Odd Union

David Cannadine

  • Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 415 pp, £18.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 670 84159 5

The task of rescuing women from the chauvinistic condescension of male posterity has thus far been unevenly undertaken and incompletely accomplished. Writers and actresses, suffragettes and nuns, servants and prostitutes, have fared relatively well. But upper-class women – Clio’s own sisters, cousins and aunts – have received much less attention. Studies of aristocratic ladies are few and far between; feminist biographies of queens and princesses are in conspicuously short supply; and royal mistresses have rarely been emancipated from the boudoired and bodiced banalities of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. Yet from the Restoration in 1660 until the early 20th century, the only English monarch who was both male and monogamous was probably King George III. Put the other way, this means that from Nell Gwyn to Mrs Keppel (and beyond), the courtesan was an integral part of royal history. But while much is known about such women as the Duchess of Portsmouth, Elizabeth Villiers, Henrietta Howard and the Countess of Warwick, no serious attempt has yet been made to write that alternative version of royal history which their lives and loves collectively constitute.

In any such account, the life and love of Dora Jordan would occupy a place both ample and ambiguous. It would be ample because for more than twenty years she was the consort of the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, bore him ten children and lived with him in a state of domestic happiness and connubial bliss. But it would also be ambiguous because before, during and after this well-known, much publicised and highly controversial royal liaison, she was a self-made career woman and a self-supporting working mother. For Mrs Jordan was the greatest comic actress of her day – adored by theatre-goers in London and the provinces; acclaimed by Hazlitt, Byron and Coleridge; cartooned by Gillray, Cruickshank, Rowlandson and Dent; and portrayed by Romney, Beechey, Hoppner, Matthew Peters and John Russell. Nor has she been entirely forgotten by posterity. To be sure, she was not even mentioned by name in Percy Fitzgerald’s two-volume life of King William IV, published in 1884. But she merited an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, there were two early 20th-century lives, her correspondence with the Duke of Clarence was edited and published by Arthur Aspinall, and in 1965 Brian Forthergill produced a lengthy and appreciative study of Mrs Jordan as an actress.

Why, then, has Claire Tomalin, a biographer who excels in the recovery of the lives of lost women, sought to tell again a story which has already been more than thrice-told? One clear reason is that, notwithstanding the more tolerant attitude of the 20th century, she still regrets the way in which some prudish, moralising, hypocritical Victorians sought to pretend that Dora Jordan had never existed. Another is that she is thoroughly dissatisfied with the unsympathetic attitude towards her heroine adopted by such right-royal writers of an earlier generation as Roger Fulford. And she is no less critical of the condescending tone that characterised Aspinall’s highly selective edition of Mrs Jordan’s letters, which also unduly influenced subsequent writers (notably Brian Fothergill) who depended on them. Above all, Tomalin wishes to bring alive, as no one else has yet done, a remarkable female personality, with a strong and distinctive voice, whose life was more dramatic than any of the parts she played, whether on the stage or off it, and which still possesses the power to captivate, to move, to shock and to anger.

Like her near contemporaries Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Farren, Dora Jordan was born (in 1761) in humble circumstances, but with strong theatrical connections. Her parents, Grace Phillips and Francis Bland, were unmarried and her mother was herself an actress. When Dora was 13, her father disappeared, and not long after, she made her first appearance on the stage in Dublin. She was soon taken up by Richard Daly, an unscrupulous theatre-manager, who seduced her, and by whom she bore her first child. By then, she had left for England, and was working for Tate Wilkinson’s Yorkshire theatre company which travelled the northern circuit. Between 1782 and 1785, she established herself as a provincial actress of rare natural ability: tireless, quick to learn, brilliant at comedy and with a remarkable capacity to establish a close rapport with her audience. It was only a matter of time before London beckoned, in the shape of Sheridan’s theatre at Drury Lane. Long before the decade was out, Mrs Jordan had become to comedy what Mrs Siddons was to tragedy. She was well-paid, and the talk and the toast of metropolitan Whig society. She also encountered the second villain of her life, one Richard Ford, by whom she had three more illegitimate children. Then, sometime in 1789, she met Prince William, Duke of Clarence, the third of George III’s seven surviving sons.

This generation of royal males was notoriously described by the Duke of Wellington as being ‘the damndest millstones about the necks of any government that can be imagined’. Their father wanted them brought up to adorn the royal line and to serve their country faithfully, and to that end he sent most of them abroad into the armed services. But in reaction to the King’s devoted and decorous domestic life, they drank, gambled, womanised and piled up mountainous debts, which Parliament was regularly called on to pay. To make matters worse, they were obliged by the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 to obtain their father’s consent when selecting a bride. The theory was that this would prevent them from contracting inappropriate unions, but, in practice, it had precisely the reverse effect. Some, like the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex, married clandestinely, with embarrassing and disastrous consequences. Others, like the Duke of Clarence and the Duke of Kent, took long-term mistresses – not, as was usually the case among royal men, in addition to the wives they had tired of, but rather because it was too difficult to find an acceptable wife at all. So, from 1791 until 1811, this was the surrogate role which Mrs Jordan played for (and with) the Duke of Clarence.

