The Amazing Mrs Charke
- The Well-Known Troublemaker: A Life of Charlotte Charke by Fidelis Morgan
Faber, 231 pp, £19.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 571 14743 7
- The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama by David Roberts
Oxford, 188 pp, £22.50, February 1989, ISBN 0 19 811743 4
- The Complete Lover: Eros, Nature and Artifice in the 18th-Century French Novel by Angelica Goodden
Oxford, 329 pp, £32.50, January 1989, ISBN 0 19 815820 3
In her ingenious ‘autobiography’ of Delariviere Manley, A Woman of No Character (1987), Fidelis Morgan contrived an effect of literary trompe l’oeil. Artfully interweaving extracts from Manley’s ‘secret histories’, The Adventures of Rivella (1714) and The New Atalantis (1709), with passages of factual commentary, she offered a counterfeit self-portrait of a woman whose true identity might best be represented as a series of fictional impostures. Irene von Treskow’s cover illustration confirmed the sense of life as performance: ‘Manley’, disguised in the black robes of a duenna, peeps, half-veiled and half-barefaced, from behind her fan. In her autobiographical Narrative (1755) Charlotte Charke similarly describes herself as ‘playing at bo-peep with the world’, but Morgan’s role in this new co-production, The Well-Known Troublemaker, has switched from impersonator to impresario. In her commentary she confines herself to acting as prologue, epilogue and cheer-leader to Charke’s theatrical memoirs. The book’s cover illustration, depicting the infant Charke dressed in the borrowed robes of her father, Colley Cibber, introduces the twin themes of performance and disguise. Like Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians, the diminutive Charke in knee-length wig, cocked hat, dragging a giant broadsword, affects an absurd kind of strutting dignity, while behind her the local peasants hold up their hands in amazement at this lusus naturae.
[*] See Julie Wheelwright’s Amazons and Military Maids (Pandora, 1989).
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
David Nokes’s review of my book, The Ladies (LRB, 1 June), misrepresents its subject by omission. I am found ‘insensitive’ to the problems of citing Pepys as evidence: on pages 50-51, 56 and 66 I state them clearly. Nokes’s view of Elizabeth Pepys’s response to An Evening’s Love is precisely the kind of assertion which I eschew, and his word ‘obvious’ betrays his debt to the traditional kinds of reading he has criticised before. I am not teasing when I describe Pepys’s interest in French books: I refer to those he owned and others he is known to have read. Nor do I call weeping ‘the most eloquent form of female literary response’: I contrast favourably the potential of this form of response with other documented kinds, and conclude by saying that it is unthinkable that women did not discuss plays with the same critical vocabulary used, for example, in Dryden’s essays. I also show later that women were especially qualified to judge adaptations of French plays and that the ‘change in comedy’ cannot be understood without recognising the popularity of feminist ideas among playwrights and audiences.
Nokes’s gift for reading every third sentence comes into its own in his paragraph on my alleged ‘scholarly frustration’, which collapses three separate problems into one, so offering a glimpse of the results his own preferred methods might have brought. My remark on the problematic evidence of Elizabeth Pepys’s theatre visits introduces two paragraphs of those generalisations Nokes requires, and distinguishes my approach from that of, for example, Goreau’s biography of Aphra Behn, with its invectives against patriarchal suppression of evidence. My suspicion of the word ‘patronage’ in the further chapter points to the untidy relationship between court and stage. The words following the ones quoted by Nokes are: ‘of patronage in the direct sense there was little.’ My conclusion to the section on ‘ladies of quality’ simply states that no evidence depicting fixed territories in the playhouses can be trusted.
I am not sure how The Ladies is to be judged ‘narrowly-defined’ if compared unfavourably with an account of a single actress – nor that it is just to cite as evidence against me a bibliography which contains many primary sources not used by anyone else. Nokes shows no interest in the problems of researching a theatre audience, which is what betrays his comparison with Robert Hume’s admirable but quite different book as a gratuitous swipe.