An imagined portrait of Margaret Woffington’s first interview with theater-owner and manager, John Rich (whose theater harbored many cats is the joke)
Francis Abingdon as Lady Bab in in Burgoyne’s Fair Maid of the Oats by John Hickey
Dear friends and readers,
On and off for the past couple of months, I’ve been reading Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance and the Eighteenth-Century Theater with a view to writing a review for publication in an academic journal on it. When I write reviews, I not only read the book with great care, thinking about it as I go, but (unless I really am an expert in the area or, conversely, when I find I can’t stand the book or the material and will still write briefly on it because I promised to), I read a selection of the materials the author read to write it. In the case of Nussbaum, I was eager to read more than I had. I had read some contemporary biographies of the actresses (e.g., Anne Oldfield) and memoirs by them too (George Anne Bellamy), and a few modern biographies (of Oldfield, of Bellamy, Dora Jordan [Claire Tomalin's], Hannah Pritchard, Elizabeth Inchbald) and a few essays on and texts either by them or intended for them to act out (Catherine Clive, Sarah Siddons), and also a few general histories, but this was my opportunity to read more. And I did.
I’d like to share some of this with my reader as it’s just fascinating stuff, relevant to our world today in so many ways, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to write up coherent notes as I went, plus I was partly directed by my reaction to Nussbaum and my task to check her out, see how accurate were her readings and who disagreed with her and why. I chose to write up two because one swallow does not a summer make and if two don’t either, the pair do reveal the tragedy, pain, and ambivalent lives of loss as well as triumph both women lived.
Woffington as Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple
Margaret Woffington (1720-60) is one of the women Nussbaum focuses on and like other 18th century actresses still remembered for their supposedly exciting sex life and transgressions on stage, it’s not hard to find sites which purport to give a gist of her life and pictures of her on the Net. Unfortunately, like many of these (and Nussbaum too) what is available is filled with falsifying glamor and puffery, which obscure what was Woffington’s experience of life.
The only full-length book that exists is Janet Dunbar’s Peg Woffington and Her World (1968). On one level, it’s a poor book. It’s a story outline of Woffington’s life interspersed with potted biographies of those she worked with, and imagined thoughts she gives them, nothing of which contains any real insight into the characters of the people. What’s also missing is the keen ethical perspective of Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife (a life of Susannah Cibber in the context of her family, era, musical and stage theater).
OTOH, since meager records (playbills, lists of plays performed from memoirs of the era and various documents) and gross bogus history and legend, calumnies that make Woffington into a monstrous sex-made half-prostitute, and recorded silly exaggerations that idolize her are mostly what’s left from Woffington’s life, Dunbar’s book is a unexpectedly sober, respectful and coherent narrative from which one can draw a probable understanding of Woffington’s life.
What else is available? a very few articles which treat Woffington from an author’s agenda-driven point of view (nowadays a favorite is her penchant for cross-dressing); the ODNB biography; A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800, ed. Highfill, Burnim, Langhans (1993); Nussbaum’s chapter in her book and the first writing; and a 1760 biographical memoir (Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington). This memoir is disgraceful, a document which testifies to the shameful tone of writer’s mind. Suffice to say that as an adolescent Peg was perhaps “discovered” by a French impresario woman who was looking for talent for fair-ground, and this memoir presents part of this time as Peg, an 11 year old giving herself up to disgusting fellatio and other forms of oral and anal sex to young men out of sheer love of it. The tone of the memoir throughout is crude, leering, voyeuristic.
Margaret Woffington spent her life as an actress living on her own and now and again she lived with different well-known males and she did not attempt to hide this. None of them had the high friends that Anne Oldfield’s first choice did — Arthur Maynwarning was attached to the Queen and high gov’t Whigs. Garrick’s popularity and position did not cut anywhere near that high. Peg really defied many norms: she did not even try to appear chaste or virginal when not married. Like Clive, she seems not to have had any children. Woffington did not weave total lies of improbable virginity and chastity like Elizabeth Farren. She just let her life be seen.
