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 Noël 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,

But now, dear Mrs. Jordan, you do like the cash, and I believe and hope you take care of it; that you love to receive it I know, and so does every other manager; you have made us all know that.3

For four years before she began performing at the age of seventeen, she was usually the family’s only source of income, supporting her mother and her siblings and later her children by Daly and Ford. Her letters to the Duke report endlessly on her earnings: “Received last night £32, 10s.,” “My Benefit last night £90,” “I have just received my salary £20 which makes in all £75.” The very frequency of these references can sound, to our ears, a little disconcerting: talking of one’s income, even to one’s partner, is perhaps our last taboo. But Jordan was fiercely independent, and she certainly needed the money. Acting in Dublin in 1809, she wrote to the Duke,

The second day I arrived here, before I had recovered [from] my voyage and fatigue, I had bills to the amount of £394 presented to me for payment, debts contracted by my two brothers. I knew the law could not force me to pay them, but still it placed me in a very awkward situation.4

As fast as she earned money, others spent it for her. It is a hideous irony that the day before she received the letter from the Duke inviting her to the meeting at which he would announce his intention to separate, she wrote to him from Cheltenham, where she was performing,

Money, money, cruel money, since at my first setting out in the world at the age of 13, at a moderate calculation, I have spun fairly and honestly out of my own brains above £100,000, and still, this cruel pelf robs me of even comfort and happiness, as I verily believe we have nothing to do with our own fate.5

At a climactic moment in The Fair Penitent, Calista complains of female dependency:

How hard is the condition of our sex,
Through ev’ry state of life the slaves of man!
In all the dear, delightful days of youth
A rigid father dictates to our wills,
And deals out pleasure with a scanty hand.

But Jordan’s father had left her; her touching poem on the death of her mother, one of the very few of her poems to survive, praises her mother as a “patient wife;/Whose firm fidelity no wrongs could shake,/While curb’d resentment was forbid to speak./ Thus silent anguish mark’d her for her own,”6 using the elegy at a very public moment to condemn her father’s actions.

After the father should have come the husband. As Calista puts it,

To his, the tyrant husband’s reign succeeds;
Proud with opinion of superior reason,
He holds domestic business and devotion
All we are capable to know, and shuts us,
Like cloistered idiots, from the world’s acquaintance
And all the joys of freedom.7

But Jordan was never a cloistered idiot: throughout their time together in a quasi-marriage, the Duke only once proposed that she should leave the stage, as other actresses had usually done when living with aristocratic lovers, and even that request, in 1805, lasted for only eighteen months. It was especially cruel that one of the conditions of the financial settlement of the separation drawn up by the royal advisers was that the considerable sums payable to Jordan for maintenance of her daughters for as long as they were living with her would cease if “the said Dora Jordan shall perform or act upon the Stage of any public or private Theatre.”

Jordan was devoted to her children; she would dash back from the theater to be with them, and her letters are full of the most careful reports on their health and lives, the most heartfelt wishes for their happiness when she was away from them on tour. It was her concern for them and their relationship with their father that led her to agree to their living with the Duke. With no financial constraint, she could continue her career; indeed it became all the more imperative that she carried on.

It would be easy to see Jordan as a familiar stereotype: the career woman destroyed by a male establishment, trying, impossibly, to reconcile her work and her parenthood. In an excellent article, Deborah C. Payne has argued that, contrary to the claims of much recent criticism, the first English actresses, in the period after 1660, were not simply diminished by becoming objects of the spectators’ gaze and by their status as professionals. At the same time, she argues, they were also “amplified,” placed in a new and commanding position of social and cultural power.8 If Restoration actresses were not the victims we have tended to see them as being, the same arguments might apply to their progeny, including Dora Jordan. Jordan’s experiences as a professional actor were often especially harsh. Yet, for all that, throughout her career Jordan resolutely refused to let herself be transformed into a victim, least of all to see herself as one.

One of her most popular roles was as Nell, the good-natured wife of a brutish cobbler, in The Devil to Pay or the Wives Metamorphos’d, an operatic farce by Charles Coffey, the kind of neat and banal play in which, when she was not triumphantly playing Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Viola, audiences expected her to appear and which proved to give surprising scope to her brilliance. A magician, insulted by the proud wife of Sir John Loverule, swaps her with Nell who wakes one morning to find herself a lady.

In the spate of cartoons that gleefully mocked Jordan at the start of her liaison with the Duke of Clarence, Dora was often portrayed as Nell. One cartoon by William Dent seized on the scene where an amazed Nell looks in a mirror and sees a lady’s reflection, “a gay fine thing I knew not.” In the play, Nell remembers that “great Ladies, they say, have flattering Glasses, that shew them far unlike themselves, whilst poor Folks Glasses represent them e’en just as they are.”9 In Dent’s “The Flattering Glass, or Nell’s Mistake,” Jordan is looking in a mirror, saying “if…the Glass be true, I am no less than my Lady DUTCHESS.”

