The Amazing Mrs Charke

David Nokes

  • 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.

Throughout the Narrative Charke presents her life in terms that range from vaudeville to freak-show. Like any child, she loved the business of dressing-up and make-believe. But unlike most other children she brought a studied professionalism to all her juvenile performances, lovingly rehearsing details of gesture, phrase and timing. Once she assumed the role of physician, mixing and prescribing her own patent remedy, a concoction of boiled snails, green herbs and mutton fat. Relegated soon afterwards to the more humble role of gardener, she brought the same artful mimicry of idiom and manner to the part. ‘One day, upon my mother’s paying me a visit in the garden and approving something I had done there, I rested on my spade, and, with a significant wink and a nod, asked whether she imagined any of the rest of her children would have done as much at my age, adding very shrewdly, “Come, come, madam, let me tell you, a pound saved is a pound got”, then proceeded in my office of digging ... ’

So all-pervasive is the sense of theatre in Charke’s Narrative that life is indistinguishable from art. The world she moves in is a vast auditorium and her reactions to the numberless misfortunes that assail her are choreographed and stage-managed as a series of eye-catching sketches. She cannot acknowledge an emotion without converting it into a stage-routine. Complaining of her father’s cruelty, she assumes the voice of Romeo: ‘Fathers have flinty hearts! No tears will move ’em!’ Her unhappy marriage provokes a comparison with Farquhar’s Mr and Mrs Sullen. Her unkind sister is a heartless Goneril. An emotional entanglement leaves her ‘exactly in the condition of Lord Hardy and Lady Charlotte in The Funeral’ (by Steele). Her rift with the theatre manager Fleetwood is glossed over with a quote from Peachum. Even in moments of trauma, her sense of theatre is uppermost. Returning home one night to find her baby daughter in convulsive fits, she snatches the girl into her arms but, overwhelmed with grief, fumbles and drops her to the floor. What follows is transformed into a histrionic set-piece. ‘In the hurry of my distraction, I ran into the street with my shirt-sleeves dangling loose about my hands, my wig standing on end, “Like quills upon the fretful porcupine”, and proclaiming the sudden death of my much-beloved child. A crowd soon gathered round me and, in the violence of my distraction, instead of administering any necessary help, wildly stood among the mob to recount the dreadful disaster.’

With all the world as her stage, it’s hardly surprising that Charke found the theatre itself rather too narrow and confined to contain her exuberant energies. In one hectic season (1733) she threw herself into a bewildering variety of parts including Macheath (in Roman dress), Falstaff, Pistol, Mr Townly (The Provok’d Husband), Rovewell (The Contrivances), Sir Charles (The Beaux Stratagem), Lothario (The Fair Penitent), and the name parts in The Mock Doctor and George Barnwell. Yet, despite this extensive repertoire, she still found her talents unduly circumscribed by being limited to a single part per play. As a strolling player, she found greater opportunities for her virtuoso skills. During a performance of The Beaux Stratagem in Tiverton, she and a companion shamelessly embellished Farquhar’s text: ‘For we both took a wild-goose chase through all the dramatic authors we could recollect, taking particular care not to let any single speech bear in the answer the least affinity, and while I was making love from Jaffier, she tenderly approved my passion with the soliloquy of Cato.’

Specialising both on and off the stage in male-impersonation, Charke belongs to that transvestite sisterhood whose careers have recently attracted increasing scholarly attention.[*] But Morgan seems anxious to dispel prurient speculation about possible lesbianism, interpreting Charke’s fondness for masculine attire in purely practical terms: ‘As there are many more acting parts for men, so it follows that there was more work available for her breeches than her dress.’ Similarly, ‘in non-theatrical work it was not simply that there were again more jobs for men, but that those jobs were better paid and had more authority.’ Perhaps the most interesting psychological question raised by the Narrative concerns not Charke’s transvestism but her relationship with her father, Colley Cibber. Only Shakespeare’s plays are quoted more often than Cibber’s, and there’s an intriguing blend of triumph and entreaty when, complaining of Cibber’s cruelty, she accuses him in the words of one of his own characters: ‘I’m sorry that I’ve lost a father.’ It’s noticeable that the only times when she disowns her reputation for madcap adventures are when Cibber is involved. She angrily repudiates the story that, during a brief spell as a fishmonger, she had struck her father in the face with a flounder.