Several times she found herself ousted from her theater group: sometimes from the London group and then she’d quietly turn up in Dublin and then after a while the journey would be reversed (she’d be ousted from Dublin and then be found playing on a London stage). Her specialty was the transvestite role: dressing as a men and playing a man’s role nearly straight, dressing as a man and playing it as a travesty (with her woman’s body emphasized): what we can see in this is this the outsider and perhaps a bisexual or lesbian person. Her one long-time liaison with Garrick is not atypical in that she apparently did want to marry him, but he found her unacceptable as a social choice. Once Margaret educated her sister, Polly, and managed to marry Polly into Walpole’s family (Horace sneered at the man who married the girl) the sister more or less dropped Margaret.
The way Nussbaum treats Woffington’s collusion with the powerful authorities in Ireland (Duke of Dorset) to encourage men to go to war reveals Nussbaum’s agenda: Nussbaum’s goal is to counter those who have said women had no effect on politics. Nussbaum seems not to care what kind of effect. Woffington “influenced the political imaginary of the time.” One famous instance of her pronouncing an epilogue (as a “Female Volunteer”) we know about it because the playbill of Woffington has her dressed as a soldier with a low cut blouse that emphasizes her breasts and a bunch of cloth that shows where man’s phallus would be; she spoke an epilogue which reminds me of WW1 posters urging women to send their sons to fight. Nusssbaum is just all ga-ga about how this shows how important and powerful Woffington was (!). Woffington was then invited to a dinner at an exclusive club with the Duke of Dorset — Dunbar describes this and provides the sycophantic poem Woffington recited, and then quickly tells how not long afterward Woffington was hooted from the stage by an Irish contingent and fled to London. Nussbaum chose Woffington because Woffington was especially known for this kind of “patriotic” cross dressing. For one of her epilogues see comment.
Nussbaum argues such enactments show Woffington bringing together cross-dressing, sexual transgression and patriotism; she was answered by a satirical pamphlet that defended the English soldier against this attack on their masculinity. It dismisses Woffington’s piece as sexual contamination not genuine patriotism. A later tract, Guide to the Stage (1751) maligned Woffington by claiming she rather than Jacobites lures audience “into a clap”.
Woffington apparently spoke another epilogue, one to the Non-Juror (by Cibber) where she appears as feminine and again nags the audience to be English protestants against “vile banditti” from “Church of Rome” (Charles Stuart). She thus distanced herself from Catholicism, critiqued the festering Jacobitism of Scotland, called French “henpecked” and effeminate.
At the time in Dublin Sheridan was playing one of Voltaire’s radical plays Mahomet ou le Fanatisme and Woffington was in it. The audience was heavily Irish Catholic; they cheered for the villain-hero and insisted he re-say his speech. Sheridan was livid at the actor who did this. The next performance Sheridan forbad this. What emerged was the hostility and anger of the audience towards the players who were co-opted by the Anglo-Protestant establishment into doing such a play to flatter them at the same time as they had Woffington (paid her of course and Sheridan) do these “patriotic” epilogues. They booed Woffington and threw eggs at her when she came on stage. Sheridan fled. The theater inside was smashed. The theater was fixed and within a few months everything but to normal but Woffington found herself not appreciated by anyone after all and returned to London.
Nussbaum does present this but as a triumph by not telling us the details, not telling us the realities of what Woffington was enacting and for which side. Does it not matter? Again I cannot see how this is admirable if that’s what Nussbaum wants me to see. I see an actress maligned and castigated, doing reprehensible kinds of urging for money in clothes that make her body a salacious joke. Not that Dunbar is any better, for she does not mention the true or full context; the reader has got to be politically aware, knowledgeable him or herself to understand fully what is happening.
There is at this time nothing written about Woffington that conveys her reality, that tells the politics of it with any humanity or decent values and relates it to our time as I have just done. I suppose it’s in no one’s interests but perhaps the Irish who however will today have a nationalist agenda anyway.
Margaret died young (perhaps a heart attack while on stage) because she ceaselessly worked. People who’ve studied her playbills mention how she seems hardly ever to have taken off. Night after night ceaselessly.
