Young ladies from particularly wealthy families would have lived quite closeted lives, this is true, but for ladies from of the middle-class who wanted to explore bigger and brighter horizons, there were options. For some young women who saw themselves headed for bigger and brighter things, but lacked the wealth or connections to marry into their desired station, the theatre was a viable career option - particularly for charismatic ladies, or girls of unusual beauty. The theatre didn’t just allow you to support yourself and live a life of luxury, it was a vehicle to meet rich and powerful men of the highest ranks of society.
Many of these girls might have dreamed that they could marry a wealthy, charming, eligible man of noble birth who would marry her and lift her out of a life of poverty and struggle - much like fairy-tales promise us as kids, and what are the odds of meeting your very own prince? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
Social classes were quite restrictive in those days, and upward mobility was available only to super rich businessmen (and even they - the nouveau riche - were thought of as lesser by old-money, aristocratic families). In reality, the best way for these girls to carve out a place for themselves was to become a ‘kept-woman’. Kept-women were, in essence, mistresses, though the man with whom they were involved did not have to be married. It was a form of informal relationship where the woman never reached the same status as a wife would have done, but would have been recognised within their social circle as almost part of the family. She was ‘kept’ by this man financially, often installed in her own house with a small staff and given a monthly allowance and extravagant gift.
It was not a completely stable way of life - there was always the risk that your partner could meet someone else, and without the protection of marriage, you could be ousted and left to fend for yourself once again. As well as that, many people regarded it as a form of prostitution, and polite society would not tolerate the presence of such a woman at formal dinners and events. They were however, a normal part of society during the eighteenth century, even here in Ireland. The most famous in this country was Mrs. Margaret Leeson (real name: Margaret (Peg) Plunkett, and she never married in reality but only took the title of Mrs.), who was mistress to a number of men before establishing Dublin’s most successful brothel and publishing her uproariously popular memoirs - where she named her clients and spilled the dirt on half of Dublin.
This was the path in life chosen by our very own Miss Dorothea Jordan. Dorothea (pronounced like Dorothy) was born just outside Waterford City - though the exact location isn’t currently known. Her family called her Dora, and while she and her five siblings were initially happy, her father left when she was 13, and their future became uncertain. Dorothea was a very pretty teenager, and in an effort to support the family, her mother decided to put her on the stage. She was said to have the best legs of any actress on a British stage, and allegedly made her debut in Dublin in 1777 as Phoebe in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Her beauty worked in her favour, and she soon became the mistress of Richard Daly, (a theatre owner from Galway with a famous temper - he fought 16 duels in two years!). In 1782, pregnant with his child and embroiled in scandal, she fled to England, and made her first appearance on the London stage in 1785.
Her true talent lay in performing comedies rather than serious dramas, evidence of her affable personality. In Drury Lane she became a sensation, and was soon recognised as the greatest comic actress of her time. While in London, she engaged in a number of affairs, which resulted in four illegitimate children.
“Mrs Jordan’s excellences were all natural to her. It was not as an actress, but as herself, that she charmed everyone. Nature had formed in her most prodigal humour; and when nature is in the humour to make a woman all that is delightful, she does it most effectually.”
Dorothea soon became admired, not just for her looks, but for her wit and intelligence, and soon wealthy and noble men were vying for her affections - she only had eyes for one of them though: The Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV.
The Duke was an intelligent man, and was known to be calm despite his slightly wayward youth, he was different too, to the other princes of the day, and as he was never expected to be King, he had served secretly in the navy. When he met Dorothea (known as Mrs. Jordan in London to explain that inconvenient first pregnancy and separate herself from the scandal she left in Dublin), they fell in love quite quickly. He was a Prince, she was one of the most famous actresses in London, and while the pair were a celebrity couple, they preferred to live quietly, entertaining with dinner parties and small gatherings in the home they openly shared.
It was an unusual arrangement. They couldn’t marry because of her low birth and his status as royalty, but they were happy together and even King George III accepted the relationship. In William, she found the stability she had always craved, and a prince with which to live happily ever after to boot!
They lived together for 20 years, and had 10 children (five sons and five daughters) in the process - all of whom were given the surname FitzClarence instead of taking their mothers name to mark the status of their birth and many of them became celebrities themselves, almost regarded as real royalty in social circles.
“Mrs. Jordan is a very good creature, very domestic and careful of her children. To be sure she is absurd sometimes and has her humours. But there are such things more or less in all families.”
- King William IV
Unfortunately, real-life fairy-tales do not always work out, and Dorothea’s end was not a happy one. After the Prince was forced to marry a lady of noble birth (to deal with the debt he had accumulated and provide him with a legitimate heir) and a more stable upbringing. He arranged for Dorothea to have a yearly stipend of £4,400 (the equivalent of over £310,000 today) - £2000 of which was for the raising of the couple’s children, and £2000 for her own use. However, there was a condition for this generosity and she was told she could never again return to the stage.
“Money, money, my good friend, has, I am convinced made HIM at this moment the most wretched of men, [...] With all his excellent qualities, his domestic virtues, his love for his lovely children, what must he not at this moment suffer?”
- Dorothea Jordan about William IV
This she accepted, and she lived happily with her daughters for some years, however, when one of her daughters, Frances, fell deeply in debt because of a relationship of her own, Dorothea was left with no choice but to return to acting to attempt to pay it off. William immediately ceased paying her allowance and took custody of all of his children. Grief-stricken and alone, Dorothea left for France after retiring from the English stage, and lived frugally as her health began to fail her. While she did her best to live independently, and was now too old to marry or find a man to support her, her careful way of life was foiled again when her daughter Frances, and her husband ran up large debts in her name. Her health declined even further.
She died in poverty just outside Paris in 1816 - separated from both her children and the man she loved.
Life was not easy for women of low-birth during the eighteenth century, and to live independently was difficult and uncertain. While women like Dorothea, and Peg Plunkett in Dublin, lived bright and fascinating lives in their youth, this uncertainty could very quickly become their downfall as they aged past their years of beauty and they lived in a world where their intelligence meant little. Some ‘kept women’ lived out their days in relative comfort, but as the stereotype suggests, often they ended up destitute, ostracised and alone.
They do however leave us with fascinating accounts of their lives, of the people they met and the things they got up to, and while they may not be role models, we can’t deny that women like Dorothea make history that little bit more fun.
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