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Not Having It All

While staying in Leeds in July 1782, Tate Wilkinson, the successful manager of a theater company touring the north of England, received a message asking him to visit Grace Phillips, an actress who, as Mrs. Francis, had once played Desdemona to his Othello. He found Grace and her three children in dire straits: newly arrived from Ireland and penniless, the family desperately needed work. But Grace Phillips was not asking Wilkinson for a place in his troupe for herself. Instead she proposed that he should employ her daughter Dorothy or, as she preferred to be known, Dora, aged twenty and now five months pregnant, the result of an affair with Richard Daly, a vicious Dublin theater manager who had forcibly claimed the rights of the casting couch.

Long before NoĂŤl Coward, Wilkinson knew only too well the problems of dealing with Mrs. Worthingtons who wanted to put their daughters on the stage. As he wrote later, “the mamma, like other mammas, and in particular actresses’ mammas, talked so fulsomely of her daughter’s merits, that I was almost disgusted, and very near giving a flat denial to any negotiation.” Eventually persuaded by hearing Dora recite a few lines and by her boundless self-confidence, Wilkinson agreed to let her play Calista, the title role in Nicholas Rowe’s tragedy The Fair Penitent.

Wilkinson advertised Dora as Miss Bland, but Grace protested: Dora’s father, Francis Bland, had abandoned the family seven years earlier. Dora was billed instead as Miss Francis. Like all such theater stories, this one would have no point unless Miss Francis was a triumph as Calista. By the time the company moved on to York, Wilkinson’s new star was too visibly pregnant, and the father too obviously invisible, to be acting as “Miss.” Wilkinson came up with a new idea: jokingly he likened Dora’s escape from Ireland to the Israelites’ fording the River Jordan from slavery to freedom and Miss Francis became Dora Jordan, the subject of Claire Tomalin’s superb biography.

If Wilkinson’s suggestion solved the problem of her stage name for the rest of her career, Dora Jordan’s life can seem like an endless search for an offstage name. Unable to use her father’s surname, Jordan never married, and thus never acquired the legal right to use a husband’s surname either. Many actors like Dora Jordan have undergone the experience of abandoning the name they might have thought of as their own, taking on a new public name for their work, these days answering the demands of Equity or a Hollywood studio. Actors are, in any case, used to being renamed, taking on a new name with each new role, and some of those roles, almost as the price of popular success, add their own resonances to the performers’ names, as, for instance, when Sylvester Stallone becomes unnervingly identified as Rambo and Rocky off-screen as much as on. The actor is public property, with an identity molded as much by the audience as by the star.

But Jordan’s life, like her name, does not conform to the stereotypes. Tomalin gives a fine account of her career. Immediately successful with Wilkinson’s company, she quickly moved to London and within a short time had established her position as the finest comic actress of her age. In her first year in London she began a relationship with Richard Ford, a young lawyer and the son of the co-owner, with Sheridan, of the Drury Lane Theater. She had three children by Ford, but though she occasionally signed her letters “Dora Ford,” he refused to marry her.

In 1791, aged thirty, Dora Jordan fell in love with the Duke of Clarence, the third son of King George III. For the next twenty years they lived together extraordinarily happily and Jordan had ten more children, neatly alternating boys and girls in defiance of any statistical expectation. But again she could not take on a new name since the Royal Marriages Act prevented their marrying and Dora Jordan could never become the Duchess of Clarence. Though their children could not be officially acknowledged by the court, their first names all defined their family, for they were all named after the Duke’s brothers and sisters. But for years they, too, lacked a surname. Only after 1804 were they given their own last name, becoming known as Fitz-Clarence, another name their mother could not take on.

In 1811, without any forewarning, the Duke suddenly and appallingly demanded a separation, partly as a result of pressure from the palace to marry and produce legitimate heirs. Four years later, exhausted and alone, just as she was hoping finally to retire from the stage, Jordan was forced to flee to France to avoid legal action for a mountain of debts fraudulently acquired in her name by a son-in-law. As poor and desperate as when she had arrived in Leeds from Ireland more than thirty years earlier, Dora again needed a new name and now became Mrs. James, her last and saddest identity. But famous actors cannot escape their fans and, ill and heartbroken, hoping for some help from England to solve the financial catastrophe, Mrs. James had to endure visits from English residents and tourists who wanted their chance to talk with Dora Jordan. She died in July 1816 in Saint-Cloud, without a single one of her surviving children with her, her grave unmarked until 1818, when an English couple paid for a tombstone “sacred to the memory of Dorothy Jordan.”

