Being a True Account of an Actress's Flamboyant
Adventures in Eighteenth-Century London's Wild and
Wicked Theatrical World

A woman of rare talents and high spirits, Charlotte Charke (1713-1760) was an actress who delighted in scandalizing proper society — whenever she could. Her London was a stage writ large where bejeweled ladies rode in carriages past prostitutes and pickpockets, crowds munched on ginger-bread while watching hangings, and Mrs. Mapp the bonesetter realigned kneecaps for fascinated crowds. On street corners, fire-eaters, contortionists, tumblers, and dancing dogs competed for attention. Yet even among the spectacles of her stylish, savage metropolis, Charlotte stood out as a self-described "Nonpareil of the Age." Every day of her life was a grand performance.

The daughter of Colley Cibber, a brilliant comic actor famous for foppery, Charlotte was unconventional—even by the standards of her theatrical family. She raised eyebrows with her disdain for needlework and her taste for guns, but when she stepped on stage, none of it mattered. Charlotte seemed destined for greatness. But she would rebel. After making her reputation by playing men, she began dressing in breeches offstage as well. When her father and family disowned her, her life became a picaresque adventure extending from the pinnacles of posh London to its dangerous depths.

In this fascinating work of socio-cultural history, Kathryn Shevelow captures Charlotte—the artist, survivor, mother, wife, and, ultimately, husband as well—in all her guises, from her time among the dueling divas of the glamorous Drury Lane Theatre to her trials as a strolling player and puppeteer, to her comeback as the author of My Unaccountable Life, one of the first autobiographies ever written by a woman. Set against the culture and history of eighteenth-century London—where Hogarth painted, Fielding's satires mocked the prime minister, and The Beggar's Opera drew raves—Charlotte is a tale of pluck and perseverance, enlivened endlessly by the wit, courage, and creativity of its ever-surprising heroine.

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Winner of the Theatre Library Association's George Freedley Memorial Award for the year's best book on live theater.

"[A] vivid and appealing stage-struck biography."—Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review

"Engrossing . . . If this story is deliciously sordid fare, readers have not only Shevelow's impressive research to thank but also Charlotte's own autobiography . . . Her memoir, which Shevelow quotes from liberally, is remarkable for both its Defoe-worthy twists and turns and for being 'one of the earliest secular autobiographies written by a woman' . . . Even if the life of Charlotte Charke was not an especially easy one, her adventures—and misadventures—make for a spellbinding read. Born anew on [this book's] swift-turning pages, the daring performer is granted a richly deserving curtain call through Shevelow's graceful efforts."—Andrea Hoag, San Francisco Chronicle

"[A] detailed, touching portrait."—Renate Stendhal, The Advocate

"Shevelow engagingly details Charlotte's adventures as a waiter, manservant, and actor, and her travels around England with a female companion known to history only as 'Mrs. Brown.' Concrete evidence for Charlotte's life is sometimes frustratingly scant, but Shevelow compensates with evocative descriptions of London playhouses and makeshift rural stages."—The New Yorker

"Charlotte Charke (1713-60) is a plum of a subject for eighteenth-century culture-specialist Shevelow. Youngest child of noted actor, playwright, stage manager, and poet laureate Colley Cibber, she took to the stage, as had her brother, Theophilus. Although she married at 17 (unhappily and fairly briefly) and bore a daughter, tall, slim Charlotte became known for her cross-dressing both onstage and off, which, with her public parodies of her father, led to an estrangement she was never able to mend. As she bent gender roles with her dress, she also did with her work, managing theater troupes, starting a puppet theater, and writing her autobiography (the first written by a British actress). Still, she was a poor money manager, and with her companion, Mrs. Brown, she often lived hand to mouth. In vivid language, Shevelow describes the dirt and danger of London streets, the economics and politics of the theater world, the paralyzing effect of the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, and the creative means taken to evade it; since Charlotte has primarily been the subject of academics in feminist and lesbian contexts, Shevelow deals briefly but sensitively with what is known about Charlotte's sexuality. This is fine theater history, but it is most notable as a biography of a woman who was true to herself."—Michele Leber, Booklist (starred review)

"Shevelow reconstructs the life of a colorful, cross-dressing thespian. Charlotte Cibber Charke (1713-60) was one of the most talked-about actresses in 18th-century London. She took to the stage at Drury Lane, managed several theater companies (one of the first women to do so), developed a puppet show devoted to Shakespeare, and criss-crossed the country as a strolling player. Nor was her entrepreneurship limited to theater: Charlotte briefly ran an 'oil and grocery shop' that stocked 'Oils, Pickles, Soap, Salt, Hams, and several other Family Necessaries.' A short marriage to Richard Charke produced one daughter, Kitty. After a few tempestuous conjugal years, unable to pay the court fees for a formal divorce, Charlotte and Richard simply moved into separate lodgings. The more enduring relationship—and perhaps the greatest role of Charke's life—was with a woman Charlotte identified as Mrs. Brown. Charlotte played the role of Mr. Brown, and the world (except for a few theater friends) took the couple to be a married man and woman. The great strength here is Shevelow's refusal to flatten out and pigeonhole the dazzling Charlotte. In her hands, Charke is not just a famous actress, nor a strong woman in an age of patriarchy, nor simply an excuse to talk about the history of sexual identity. She is all of these—and an important contributor to the history of puppetry to boot. Shevelow admirably situates Charlotte's singular life in larger currents and contexts. When discussing Mr. and Mrs. Brown, for instance, the author gives us a concise history of 'female husbands' in 18th-century British courts. She pithily explains that Charlotte's sexuality is hard to categorize, because 'our modern notions of "lesbian" and "identity" . . . did not exist as such in Charlotte's world.' Despite all this nuance, Shevelow doesn't sidestep the issue; she believes the Browns were probably lovers and that their relationship was akin to the relationships of lesbian couples today. A larger-than-life story, told with panache."—Kirkus Reviews

"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 . . . This splendiferous recreation of the past is rich in period detail, and theater buffs will applaud."—Publishers Weekly