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The life of actress Charlotte Charke transports us through the splendors and scandals of eighteenth-century London and its wicked theatrical world
Her father, Colley Cibber, was one of the eighteenth century's great actor/playwrights-the toast of the British aristocracy, a favorite of the king. When his high-spirited, often rebellious daughter, Charlotte, revealed a fondness for things theatrical, it was thought that the young actress would follow in his footsteps at the legendary Drury Lane, creating a brilliant career on the London stage. But this was not to be. And it was not that Charlotte lacked talent-she was gifted, particularly at comedy. Troublesome, however, was her habit of dressing in men's clothes-a preference first revealed onstage but adopted elsewhere after her disastrous marriage to an actor, who became the last man she ever loved.
Kathryn Shevelow, an expert on the sophisticated world of eighteenth-century London (the setting for classics such as Tom Jones and Moll Flanders), re-creates Charlotte's downfall from the heights of London's theatrical world to its lascivious lows (the domain of fire-eaters, puppeteers, wastrels, gender-bending cross-dressers, wenches, and scandalous sorts of every variety) and her comeback as the author of one of the first autobiographies ever written by a woman. Beyond the appealingly unorthodox Charlotte, Shevelow masterfully recalls for us a historical era of extraordinary stylishness, artifice, character, interest, and intrigue.
Shevelow entertainingly raises the curtain on author-actress Charlotte Cibber Charke (1713 1760), a cross-dresser famed for her portrayal of male characters. The author, a specialist in 18th-century British literature and culture, offers a full-scale biography of this enigmatic eccentric, who also wrote plays and novels (including Henry Dumont). She was the youngest daughter of England's poet laureate, the actor-playwright Colley Cibber. Estranged from him and abandoned by her philandering husband, Charke supported herself and her daughter by acting, often in male roles, and then began wearing male clothing offstage. After a 1737 cutback in productions, she worked traditionally male jobs (grocer, innkeeper, pastry cook, proofreader, puppeteer, sausage seller, valet), assuming a male identity for years under the name Charles Brown. Contrasting Charke's early theatrical triumphs with her later misfortunes, poverty and despair, Shevelow quotes extensively from Charke's autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (1755), and ends with 30 pages of notes and a bibliography. With more than a few speculative passages, this splendiferous recreation of the past is rich in period detail, and theater buffs will applaud. Illus. not seen by PW.