Sunday, October 15, 2023

We came home we had Words

‘I walkd by my self after tea finished the French Novel _ then Mr Inchbald and I walkd, he was dull and after we came home we had Words.’ These are the words of Elizabeth Inchbald, an 18th century actress and writer, born 270 years ago today. She kept diaries all her life, but only a dozen or so have survived -  these have recently been edited and published in three volumes for the first time.

Elizabeth Simpson was born on 15 October 1753 at Stanningfield, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, the eighth of nine children born to a Catholic farming family. She was educated at home, and despite a speech impediment and her parents’ advice, she wanted to become an actress. Aged 18, she left home for London. Within two months she had married a fellow actor, Joseph Inchbald, twice her age and father to two illegitimate sons. In September 1772, they appeared on stage together for the first time in King Lear, and soon after undertook a four year tour in Scotland with West Digges’s theatre company. After a brief and unsuccessful sojourn in France, they moved to Liverpool where she joined the Joseph Younger company and befriended Sarah Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble, both of whom would become famous actors.

The Inchbalds moved again, to Canterbury and Yorkshire, and in 1777 were hired by Tate Wilkinson’s company. Just two years later, Joseph died suddenly. Inchbald, by this time was already beginning to write. She stayed on with Wilkinson until, in 1780, she joined the Covent Garden company. She made her debut on the London stage as Bellario in Philaster, a male role. A young widow, still only 27, she attracted attention from suitors but, instead of re-marrying, she sought to educate herself through reading novels, literary letters and essays, poetry and philosophy. 

By the mid-1780s, Inchbald was writing successful farces: A Mogul Tale and I'll Tell You What both at the Haymarket, and Appearance is Against Them and Such Things Are at Covent Garden. By the late 1780s, she was earning a good living from writing, and was thus able to give up acting. She continued to write new plays, amend her earlier works, and adapt translated plays. However, it is for two novels that she is best remembered - A Simple Story (1791) and Nature and Art (1796) - both of which have been reprinted frequently and garnered interest among modern scholars of 18th century women’s writing.

In 1806, the publishers Longman asked Inchbald to write the critical and biographical introductions to a series of 125 plays from the sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries, an unusual request to a woman. By this time she was in semi-retirement and financially comfortable, gaining much comfort from her faith. In her last years, she wrote several volumes of memoirs though, on the advice of her confessor, she destroyed them before her death. In 1819, she moved into a Catholic residence where she died in August 1821. Further information is available online at Wikipedia and the Chawton House website.

Inchbald appears to have kept annual diaries from the age of 16 for most of her life, although only 11 exist today. These are held by the Folger Shakespeare Library (which acquired them over the years in four separate transactions). Brief excerpts of the diaries appeared in Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald (1833) by James Boaden (who had access to at least some of the now-missing diaries) and in a recent biography by Annibel Jenkins, I’ll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald (2003). The Folger Library, itself, has included a few sample transcriptions from the diaries in exhibitions over the last 20 years. Also, at some point, Adam Matthew Publications made available some of the contents of Inchbald’s literary remains in digital form - though, this material does not seem to be available any longer. 

Most recently, however, in 2019, The Diaries of Elizabeth Inchbald were edited by Ben P. Robertson and published by Pickering & Chatto in three volumes, as follows: Volume 1: The Early Years on the Stage, 1776-1781 - Scotland, France, Ireland, the Provinces, and London; Volume 2: The Height of Fame, 1782-1793 - Acting, Playwriting, and Novel Writing; Volume 3: The Introspective Years, 1807-1820 - Drama Criticism, Napoleonic Wars, and the Queen's Trial.

A good deal of the first volume can be sampled online at Googlebooks, the source of the following extracts (as found).

8 January 1776
‘a very Cold snowy Day _ I was at the Reading of Philastcr _ while my Hair was dressing Mr Inchbald heard me my part _ I playd [Rossaland] Mr Inchbald Clown in As you like it _ then he in the Pantomine _ {Corcreen Faris} Benifit _ I went to Bed Crying &c& for Playing very ill.’

31 January 1776
‘Mr Inchbald went to the Flag _ then I called at my Sisters and my Bro: walked with me to Mr Inchbald then he and I called at the [Fary’s] _ George Inchbald drank tea here _ then Mr Inchbald went to the Flag and I saw a piece of the B Opera in Mr Diggcs Box _ my Bro:received a Letter from my Mother much about me _ my French Master called then I saw some of the Deserter Mrs [Baris] first appearance.’

17 February 1776
‘A very fine Day _ we were at Rehearsal some Gentlemen there _ between my scenes I called at Miss Blackadders_ Then walked with Mr Inchbald and was at the French _ after dinner Dr Macclogan called _ I played Lady Anne Mr Inchbald Henry in Richard  _ farce Sham Doctor.’

7 May 1776
‘Mr Inchbald began Garricks Picture and was at it all Day _ in the Morning Bob and Mr Johns called and I walkd by my self after tea finished the French Novel _ then Mr Inchbald and I walkd, he was dull and after we came home we had Words.’

14 July 1776
‘Rose at six to see Yarmouth then went to Bed again _ at nine oclock (the Wind against us) we anchored seven Miles from Yarmouth _ Mr Inchbald went a on shore with the Captain and brought fruit c& I cryd &c& while he was a  shore _ after tea we all went on shore and was at a Little Cottage I was very dull there and more so after in the ship c&c. we had no supper _ talked of Ghosts c&c _ a very hot night.’

21 July 1776
‘did not go to Bed till Day Light for the Violent tossing of the ship _ the Dark Lights were put in _ I was very sick _ after sleeping found the sea smooth but a bad Wind _ eat nothing and did not rise till after dinner _ then was a little on Deck _ after tea I was purely and the Wind was better and I was on Deck again _ we sat up with the Captain till after his Watch was called.’

15 September 1776
‘a Wet Day _ the Young Man at the Doctors called and he and the Landlady went to Church with me _ her Sister dind with us _ in the afternoon I finished Horace and Read L epreuve reciproque _ Mr Inchbald was at a Minature and walked to Sea for the Packet Boat _ saw very grand Processions _ in the Evening went out Old Walk when we came back the Landlady was crying _ we sat with them _ at supper a Gentleman called _’

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