Jordan’s first biographer, her friend James Boaden, found her life “valuable to the moralist.” Though he liked his subject and adored her performances, Boaden began his account with a sharp recognition of the moral awkwardness of her experiences:

Irregularity of any kind is commonly progressive, and seldom prosperous…. There was an ambiguity in her situation, always productive of annoyance; and the cultivation and the practice of many virtues, were not always thought to balance the admitted dispensation with some of the forms of life.1

The annoyance seems as much Boaden’s as his recording the general public’s sense of moral offense, even though the prolonged happiness of the years with the Duke of Clarence is a fairy tale that duly becomes a horror story.

Jordan’s public biography is well-known to theater historians. The title of Claire Tomalin’s biography suggests that she, too, will be mainly concerned with Jordan’s professional life. But instead, tenderly and with immense sympathy, she brilliantly recounts her private life. Recapturing the work of an actor is notoriously difficult. In spite of the paintings and engravings, in spite of all the descriptions by reviewers and other theatergoers, the performances can resolutely refuse to come alive. But if, even for the most assiduous of biographers, the actor can stay lost, a biographer of Jordan has an unusual advantage: more than any other actor before the twentieth century, Jordan survives in her own words, for nearly nine hundred of her letters to the Duke and to her children survive. In 1951 a selection was unsympathetically edited by Arthur Aspinall, the editor of the royal correspondence of the period. Aspinall cut and censored. Tomalin is the first to go back to the archives and rediscover the deeply protective mother and lover. Through the letters, she has built a moving portrait, scrupulous to the evidence, charitable—even to the Duke of Clarence.

Tomalin is a modest writer, rarely drawing attention to her own discoveries, and so when she does speak for herself the effect is all the stronger. At one moment, she prints a letter from one of Jordan’s sons, away at the Royal Military College, to his elder brother, describing his overwhelmed response to the rumors of his parents’ separation. Tomalin recalls her own experience of finding it:

It was preserved by George…and has remained in a bundle of disregarded papers for nearly two hundred years. When I opened the double sheet with its crumbled edges and began to read, the clear, true voice of Henry’s outraged grief brought him to life before me with all the force he put into the writing, and I found I had tears in my eyes as I read.

So too did I, both in reading the letter and in reading Tomalin’s response. Writing with an assured feeling for Jordan and her family, Tomalin describes without prying, reports without judging.

When Wilkinson agreed that “Miss Francis” could make her debut as Calista in Rowe’s The Fair Penitent, the choice of role was designed to make a pointed comment on the actress’s circumstances. But the problems of the character and of the performer do not overlap in quite the predictable ways. The play, first performed in 1703, was one of the stock tragedies of any eighteenth-century theater company, and gave the language the idea of “that haughty, gallant, gay Lothario.” Though Richardson drew on Lothario and Calista for his Lovelace and Clarissa, and though Lothario is as much the callous seducer as Richard Daly, who had made Jordan pregnant, Tomalin misdescribes the play as “a tragedy centred on a rape.” Calista loves Lothario and has spent a night of passion with him only too willingly. Calista may appear to be the fair penitent of the title but, as Dr. Johnson complained, Calista “shows no evident signs of repentance, but may be reasonably suspected of feeling pain from detection rather than from guilt.”2

From her early days with Wilkinson, Jordan frequently had to face the moral outrage of some of her public who found her, like Calista, shameless. Her response was consistent: she demanded, forthrightly and reasonably, that she be judged solely for her performances, that the limits of the audience’s concerns be within her control. One implication of Tomalin’s title is that Jordan was certainly a consummate professional. When, at the beginning of her relationship with the Duke, the press attacked her for failing, for frivolous reasons, to perform, Jordan fought back in a public letter, arguing,

I would not obtrude upon the public an allusion to anything that does not relate to my profession, in which alone I may, without presumption, say, I am accountable to them;…if they could drive me from that profession, they would take from me the only income I have, or mean to possess.

The Times sneered at her claim of financial dependence on the theater: “If this be the case, we cannot help saying there are certainly more fools than one in the world.” But the Times was wrong: Jordan depended on her work for her income. Far from relying on the Duke, whose financial acumen was exactly the inverse of her own, Jordan supported their growing family, often lending the Duke large sums to pay his debts, cautiously paying into annuities and life-insurance schemes for herself and all her children. She was tough in her negotiations with theater managers about her fees, simply because she had to be, but it was a toughness that made even Wilkinson complain, in his memoirs,

  1. 1

    James Boaden, The Life of Mrs Jordan (2nd edition, 1831), Vol. 1, pp. 4–5.

  2. 2

    Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, George Birkbeck Hill, editor (Oxford University Press, 1905), Vol. 2, p. 68.

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