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A WOMAN'S VIEW OF DRAMA, 1790-1830
The Diaries of Anna Margaretta Larpent from the Huntington Library

Anna Margaretta Larpent (ne Porter) kept a diary through much of her life. All 17 volumes are presented here in their entirety covering 1790-1800, 1802-1830 (the main diary sequence) and 1773-1780 (the 'Methodized Journal').

This diary is a gold mine for social historians interested in both women's studies and gender studies, as well as for theatre historians. There is much on taste, consumption and morality, and this is an important record of family life in the Georgian era. There are many reviews of contemporary plays and operas. The diary also records the books that she read and her views on them, as well as offering intriguing (and lengthy) lists such as: "Books I read in 1780: those of study included" and "Books Useful to buy" (1793).

The daughter of Sir James Porter, a British diplomat, and a minor European aristocrat, she was born in Pera, Turkey in 1758. In 1782, she married the widower John Larpent, who was seventeen years her senior. He had been a successful civil servant, working in the Foreign Office, and in 1778 he had been appointed Examiner of Plays in the Office of the Lord Chamberlain. He held this position throughout their marriage.

The Examiner of Plays was an extremely influential figure in the development of drama and was much more powerful than modern censors. All plays required licensing before performance and the Examiner had the sole power to award them. Both husband and wife collaborated in the work with the result, according to L W Conolly’s study of John Larpent in 1976, that Anna Margaretta Larpent became 'practically a Deputy Examiner'. She had sole responsibility for the censorship of Italian opera since she was fluent in the language (as well as French) while her husband was not. She also became a champion of Mrs Inchbald (1753-1821), who went on to write some 20 plays for the stage. The following excerpt from Larpent’s diary shows admiration for Lover’s Vows, Inchbald’s adaptation from Kotzebue’s play that later featured in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (enacted by the Bertram family):

"Friday 11 January 1799
Went to the play. Lover’s Vows and Rosina. The former play from the German. Highly interesting, great ingenuity in the management of that Interest. The Characters err - but remorse - & Sentiments amiable in themselves - Soften our disgust, we pity, we pardon. - I cannot see the least Immorality in this Drama. On the Contrary the cause of truth & Virtue seem served by it. The Character of Amelia is Captivating & excellently kept up. Rosina I have often seen & always been pleased - It is Elegant & the Music was particularly pleasing by the acquisition of Mrs Atkins a very sweet Singer."

She is less kind in her observations on the Prince of Wales at a royal performance of a comedy by John O’Keefe:

"Monday 20 April 1795
Went to the Play ... The Royal Family - The Prince & Princess of Wales were there ... The Sight was a very fine one as to decoration, fullness of the house &c. The reflective Scene occupied the Speculative mind. The Princess is not tall nor large. Fair but the fairness of red hair, not creamy white, pinkish. Her figure to me was made up, or rather I should say set off by a dress ... The Prince - looks bloated, sodden, in short, were he my footman with such a look - I should say he was drinking himself out of the world ... The reception they had was very flattering - it Seemed Sincere ... The play Life’s Vagaries - wou’d have disgraced a puppet show for absurdity."

Other actors and authors commented upon are Eliza Atkins, Isaac Bickerstaffe, George Colman the Elder (& the Younger), Hannah Cowley, Mrs Crespigny, David Garrick, Mrs Jordan, Charles & John Philp Kemble, George Lillo, Frederick Reynolds, R B Sheridan, Sarah Siddons and Mariana Starke.

In addition to her unsung work as a censor and critic, Larpent brought up two children of her own and one stepson. She was a pious, serious-minded Anglican, who was active in good works from soup kitchens to Sunday schools. These activities are also recorded in the diaries together with notes on gaming houses, elections, a visit to the Foundling Hospital, the sight of a rhinoceros, Sir Joseph Banks’ aboriginal companion, Botany Bay, the trial of Warren Hastings, weddings, the price of bread, automatons and the heroism of Nelson.

The diaries are well laid-out and easy to read and provide an invaluable guide to life, literature and leisure from 1773 to 1830.



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