On another occasion a newspaper printed the following item:

The amazing Mrs Charke equipped herself with a horse, mask and pistols, made herself up as a highwayman and waylaid her father in Epping Forest. Poor Cibber handed over his money, making only the rueful reproof: ‘Young man, young man! This is a sorry trade. Take heed in time.’ ‘And so I would,’ replied his disguised daughter, ‘but I’ve a wicked hunks of a father, who rolls in money, yet denies me a guinea. And so a worthy gentleman like you, sir, has to pay for it!’

‘This story,’ she fulminates, ‘is indeed the greatest and most notorious piece of cruelty that was ever forged against me.’ Yet the vehemence of her denials betrays a conflict of guilt and wistfulness in the reluctant renunciation of such a magnificent coup de théâtre. Instead she adapts the confrontation into a no less theatrical scene of situation comedy, describing how ‘concealed behind a screen’ she heard the slanderer repeat his tale. ‘He had not sooner ended than I rushed from my covert, and, being armed with a thick oaken plank, knocked him down.’ Clearly, in this re-staged screen memory, the tale-teller whom ‘had I not been happily prevented [I] should, without the least remorse have killed on the spot’ suffers the transferred fury which Charke feels but cannot acknowledge towards her father.

In defiance of Charke’s earlier detractors, Morgan is keen to stress the trustworthiness of the Narrative: ‘on the whole she is a reliable historian, if anything slightly modest about her own achievements.’ Yet what gives the Narrative its glorious vitality is the larger-than-life theatricality of its anecdotes and style. The episode when Charke, alias ‘Mr Brown’, becomes the ‘unhappy object of love’ in a young heiress worth 40,000 pounds is told with all the finesse of a comedy of manners. Even tiny details, like the hungry cur which runs off with her last string of sausages, are recounted with a histrionic flourish. Above all, the Narrative is remarkable for its irrepressible energy. Time and again Charke describes herself crushed under wave upon wave of disasters yet does so in a jaunty tone that turns somersaults over despair.

Such energy is sadly absent from David Roberts’s book The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama, though, like Charke, Roberts is more concerned with events behind the scenes and in the auditorium than with those on the stage. Determinedly old-fashioned, this study clearly betrays its origins as a narrowly-defined thesis. In his introduction Roberts makes a virtue of the claim – confirmed by his bibliography – that ‘the particular subject of this book ... predates by many years the current interest in feminist criticism.’ His thesis is innocent of ideological speculations, confining itself to a documentary account of the identities and influence of female patrons of the stage.

Much of this documentary evidence is taken from Pepys’s Diary, and Roberts produces Elizabeth Pepys as one of his star witnesses. Acknowledging that reports of her critical reactions are ‘thinly and obscurely spread’ throughout the Diary, he makes a brave attempt at organising them into a coherent scheme. However, he seems oddly insensitive to the marital rivalries which often colour Pepys’s representations of his wife’s opinions. Commending Elizabeth’s knowledge of French literature, Roberts cites this entry: ‘My wife tells me [Dryden’s An Evening’s Love] is wholly (which he confesses a little in the epilogue) taken out of Illustr. Bassa.’ In speculating on the reasons for Elizabeth’s objection to this alleged plagiarism, Roberts ignores her obvious delight in showing off this intellectual tit-bit. While accurately noting Pepys’s proprietary pleasure in ‘showing’ plays to his wife, he fails to observe Elizabeth’s retaliatory ploy. Moreover Roberts is surely teasing when he tells us that Pepys’s own tastes in French books ‘consisted largely of technical and religious literature’.

‘In such a case as that of Elizabeth Pepys,’ he concludes, ‘it is often easier to expound the difficulties of analysis rather than to analyse.’ Similar confessions of scholarly frustration abound. Roberts concludes his chapter on ‘Women at Court and Patronage of the Stage’ by acknowledging that ‘it will no doubt appear that the title of the present chapter promised what could not be delivered.’ At the end of a detailed attempt to distinguish the precise significance of seating arrangements for ladies of quality, whether in boxes, galleries or the pit, he confesses that ‘our safest bet is the frankly contradictory Pepys,’ who ‘provides us with satisfyingly inconsistent information’.

