available on BOB. However, I love clothes. I have always been fascinated with the creative and complex possibilities that clothing affords, for self-expression, negotiation, transformation. I enjoy the lure of fashion, but also take delight in ignoring its dictates with regard to my personal wardrobe. Make no mistake, I fully intend to return to the high street next year, just hopefully better equipped to make more ethical and considered choices. However, to mitigate my material loss in the meantime, I have been spending some time browsing the fashions of the past, and discovered a veritable boutique in our Special Collections & Archives. Since Covid-19 has put a temporary stop to my reading room visits, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take stock and share some of my favourite finds with you.

The history of fashion magazines goes back a long way, and we are lucky to have two examples of the ultimate trend-setter in this genre, The Lady’s Magazine – a monthly miscellany founded in 1770 that, from its inception, supplied readers with embroidery patterns and pilfered reports on fashions worn at court and in Paris. Special Collections has a rare single issue of The Lady’s Magazine for October 1771 and a bound volume for 1798, which, whilst sadly lacking embroidery patterns, nevertheless hold fascinating insights into historical dress. Another selling point for the magazine was its literary content, and each issue was illustrated with a monochrome copperplate engraving that often featured subjects wearing contemporary dress. As we can tell from figs. 1 and 2, 27 years can make a considerable difference – just notice the rising waistline!

Figure 1: The Lady's Magazine Vol. 2(15), Oct. 1771.

Figure 1: The Lady’s Magazine Vol. 2(15), Oct. 1771.

Figure 2: The Lady's Magazine Vol. 29, Oct. 1798.

Figure 2: The Lady’s Magazine Vol. 29, Oct. 1798.

For those interested in further contextualising the development of The Lady’s Magazine, you can access the entire run digitally on Adam Matthew. Also, check out Professor Jennie Batchelor’s blog for an exhilarating and in-depth discussion of the magazine, including its fashion content.

Moving into the nineteenth century, Special Collections also has some wonderful copies of La Belle Assemblée (vols. 5-11, 13, Jan. 1812-Jun. 1815, Jan.-Jun. 1816) and select issues of Le Monde Élégant, or the World of Fashion (nos. 455, Nov. 1861; 460, Apr. 1862; 461, May 1862; 473, May 1863; and 478, Oct. 1863), publications which show us how the form developed over several decades. Since I am not an expert in this field, I will keep my observations to the examples in Special Collections & Archives, but again, you can access the complete run of these publications on e-resources like Gale.

La Belle Assemblée was founded in 1806 and ran concurrently with The Lady’s Magazine; it employed a similar formula with regards to content, but swiftly invested in upscaling its fashion column to include extensive commentary and hand-coloured fashion plates. (It took The Lady’s Magazine thirty years to introduce its first fashion plates in colour, but of course this still preceded La Belle Assemblée by six). La Belle Assemblée also consistently supplied its readers with embroidery patterns in its monthly issues, and we are lucky that these survive in the Special Collections & Archives copies, providing key insights into Regency material life. In the issues at hand, the patterns typically consist of two running borders, either geometric or organic in style, which could be adapted for different garments; favourite motifs, as you can see from figs. 3 and 4, included wheat sheaves and neoclassical key patterns, or frets.

Figure 3: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 7, Jun. 1813.

Figure 3: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 7, Jun. 1813.

Figure 4: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 9, Apr. 1814.

Figure 4: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 9, Apr. 1814.

What strikes me the most, however, is the complexity of the fashion plates themselves. At first glance, they project a delightful whimsy, using colour, composition and exquisite detail to sell a lifestyle grounded in aesthetics and aspiration, and inflected, of course, with contemporary gender ideology. For the most part, the plates feature a female individual, predominantly as a full-length forward-facing standing figure – a format favoured in fashion plates generally at this time – to show both garment and figure to most advantage (think, Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice). I am particularly interested in fashion’s narratives of femininity, and figs. 5 and 6 are examples of plates that indisputably advocate the merits of beauty and domesticity, featuring women at their dressing-tables, pursuing sedentary activities or caring for children.

Figure 5: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 5, Jun. 1812.

Figure 5: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 5, Jun. 1812.

Figure 6: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 6, Nov. 1812.

Figure 6: La Belle Assemblée Vol. 6, Nov. 1812.

Having said this, the occasional plate was also dedicated to riding dress, (arguably the equivalent of sportswear today) featuring women with whip in hand. The plates must also be considered in the context of their accompanying commentary, which often reveals women in an alternative entrepreneurial light. In the Special Collections & Archives holdings of La Belle Assemblée, we learn that several of the featured garments derive from the creative and professional skills of the following London-based business women: Mrs. Schabner, of Tavistock-street; Miss Walters, of Wigmore-street; Mrs. Thomas, of Chancery-lane; Miss Powell, of Piccadilly; and, unsurprisingly, of a Mrs. Bell (who was successful enough to upscale from Bloomsbury to Bedford Square in the course of these few years).

In Le Monde Élégant, the fashion plates become the raison d’être of the women’s magazine – as would be the case from hereon (I don’t know about you, but it’s rare that I actually read a column in Vogue, etc., preferring to flip through the glossy photographs, cooing and grimacing by turns). By the 1860s, Le Monde Élégant had evolved through several different titles and had several achievements, not least becoming the first magazine to introduce paper sewing patterns in the 1850s, each month enabling readers to reconstruct one of the illustrated garments for themselves. The magazine also pointed out how readers could make variations with the patterns, to suit different tastes. Intended for immediate consumption – like the embroidery patterns of earlier magazines – these were an ephemeral component of the magazine, and unfortunately do not survive in the copies held in Special Collections & Archives.

Nevertheless, we can see how the magazine sought to have real material application for its readers whilst showcasing fashions that were, for the most part, unobtainable for the middle classes. The magazine supplied five plates per issue, larger in scale than those of La Belle Assemblée, of which four were in colour, consistently featuring a group of three figures, and one in black and white, covering millinery. Of the examples at hand, the figures are entirely female, though fashion magazines in Britain had started incorporating male figures as early as 1812 (yes, you’ve guessed it, in The Lady’s Magazine). Whilst there is surely a lot more that we could explore, I think for now, we should draw this post to a close. So, to end, here are my personal favourites from Le Monde Élégant (see figs. 7 and 8).

Figure 7: Le Monde Élégant No. 455, Nov. 1861.

Figure 7: Le Monde Élégant No. 455, Nov. 1861.

Figure 8: Le Monde Élégant No. 460, Apr. 1862.

Figure 8: Le Monde Élégant No. 460, Apr. 1862.

All details of Special Collections & Archives journal holdings can be found through LibrarySearch. Thanks again Christine for a wonderful blog!