She did make money, enough to support her probably illiterate and very low-in-class mother in Ireland. Surprisingly Nussbaum does agree openly with the earlier biographers which have Woffinton the daughter of a bricklayer and laundry-peddlar woman. Woffington bought a nice house in Twickenham area, Teddington. Several times like Clive she found herself tricked and pressured into taking a much lower salary and she refused. She never wrote defenses of herself. I assume she was not sufficiently educated. In fact we have hardly any writing by her about herself.
Nussbaum presents a version of Woffington’s life which is all success and power and money and achievement. Nussbaum is of the idolizing school. She omits what Dunbar presents under the wraps of conventional dullard speech: such as for example, that Owen M’Swiney, a Signor Angelo, and later in life a Colonel Caesar functioned as her protector-males (M-Swiney and Caesar probably capable of the necessary thug behavior) from other thugs who might and would attack a woman living alone. From my reading of Anne Halkett’s memoir and other 17th and 18th century women who lost their respectability and had no family or friends or connections to support them (who would have to be answered to), I know a woman living alone was continually at risk for any bully male to break in and try to harass and rape her.
She apparently suffered a stroke while playing Rosalind in As You Like It; she retired to her hard-won house, a villa in Teddington where she was cared for by Colonel Caesar for her last three years.
My favorite picture of Woffington F. Haytley’s as Mistress Ford (from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor). I fancy her courage and intelligence shines through:
Mrs Abingdon as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love by Joshua Reynolds (1771)
Again there is no good modern biography, a few articles which push an agenda; the ODNB and the Highfill, Burnim and Langhans Biographical Dictionary; Nussbaum’s chapter and an earlier biography, this one written in 1888 (The Life of Mrs Abingdon) – which is however not bad. Like Dunbar’s life of Woffington, this 1888 life of Abingdon provides an outline, some imagined suppositions, and is based on documentary evidence, including this time a revealing series of letters between Garrick and Abingdon, which letters show them to have had high quarrels and frequent bickering.
Frances Abingdon (1737-1815) also rose from very poor people, spent a period as a young girl surviving and promoting herself in whatever way she could, and slowly took on distinctive roles: in Abingdon’s case, they were often a strong, cool, guarded fashionable woman. She became rich men’s mistresses more manipulatively, and used dress as a costume to distance herself from others. She wanted people to forget her origins. She quit the stage more than once. Like Woffington, forced out of London, she went to Dublin and unlike Woffington had a unqualified success monetarily and from the point of view of her reputation. Unlike Woffington, she got two men to leave her big legacies and retired. She was not short lived either as she didn’t exhaust herself the way Woffington had.
From the 1888 biography a complex woman who dressed the way she did out of intense pride emerges. The comic roles she took were quite different from Clive’s (hoyden, chambermaid) or Oldfield (aristocratic witty lady); she took on middling women who were super-elegant and highly intelligent. Her intense engagement with such roles was the result of her perpetually beating back her background to show how she was as good as any one else. The facade became her protection.
About 2/3s the way through the biography the anonymous biographer suddenly dumps a huge cache of letters between Garrick & Abingdon on the reader. They are mind-bending. However corrected, they read as real. Abingdon was continually taking offense, tirelessly defensive, ever accusing Garrick, paranoic some might say. If he wanted control, strong respect from her, and profit, she was tremendously touchy and probably was often slighted. They fight over each iota of status, monetary gain or loss continually. She quit several times. Abingdon’s constant complaints, anger, go beyond something pragmatic, well beyond. She was hurt and angry from within from her experience of life.
She paid the one husband she married to stay away: his jealousy reminds me of the Frenchman who beat his actress wife to death: it’s not sexual or even plain jealousy of her success; it’s something more dangerous; he cannot bear that his wife should do better than he since for him too the rest of the world was despising him. Perhaps that was their initial bond. She too had many epilogues written for her and these do provide a fascinating take on her which somehow emanates from her even if she didn’t write them. (I reprint a typical one in a comment.)
For a narrative life once she gets successful the 1888 biographer gives us the gist of each of her famous roles, then little paragraphs about the play’s production, then a contemporary review and then we move onto the next famous role. And after all what were her waking hours but these? It’s wisdom to make this the central text rather than the marginal love and sex stories that occurred in the interstices of time or even her social support network — fragile without the legacies she got from her two lovers. It’s revealing that Mrs Abingdon called herself Frances and made it stick. Not Fanny. I see in that her intense desire for respect.