Nevertheless, in its cautious demolition of some clichés of literary history this book makes some useful points. The Duchess of Portsmouth’s unsuccessful campaign to prevent the staging of Elkanah Settle’s anti-Catholic play The Female Prelate, at the height of the Popish Plot, indicates ‘how little influence the Court had left even when it took concerted action.’ Queen Mary’s refusal to endorse Collier’s missionary campaign for a reformation of the stage in the 1690s demonstrates the eclecticism of the royal tastes. Roberts concludes by denying the received notion that it was concerted action by a ‘ladies’ faction’ which brought about the change from satiric to sentimental comedy. Arguing instead in terms which endorse Robert Hume’s thesis in his vastly superior book Henry Fielding and the London Theatre (Clarendon, 1988), Roberts suggests that market forces rather than moralising zeal led to a new conservatism. The collapse of the King’s Company in 1682 introduced a new note of caution: ‘Now that there was only one stage no one could afford to be cavalier about upsetting any substantial group of spectators.’

Just how far Roberts’s book ‘pre-dates’ current feminist thinking is clear when he presents weeping as the most eloquent form of female literary response. ‘At the risk of sounding absurd,’ he writes, a woman’s ‘discriminating tears’ could allow her ‘to make a judgment from within the canons of the age’s best literary criticism’. A rather more penetrating analysis of the mechanisms of the discriminating sensibility is contained in Angelica Goodden’s book The Complete Lover. This study of ‘Eros, Nature and Artifice’ in French 18th-century literature concentrates on the presentation of the passions as a series of virtuoso exercises. In La Jouissance de Soi-Même (1759) Caraccioli wrote: Les gens du monde étudient aujourd’hui les plaisirs comme on étudiait autrefois la philosophie; ceux qui passent pour les plus sages sont ceux qui se font un système de la volupté. Les Liaisons Dangereuses offers a detailed course of indoctrination in just such a system of pleasure. Both Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, as Goodden observes, ‘constantly refer to Cécile and Danceny as their pupils’, instructing them not merely in the strategies of seduction but in the experience of passion itself.

The fetishisation of sexual initiation into a catechism of carnal rites had a long tradition in French erotic literature. Witness L’Ecole des Filles (1655), which yielded Pepys evident, if unsystematised pleasure. French libertine literature is filled with lubricious descriptions of trembling schoolgirls and lusty novices being coached through their sensual devotions by indulgent pedagogues and priests. But Goodden’s concern is less with such bootleg fiction than with novels whose ritualisation of sexuality into a Cartesian system represents the triumph of artifice over nature.

Often the philosophy of the bedroom seems analogous to a course in Newtonian physics. Thus Goodden describes Danceny’s role in the game which his elders are playing as ‘purely mechanical ... for he embodies the Newtonian principle of inertia.’ In an early novel Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748) Diderot mocked the materialist reduction of sexuality to a matter of mechanics. In one story, ‘Des Voyageurs’, he describes an imaginary island where sexual compatibility is discussed in terms of technical determinism: Un bijou féminin en écrou est prédestiné à un bijou mâle fait en vis. Yet in his Mémoires pour Catherine II Diderot recalled how he had sent his daughter Angélique for instruction in sexual mechanics to the former painter Mlle Bicheron, who used wax models for the purpose qui [avaient] la vérité de la nature sans en offrir le dégoût. The Marquise de Merteuil refers to Cécile as a machine à plaisir, and Valmont’s instructions to the young girl read like a technical manual, carefully naming the parts and explaining them. Whether based on Cartesian or Newtonian models, the syllabus of pleasure is both detailed and demanding and only the most conscientious students succeed in completing the course. Goodden’s ‘complete lover’ is a bedroom Machiavelli whose skill in sexual politics rests on a codification of love as a mechanical operation of the spirit.

[*] See Julie Wheelwright’s Amazons and Military Maids (Pandora, 1989).