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Duchess of Drury Lane

Published by Severn House

Extract - Chapter One

‘A most valuable acquisition…’

Spring 1778

How could I ever forget that night? My debut leading role was to be in Henry Fielding’s farce The Virgin Unmasked at Crow Street Theatre in Dublin, for which, if successful, I was to be engaged at the princely sum of twenty shillings a week. I stood frozen with fear in the wings, listening to the chatter, laughter and ribald jokes of the audience just a few feet away, growing increasingly impatient with the delay. The pit was crowded with young bucks, no females allowed, and beyond that was the two-shilling gallery. While up in the boxes, or lattices as they were called, sat the toffs in full evening dress. They had paid twice that sum and meant to savour their superiority by looking with disdain through their opera glasses down upon everyone else. And above all of them came the one-shilling gallery and the slips. Hundreds of people all gawping at the stage where I was about to make a complete fool of myself. I was scared stiff, utterly petrified.

‘Get on with it!’ I heard a voice cry. ‘Where’s the farce?’

‘Aye, come on, we’re eager to get an eyeful of the new gel,’ yelled another, followed by yet more jeering laughter.

I turned on my heels and fled.

‘Dolly, Dolly, don’t go!’ I could hear Mama calling to me, but ignoring her I hitched up my skirts and ran pell-mell to the women’s dressing room. My one desire was to escape what I saw as a baying pack of wolves out for my blood. I huddled  shivering in a corner, feeling sick to my stomach, knowing in my heart that it was hopeless, that I couldn’t do it. I simply could not walk out on to that stage.

I doubt I would ever have been an actress had not my mother chosen to tread the boards before me. As a profession the stage is both insecure and unsettled, as actors are constantly on the move. Actresses are also the subject of public disapproval since they’re generally considered to be disreputable and immoral. Yet my own mother suggested just such a career for me, a girl of only sixteen.

 I had vehemently protested. ‘Hester is the one who wants to act, not me. Why can I not continue to work as a milliner’s assistant? I hope to be allowed to learn the art of hat making myself soon.’

‘Hester has tried, and found herself too beset with stage fright, so Mr Ryder has generously offered you a trial. You will earn far more on stage than you ever would in a hat shop.’

Under her maiden name of Grace Phillips, Mama had set out as a young girl with her sister Maria for Dublin, both intent on becoming actresses. That was back in the 1750s when strolling players visited every town, and the two girls had often enjoyed being taken to the theatre in Bristol. So for some reason they’d fallen in love with the notion.

Their father, a rector in Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, had died when they were quite young and the family was largely brought up by a married cousin. But despite an education of the highest quality, far more so than my own, and coming from a respectable family of means, the stage was all Mama had ever dreamed of.

Why the Phillips sisters chose Dublin, I do not know, but the Smock Alley Theatre was under the management of Thomas Sheridan, a famous impresario at the time. Mama loved to tell stories of her years at Smock Alley, how she played Juliet to Sheridan’s Romeo, but then one day he returned to London and the theatre closed down. Having little choice in the matter, Grace and Aunt Maria likewise moved to England, but sadly never starred on the London stage or realised their ambition of fame and fortune. They spent almost their entire working lives touring the provinces, until Mama finally gave up acting for motherhood. Despite seeing myself as Irish, I was in fact born in London near Covent Garden in 1761, no doubt where my stage-struck parents were seeking work at the time, and where I was baptised Dorothy Bland. Our dear King George III had only recently come to the throne so a whole new era had begun.

‘Why do you not return to the stage, Mama?’ I suggested. ‘Since you love it so much.’

‘Don’t be foolish, Dolly. I am far too old to play pretty parts now. And who would care for your siblings if I were not around? James is working hard but will have his own family to keep soon. Francis wishes to join the army, and George will do his bit, for all he is young. Hester may try again with small parts, but you can sing and are an excellent mimic. You are now our best hope to provide for the family.’

 ‘But I wouldn’t dare go up on stage, I swear I couldn’t do it,’ I cried.

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Passion, jealousy, scandal and betrayal - a true-life Regency Romance of the rise and fall of an extraordinary woman born into extraordinary times. Growing up in a poverty-stricken, fatherless household, Dorothy Jordan overcame her humble beginnings to become the most famous comic actress of her day.

It was while performing on Drury Lane that Dorothy caught the eye of the Duke of Clarence, later to become King William IV. Her twenty-year relationship with the Duke was one of great happiness and domesticity, producing ten children. But ultimately, Dorothy's generous nature was her undoing and she was to be cruelly betrayed by the man she loved.