THE DIARIES AND PAPERS OF ELIZABETH INCHBALD
From the Folger Shakespeare Library and the London Library
Catherine S Green
Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821) was one of the most important women writers of the 18th century.
Despite a pronounced stammer, she first gained notice as an actress. Following her marriage to Joseph Inchbald she played major roles in London and the provinces and became friends with Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble, whom she loved.
Her career as a playwright came after the death of her husband and she wrote over a dozen plays for the London stage between 1784 (A Mogul Tale) and 1805 (To Marry, or Not to Marry). These ranged from farces such as I'll Tell You What (1785), to complex works based on Rousseau such as The Child of Nature (1788). Perhaps her most famous work was Lover's Vows (adapted from Kotzebue), which so affected Fanny Price in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.
Inchbald's success as a dramatist led to the publication of two novels - A Simple Story (1791), about Faith and faithfulness, and Nature and Art (1796), a tale of two brothers. Finally she achieved recognition from her peers as the author of c125 biographical and critical prefaces for The British Theatre (1806-1808, 25v) and other key works on the English stage.
Sources for her life and works are rare, but the Folger Library possesses 11 of her diaries, 13 letters and 14 manuscripts, including critical thoughts on Othello and the draft of A Case of Conscience. To these, we have added a range of rare printed materials, featuring a dozen original editions of her plays, the important Memoirs of Mrs Inchbald, including her familiar correspondence with the most distinguished persons of her time edited by Boaden in 1832, and the complete introductions from The British Theatre.
Taken together, these sources will allow scholars to explore:
- Metropolitan life in London, 1770-1820
- The workings of the British Theatre and the roles played by actor-managers, playwrights, and publishers
- The challenges of being a successful businesswoman in the late 18th and early 19th century
- The lives and careers of Elizabeth Inchbald, John Philip Kemble, George Colman, R B Sheridan and others
The diaries are the remains of what was once a 50-volume sequence spanning her entire theatrical life. We have the volumes for 1776, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, 1788, 1793, 1807, 1808, 1814 and 1820. They are all written into small printed diaries of the period (her favourite was The Ladies Own Memorandum Book or Daily Pocket Journal), which are full of interest in themselves, as they contain essays on education, poetry by women writers, poetical enigmas, lists of remarkable occurrences in the preceding year, and detailed accounts of the latest dances being performed. The diaries are presented with a week to view and Inchbald packs the available space with a densely written account of her daily happenings. The first six volumes contain many entries regarding her appearances on stage and there are also some brief, unsystematic, but insightful expense accounts.
A warm and rounded picture of Inchbald and her social life is revealed through the steady accretion of detail, as may be gleaned from these brief extracts:
“19 Feb 1780: Was at Rehearsal - Dressed early – played Foible in Way of the World, then saw Widow or no Widow. Dr & Mrs Hudson supped with us – after I wrote to Dr Hitchcock and a copy to Mr Wilkinson.”
“5 Apr 1780: A cold snowy day – was at 11 o’clock Rehearsal – all the afternoon at Hamlet…”
“13 July 1781: Shell’d Peas and Beans. Mrs Hurst read Liberal opinions while my mother slept.”
“25 Dec 1781: A beautiful day – Walked to Mr Harris’s but he was out – then breakfasted and my cousin and Mr Chambers call’d – at rehearsal of the pantomime and told Mr Harris I had called on him – dined, drink tea and supped at Dr Babbs.”
“15 July 1783: A fine day – read – played in Friend in Need and Pantomime. Found Etty poorly when I came home. Heard Mrs Wilson was entirely gone from the Theatre. Received a note from Mr Johnson for an order.”
“19 Jan 1788: Translating all the morning… Sir Charles called while I was at tea …. We went to the last two acts of jks shows then returned again … I worked on play Robin Hood and Midnight Hour.”
“31 May 1793: At the Old Bailey hearing trials.”
“23 Apr 1807: My few lines on Opie highly praised.”
“19 Jan 1808: Shocked on reading the Death of Lord Trafalgar in my Paper…. I read the end of Paley’s Theology.”
“21 Mar 1814: Rain and fog all day … I worked then read till dark. Miss Brake dined with me about seven off roast beef. An account of the victory near Bayonne in my paper ….”
The letters also provide fascinating insights into her struggles and successes. A letter to Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803), actor and theatrical manager, reveals how tough she could be:
“You surely forget that I am articled and will stay with you just as long as I please, therefore don’t affront me …” She continues to discuss the qualities of a rival actress.
Her passion for business is revealed in a lengthy missive to R B Sheridan:
“Mr Kemble many weeks ago purchased a farce of me in your name, at the same time assuring me it should be performed immediately – but, I hear now, reason to apprehend, from the nearer approach of the close of the Theatre, that it cannot be brought out this season. I take the liberty to acquaint you that if either Mr Kemble in delivering your message, or I in comprehending of it, have made the least mistake in respect of your meaning, and you will be so obliging as to let me know it, I shall instantly relinquish the claim which at present time I hope I have on the Theatre, and ask for nothing more than to receive back my manuscript; which (as I have not another copy, and this is the only probable time for Mr Colman to receive it) is of very material consequence to me.”
Other letters concern orders for her works, criticism, a petition, proofs, personal affairs and a charming epistle to Mrs Siddons praising the performance of her son Harry in a play at Covent Garden.
The additional manuscripts feature box office receipts for four nights, 1784-86 (including The Chapter of Accidents and A Mogul’s Tale on 20 July 1784); notes about herself and about various writers and their works; a copy of her Will (29 April 1821); and remarks on Othello and the interpretations of certain actors.
These sources will be of interest to all those studying 18th and 19th century theatre, women writers, social history and Romanticism. They will provide colour and detail to any account of life in London and the world of the theatre during this vibrant period.