A Guest Post by Robert Cox.
The Life of the Inimitable Mrs Jordan
“Thank you my dear, for twenty years of love, happiness, financial support and ten children – now kindly leave the stage!”
200 years ago last year (2016) Dora Jordan died in poverty in St Cloud, Paris, aged 54. Her death followed an incredible life from impoverished Irish actress to greatly loved and admired celebrity, causing ‘Jordan-mania’ as one contemporary newspaper described her impact on the British public. She was the best-loved and greatest comedy actress of her day, alongside the acclaimed Mrs Siddons.
As a star of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Dora caught the attention of the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV, and for twenty years they lived and loved together as ‘husband and wife’ at Bushy House, Richmond Park. During all these years she maintained a furious pace on the theatre circuit whilst giving birth to ten children by William, acting throughout her pregnancies – often feeding the latest new arrival between scenes.
So why did she die penniless and alone – and how is her name virtually unknown?
Quite simple. This devoted hard-working mother who ‘kept’ her wasteful man for most of their twenty years together was ultimately betrayed by the Royal Family and their ruthless advisers.
This is nothing unusual you may think, but how could it be that Dora Jordan (born Dorothea Bland), until quite recently, failed to appear in the official history of the theatre where she was greatly acclaimed as actress and singer in roles from Shakespeare to farce, and where she was close friends with the theatre’s owners as well as major public figures of her day?
In 1994, Claire Tomalin’s brilliantly researched book, “Mrs Jordan’s Profession”, told for the first time the complete story of Dora Jordan’s rise from poverty in Ireland to the pinnacle of fame, fortune and adoration on the London stage. Dora was The Duchess of Drury Lane for 30 years – a testimony to her sheer hard work, enchanting personality and a comic talent second to none. A lady whose infinite goodness contrasts starkly with the deeds of those responsible for her wholly avoidable downfall. The fact that she and the Duke were so close – genuine soul mates as evident from the hundreds of letters they exchanged – makes her story all the more heart-breaking and the actions of royalty all the more contemptable. A poignancy resonating sharply with more recent events involving royal betrayal, as Michael Arditti writes of the biography, “Enthralling … brilliantly brings to life a saga in which the 19th century House of Hanover foreshadows the House of Windsor”.
The first person to attempt a biography of Dora was Elizabeth Inchbald – a contemporary and friend – but she lost her nerve and destroyed her manuscript on the advice of her confessor. For she was a Roman Catholic, and this was 1821.
In June 1830 the Duke of Clarence, son of George III, suddenly and unexpectedly found himself King of England. He was 64 and with his older brother George IV on the throne, had imagined seeing out his days as he’d spent most of his life – with no real responsibility or job. But overnight, King George’s sudden death turned that prospect on its head.
Soon after he took the throne, as King William IV, he was seized with remorse at the way he’d treated Dora. She had been dead for 15 years but one of the new king’s first acts was to commission a statue of her by England’s leading sculptor, Francis Chantrey, soon to be Sir Francis. Lost or forgotten for nearly 200 years, ironically the statue now rests where Dora was never invited, at Buckingham Palace. Not invited because of her wrong blood. A successor to the crown was not allowed to marry a commoner – his wife had to have blue blood. But it was the theatre, not royalty, that pumped through Dora’s heart.
Thankfully Dora Jordan has now been restored to her rightful place in the history of English theatre. Her name now echoes through the corridors and corners of The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where once her beautiful voice and unique talent graced the stage and thrilled audiences for thirty long, extraordinary years. She is in the theatre’s Souvenir Brochure, talked about in the highly entertaining guided tours, and even on some occasions brought alive in lavish costume beneath an abundance of hair, laughing and lovely as ever she was.
Finally, the words of one of Dora’s contemporary admirers, Leigh Hunt – critic, poet and essayist – speaking straight from the heart after her tragic passing.
“The way she would take a friend by the cheek and kiss her, or make up a quarrel with a lover, or coax a guardian into good humour, or sing (without accompaniment) … trusting as she had the right to do, to the sole effect of her sweet, mellow and loving voice – the reader will pardon me, but tears of pleasure and regret come into my eyes at the recollection, as if she personified whatsoever was happy at that period of life, and which has gone … like herself.”
Robert Cox (February 2017)