The most interesting thing Nussbaum tells is that Abingdon was “reputed to have been a servant to a French milliner in Cockspur Street where she learned dressmaking and design.” The actresses were supposed to get their own costumes. Nussbaum suggests the rumors of prostitution in youth might have come from her having been a milliner (here she resorts to old-fashioned language: milliners the “prey of unsavory men,” regarded as morally suspect!). Abingdon would know how to make all sorts of articles of clothing, what was liked when it came to her to commission clothes for others once she rose to have a good salary and fine clothes herself. I remember that George Anne Bellamy mentions sponsoring a milliner to go to France to learn the art of making clothing of all sorts.
Abingdon’s epilogues bring out her role as an icon of fashion. She combined a material milliner with lady of quality she aspired to be. She was adroit in the use of accessories, like fans, pins, flowers (as a girl selling flowers she was known as “Nosegay Fan”). Rather than asserting sexual power through body anatomy she manipulated accessories. The biographer of Elizabeth Inchbald and Sarah Siddons wrote that Abingdon commanded space. Nussbaum insists that Abingdon was not trivialized and lists her famous roles: Widow Bellmore, The Way to Keep Him; Lady Bab in The Maid of Oaks, Mrs Candour in School for Scandal. Abingdon combined a nostalgic or traditional femininity with an avante-garde/modern femininism.
Abingdon did dressed just spectacularly jewelled and overdressed (she wears Satin as Prue), got up as a kind of Madame de Pompadour. Abingdon broke with a tradition of generic type dressing and when she could dressed individually and sumptuously for each character; we see these outfits immortalized in paintings which do justice to her costume. A contemporary is quoted saying that Abingdon was consulted as a physician, paid as an artist, people of fashion treat her as an equal (the 1888 biography, p 232-33). Other women were copied this way: Anna Cartley, Woffington. I remember that Pritchard came from family of staymakers, costumers for stage, said to be consultant to Queen Charlotte; the Pritchards had a warehouse.
I remember reading in Bellamy’s autobiography that she lost a wardrobe worth hundreds of pounds in New Theater at Glasgow; ladies of Edinburgh loaned her more than 40: “some new … as well as very rich” Nussbaum brings in Bellamy’s intense quarrel with Elizabeth Furnival over Bellamy’s outfit to be Cleopatra, which ended in outrageous insults. Furnival stole clothes for Octavia that Bellamy intended for herself as Cleopatra; seamstress fell on her, Bellamy complained to Sheridan.
Nussbaum wants us to believe that Abingdon “mobilized nation’s fashion industry.” One thinks of Bette Davis who in Now Voyager becomes beautiful and sexy by dressing glamorously. Carole Lombard movies were sales pitches for clothes in the Neiman Marcus mode.
What I’d end on was how Abingdon got writers to rewrite Jacobean and Caroline plays for her (by Fletcher, by Massinger) so as to present earlier hard types, strong, abstract female characters, who (if in the end humiliated) give as good as they get for most of the play, e.g., The Capricious Lady out of The Scornful Lady; an updated version of an updated version of the heroine in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. Abingdon wanted to enact fantasies of power and one of the famous portraits of her (by Reynolds) comes from her role in the farce, The Sultan where we are asked to take seriously that she reasons the Sultan into changing the nature of his relationship with women and his court, (absurd) Orientalist fantasy. Nussbaum says she “reforms the seraglio, erases erotic power of tragic Eastern woman, and replaces it with comic female sway.” She forgets how the play teaches us to despise the eunuch. Well, one can’t have everything.
My favorite story of Abingdon: Samuel Johnson liked her so much that he sat in the pit to watch a play he could neither see or hear very well. Boswell pictures Johnson sitting there gravely and attentively.
The interested reader is invited also to look at my Anne Oldfield as actress, and foremother poet-writer blog on Catherine Clive; and what I managed of an etext edition of Bellamy’s autobiography before I discovered this 6 volume autobiography is readily available on ECCO. These women I also bond with. I’ve put some notes on Susannah Arne Cibber as revealed by Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife and briefly defended Sarah Kemble Siddons in my comments too.
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