At first glance, it was an odd union. She was shrewd, successful, self-supporting and widely acclaimed. He was dull, boorish, a failure in his career in the Royal Navy and shared fully in his brothers’ general unpopularity. She had three surviving children by previous liaisons; he had none. For most of their time together, it was Dora who went out to work (a quite unprecedented thing for a royal mistress to do), while the Duke stayed at home. And while he gave her an annual allowance, she also helped to pay off some of his perpetually increasing debts. So this was hardly a relationship based on the conventional gender roles of strong, assertive, public husband, and weak, submissive, domestic wife. Instead, she provided the loving, experienced, resourceful mother-figure which so many of George III’s sons, starved of maternal affection, seem to have sought (she was four years older than the Duke); while he offered her a position in society which, though not unimpeachable, was certainly better than anything she could have established for herself. And so they settled down to two decades of domestic harmony, largely spent at Bushy Park near Hampton Court, during which time she bore the Duke ten children, the Fitzclarences.

But in 1811 this gemütlich existence came abruptly to an end. For reasons (or non-reasons) which are not entirely clear, the Duke decided he had had enough of Mrs Jordan, and turned his attentions to a young heiress named Catherine Tynley Long, in part no doubt because he hoped her fortune might help pay off his debts. She refused him, but by then Clarence had formally separated from Dora. He made financial provision for her and also for the children he had fathered by her. But he never wrote to her or met her again, and although she had ample reason to feel herself ‘a most injured woman’, the need to provide for the offspring of her two earlier liaisons obliged her to continue to work on the stage. Her popularity remained undimmed, and she could still earn a handsome living. But the profligacy of her first-born children and their in-laws meant she soon found herself unexpectedly and heavily in debt. Fearful of arrest, with her energy flagging and her health failing, she fled the country in August 1815, and went into exile in France. Ill, impoverished and friendless, she was dead within less than a year. The Duke of Clarence seems not to have mentioned this to anybody, and in July 1818, he married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen.

The details of Mrs Jordan’s life have been well known for a long time, but Tomalin triumphantly succeeds in saying – and in seeing – much that is new and worthwhile. In part she does so by her mastery of the context, brilliantly recreating Dora’s milieu – sometimes out of Tom Jones, sometimes from Vanity Fair – in which royalty and politicians mixed with actors and actresses, in a fin de siècle atmosphere heavy with assignation, infidelity, betrayal and revolution. In part she does so by her characteristically skilled control of the narrative – constantly keeping Dora in the foreground, but always ensuring that the other figures, especially the Duke of Clarence, receive the attention they deserve. Above all, she takes Dora seriously as a woman in ways that previous royal writers (all, incidentally, men) never did: a woman who in her early days on the stage was vulnerable to predatory theatre managers; a woman who in later years had to bring up her children while at the same time continuing her stage career; a woman who was eventually cast aside and left to die without a single gesture of ‘love, friendship, imagination and simple decency’ from the man whose life she had enriched and whose children she had borne.

Whether Tomalin fully succeeds in bringing Mrs Jordan herself to life is more open to question. One problem is that the documentation is so tantalisingly inadequate. There are no letters from Dora before she began her liaison with the Duke, and thereafter we have only her side of the correspondence. The result is that her formative years can be viewed only from the outside, while the relationship with Clarence never fully catches fire. Another puzzle is that, like many actresses but more than most, Dora assumed and projected such an array of varied identities that it is not apparent who, if anybody, she actually was. She was a great comedienne whose life ended in tragedy. Her theatrical repertoire ranged from Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal to Rosalind in As You Like It. She played women, breeches-part men, and women dressed up as men – and all of these even when heavily and visibly pregnant. She was portrayed by Hoppner as ‘The Comic Muse’, by Romney as ‘The Country Girl’, and by Sir William Beechey as a patrician lady of great estate. And at different times, she was known as Dorothy Bland, Miss Francis, Mrs Jordan, Mrs Ford, Nell of Clarence, Mrs James and Dorothée Bland. Amid such a plethora of images, her ‘real’ identity remains elusive.

Indeed, as the long-term partner of the unmarried Duke of Clarence, who continued to earn her own living for most of the time they lived together, it is not clear that she was a royal mistress in the conventional sense of that word at all. Despite the fact that they were both actresses, Dora Jordan was no latterday Nell Gwyn. Time and again, in Tomalin’s account, she resolutely refuses to be so conveniently and customarily categorised. Perhaps this was a way of protecting herself, but if so, it was not a defence which was available to the Fitzclarence children. Her daughters did not need it: they married successfully into the traditional governing classes, losing any lingering taint of bastardy by taking their husbands’ rank and titles. But inevitably, her sons were neither so lucky nor so happy. For them, the stain of illegitimacy lingered ineradicably, and William’s eventual and unexpected accession to the throne in 1830 only made matters worse. They importuned their father for peerages and for pensions, but with very limited success. The eldest son, George Fitzclarence, was eventually created Earl of Munster. It was not enough, and in 1842, he killed himself.

As these very varied biographies suggest, gender and identity, legitimacy and illegitimacy, matter more in the recent history of the British monarchy than is usually recognised. But that, in turn, is merely an oblique way of saying that this book, slightly surprisingly, tells us much more about royalty than about actresses. Nor is it without a certain chilling contemporary resonance. Now, as then, the thing that matters above all else in the royal family’s domestic quarrels, internal feuds and marital breakdowns is whether you are on the inside or on the outside. ‘Any fight,’ Tomalin notes, when Dora was cast out by Clarence, ‘was going to be conducted on such unequal terms that she was bound to lose.’ More than a century later, the Duke of Windsor found himself in exactly the same position, and was obliged to spend the whole of his embittered post-Abdication exile coming to terms with precisely the same treatment. The Princess of Wales should take note. So should the Duchess of York. And so, perhaps, should Camilla Parker-Bowles.