Wednesday, February 20, 2013

When actresses first ruled the Social Scene …

“Abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, 16-year-old Amber St. Clare relies on her wits, beauty and courage to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England – that of favorite mistress of Merry Monarch Charles II.”

Anyone here in the second decade of the 21st century know who teenage Amber St. Clare is?
Amber is author Kathleen Winsor’s heroine in “Forever Amber,” the bestselling U.S. novel of the 1940s. It sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week of release in 1944 and went on to sell more than 3 million copies. More than a few girls born in the mid to late 1940s are named Amber.

I don’t read many romance books, but I did read “Forever Amber” in my early 20s after I saw the movie that starred Linda Darnell as the bed-hopping beauty.

English Stage
What I especially liked was Winsor’s portrayal of the 17th-century English stage. Nell Gwynne, the actress who became a real mistress of Charles II, even makes an appearance in the novel. Called “pretty, witty Nell” by Samuel Pepys, she has come to be regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England. Considered an extraordinary comic talent, Nell’s rags-to-royalty tale echoes another story made famous by Disney … “Cinderella.”

Nell set the stage for the celebrated actresses of the 18th-century English stage, the women who helped establish the 18th century as the Age of the Actress. These actresses achieved star status in that bygone time, much like today’s actresses like Angelina Jolie and Hallie Berry are trend-setters.

Anne Oldfield, Frances Abington and Susannah Cibber have been mostly forgotten, but in another time and place were major players at the dawn of what we know today as Celebrity Worship. They became beacons of style and taste. These actresses had money of their own and exerted political and cultural influence far beyond the stage.

During the 1757-58 season, Susannah Cibber ranked a close second in popularity to David Garrick. This helps explain the jealousy Garrick harbored against his female colleagues throughout his long career.

The Broadsheet Tatler
Both the highborn and the lower classes loved the London stage. The broadsheets of the era loved publicizing the gossip and scandal surrounding the stage. And at the center were the actresses.

No doubt many today think the actresses were like Amber, prepared to offer a special performance in the bed of a wealthy nobleman. That was sometimes true, but the actresses also formed friendships with ladies of quality and were in demand at parties and social events. As one observer said of Abington, “A great number of people of fashion treat her in the most familiar manner, as if she were their equal.” In turn, the ladies of quality shared in the spotlight and cultivated their own spheres of cultural influence.

While these superstar actresses were able to hobnob with noblewomen, they came from lower-class women employed in the trades as milliners, seamstresses, servants and orange girls. Frances Abington was a servant to a French milliner early in her life. Yet she was able to mesh her acting talent with shrewd business acumen to become an 18th century celebrity.

These stars of the stage refused to classify themselves as immoral or whores. In their autobiographies and memoirs, the actresses used their popularity to depict their sometimes scandalous behavior as socially acceptable. People overlooked Gwynn’s scandalous behavior because of her philanthropy and benevolence. A generation later the fans of the London stage overlooked Oldfield’s wild ways because of her skill and talent on the stage.
See … some things never change. 18th century folks were willing to overlook misdeeds and hanky-panky just like we are.


  1. A fun read. Thanks for posting. They are to be admired. You show that in this post.

    1. I had fun writing the blog. Indeed, they are larger-than-life women.

  2. I particularly enjoyed the film. It was very atmospheric and as a young boy it captured me completely. On a vaguely related note have you also seen 'Restoration' and/or The Rake starring Johnny Depp? Both recommended.

    1. Yep, I've seen them both, although I watched them on TV, not at the movie theatre. I enjoy all period movies. When in college, I saw two -- one called, I think, the Last Valley, and another movie about Oliver Cromwell.