But Jordan, though she may have wanted royal recognition for her children, had no false fantasy for herself: she would never be a Duchess—decorum prescribed that, though the King and the rest of the royal family occasionally came to see her perform, they could not possibly ever meet her. Instead Jordan, with characteristic self-mockery, could turn the fake title against herself. When in rehearsal someone complained, “Why, you are grand, Madam—quite the Duchess again, this morning,” Jordan responded with a story about her Irish cook, sacked for impertinence that morning, who banged a shilling of her wages on the table, announcing “with this thirteener, won’t I sit in the gallery?—and won’t your Royal Grace give me a curtsy?—and won’t I give your Royal Highness a howl, and a hiss into the bargain?”10

What must have hurt more was when Wilkinson’s joke in giving her a stage name backfired and Jordan’s own name was turned against her. For “jordan” was another name for a chamber pot, and James Gillray in particular seized on the opportune inspiration it offered his cartoons. He did so most memorably and surrealistically in a cartoon called “Lubber’s Hole, alias The Crack’d Jordan,” in which Dora becomes an enormous chamber pot with female legs, the crack in it a startlingly explicit image of a vulva into which the Duke is disappearing headfirst. Gillray’s image ought to be nasty, cruel, an example of a vicious satiric excess, but he makes it comic, witty, and fantastical. For even at his most mocking he seems to have found Jordan irresistible: in “La Promenade en Famille,” Gillray shows a red-faced, sweating Duke pulling a pram with three sharply caricatured children, while Dora walks modestly beside them, studying a script.

Tomalin’s biography includes a marvelous collection of images of Jordan, from cartoons to domestic portraits and pictures of her in performance, above all William Beechey’s glowing painting of her as Rosalind, a role she performed for twenty-seven years.11 Her early success had been built on her performances in a range of child roles in farces: as Priscilla Tomboy in The Romp, or Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child. By the end of her career she performed such roles only rarely; fourteen pregnancies and a punishing schedule cannot have helped, and the theater critic Leigh Hunt was only being honest when he suggested that “[to] be very fat and to look forty years old is certainly not the happiest combination for a girlish appearance.” Jordan’s physical appearance now made her stand outside the role, presenting it rather than representing the character. Henry Crabb Robinson, a regular theatergoer, mocked “the absurdity of an old woman aping the romping wantonness of a girl,” but he could find no fault in her performance as Nell, where her “age and bulk…do not interfere with any requisite in the character.”12 Even Leigh Hunt continued to praise her as Rosalind:

So delightful, however, are the feelings and tones of nature, that there is still no actress who pleases so much in the performance of frank and lively youth, in Shakespeare’s Rosalind, for instance.13

That extraordinary energy, the natural excitement that was so often praised, continued to turn the tired trouper into the character of her audiences’ imaginations. She could play Rosalind when seven months pregnant, she could play her when over fifty, but the effect was still the same, as brilliant as ever.

All actors risk being typecast. In the stock repertory system of eighteenth-century theater, the risks as well as the advantages were particularly acute. The effect of typecasting is both to define and to narrow their performing selves, to create a curious identity, a complex interpenetration of the performer and the roles in the audience’s minds. It can harm an actor’s career, but it can also be seen as having far odder side effects. Leigh Hunt complained that her very success in “broad and romping characters” prevented her from “catch[ing] the elegant delicacy of the lady.” Bizarrely he complained that the brilliance of her performance in “breeches” roles, playing cross-dressing characters like Rosalind, damaged her own gender identity, for “if [an actress] succeeds in her study of male representation she will never entirely get rid of her manhood with its attire.”14 I have no idea how Leigh Hunt reconciled this with a performer so often pregnant. But Jordan’s career depended on the continuation of the roles that had made her a star; there could be no transition for such a comic actress to playing dignified, middle-aged ladies.

Never described as being especially beautiful, Jordan succeeded through her stage presence, energizing the performances. When the paintings of her are placed together it is often hard to be sure that they are all images of the same person. Jordan becomes all her roles, as Rosalind or as Nell, as mother or as lady of the manor, as royal lover or as the Comic Muse. Her identity spreads through her different social and theatrical roles. No wonder then that, after her death, the Duke guiltily began to collect as many paintings of her as he could find.

As Tomalin unfolds the narrative with great skill, she allows us to see still other and unexpected aspects of Jordan: the occasional poet, the composer of the haunting popular song “The Blue Bell of Scotland” (her authorship now long forgotten), the admirer of radical contemporary poetry who in 1800 planned to insert a setting of Wordsworth’s “Her Eyes are Wild” from the Lyrical Ballads (1798) into her performance in Sheridan’s Pizarro. Tomalin also claims that Jordan co-wrote a play with a Miss Cuthbertson, Anna, first performed in 1793. The evidence for Jordan’s authorship is weak but Tomalin makes a rare and uncharacteristic mistake when she claims that the play is lost. The manuscript version submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for permission to perform survives as MSLA 969 in the Larpent Collection at the Henry E. Huntington Library in Pasadena, ironically the same library that holds six hundred of Jordan’s letters, the place where her identity as lover and mother, as performer and professional, is most unequivocally revealed.

This Issue

October 19, 1995