Dorothea Jordan (1761–1816)
Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
JORDAN, DOROTHEA or DOROTHY (1762–1816), actress, was born near Waterford, Ireland, in 1762. Her mother, Grace Phillips, is said to have been one of three daughters of the Rev. Dr. Phillips, all of whom took to the stage. Grace Phillips, who appears at one time to have been called Mrs. Frances, was an actress at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, where she captivated, and is stated to have married, a Captain Bland. Bland (it is said) was consequently disowned by his family, took to acting, and ultimately agreed to an annulment of his marriage, which was obtained by his father on the ground of nonage. These statements, given in all biographies of Mrs. Jordan, have grave inherent improbability. There is some reason to suppose that Bland, Mrs. Jordan's father, was merely a stage underling. In 1777 she was assistant to a milliner in Dame Street, Dublin, and the same year she appeared at Crow Street Theatre as Phœbe in ‘As you like it.’ Here, or at the theatre in Cork, in which her father is said to have been engaged as scene-shifter, and at Waterford, she played Lopez, a male character in ‘The Governess,’ a pirated version of ‘The Duenna,’ Priscilla Tomboy in ‘The Romp,’ and Adelaide in Captain Jephson's ‘Count of Narbonne.’ Afraid of her manager, Richard Daly [q. v.], a man of infamous reputation, who, after lending her money and rendering her enceinte, strove to get her wholly in his power, she ran off with her mother, brother, and sister to Leeds, where the party arrived poorly clad and almost penniless. Tate Wilkinson, manager of the circuit, recognising in her mother ‘his past Desdemona’ in Dublin in 1758, asked the daughter what she could play, tragedy, comedy, or opera, to which she replied laconically ‘All.’ A few days later, 11 July 1782, under the name of Miss Frances, she appeared as Calista in the ‘Fair Penitent,’ and sang with great success ‘The Greenwood Laddie,’ wearing a frock and a mob-cap. Wilkinson engaged her at fifteen shillings a week. Changing her name to Mrs. Jordan, as suited the matronly condition in which she found herself, she played, in one or other of the various towns comprised in the York circuit, Rutland, The Romp, Arionelli, in which Wilkinson says she was excellent, Rachel in the ‘Fair American,’ in which she had a narrow escape of being killed by the roller of a curtain, William in ‘Rosina,’ Lady Racket, Lady Teazle, Lionel in the ‘School for Fathers,’ Zara, Jane Shore, Indiana, &c. Daly soon renewed his persecution, and proceeded against her for money lent and for breach of engagement. The money, some two or three hundred pounds, was paid for her by a Mr. Swan. Indolent, capricious, imprudent, and at times refractory, she made less way than might have been expected. Yates, who saw her, pronounced her ‘a mere piece of theatrical mediocrity.’ When, on the recommendation of ‘Gentleman’ Smith, she was engaged for Drury Lane Theatre, Mrs. Siddons gravely mistrusted the wisdom of the step. She bade farewell to the Yorkshire stage at Wakefield, 9 Sept. 1785, in the ‘Poor Soldier,’ and appeared at Drury Lane, 18 Oct. 1785, as Peggy in the ‘Country Girl,’ a part in which she had watched Mrs. Brown.
No conspicuous success attended her début. But before the close of her first season, in which she played Viola, Imogen, Priscilla Tomboy, Bellario in ‘Philaster,’ Miss Hoyden, Hypolita in ‘She would and she would not,’ Mrs. Brady in the ‘Irish Widow,’ Miss Lucy in the ‘Virgin Unmasked,’ and was the original Rosa in Cobb's ‘Strangers at Home,’ she was established in public favour. The ‘European Magazine’ for December 1785, p. 465, remarked that, while in tragedy little beyond mediocrity was to be expected, as Miss Tomboy ‘she excelled every performer … at present on the English stage, and almost equalled the celebrated Mrs. Clive.’ Mrs. Jordan was counselled by the critic to confine herself to the characters within her range, and told that she would be, in her line, as great an ornament to the stage as Mrs. Siddons, then at the same theatre. As the original Matilda in Burgoyne's ‘Richard Cœur de Lion’ she obtained much popularity. During her long engagement at Drury Lane, lasting, with a break due to a temporary retirement from the stage in 1806–7 till 1809, she played many sentimental, imaginative, or tragic parts: Roxalana, Rosalind, Beatrice, Helena in ‘All's well that ends well,’ Juliet, Ophelia, and was the original Angela in ‘Monk’ Lewis's ‘Castle Spectre,’ 14 Dec. 1797, Flavia in ‘Vortigern,’ Cora in ‘Pizarro,’ 24 May 1799, and Imogen in Lewis's ‘Adelmorn the Outlaw,’ 4 May 1801. Gradually, however, a sense of her unparalleled excellence in comedy dawned on the management, and Sir Harry Wildair, Mrs. Woffington's great part, Miss Prue, Letitia Hardy, Lady Teazle, Miss Hardcastle, Mrs. Sullen, Bisarre, Lydia Languish, Nell in the ‘Devil to Pay,’ and most leading comic parts were assigned to her, as well as William in ‘Rosina’ and other ‘breeches’ parts. The retirement from the stage of Elizabeth Farren [q. v.] in 1797 led to the assumption by Mrs. Jordan of some characters outside her supposed range.
Her original parts were numerous, but, as a rule, unimportant (see for full list Genest, Hist. Stage). Most conspicuous among her ‘creations’ are: Beatrice in the ‘Pannel,’ an alteration by John Kemble of Bickerstaffe's ‘'Tis well it's no worse,’ 28 Nov. 1788; Aura in the ‘Farm House,’ a version by Kemble of the ‘Country Lasses’ of Charles Johnson [q. v.], 2 May 1789, second representation; Helena in ‘Love in Many Masks,’ Kemble's alteration of Mrs. Behn's ‘Rover,’ 8 March 1790; Little Pickle, a schoolboy, in the farce of the ‘Spoiled Child,’ 22 March 1790, the authorship of which has been assigned to her; Augusta in ‘Better late than never,’ by Reynolds and Andrews, 17 Nov. 1790; a character (?Celia) in the ‘Greek Slave,’ an adaptation of the ‘Humorous Lieutenant’ of Beaumont and Fletcher, 22 March 1791. During the rebuilding of Drury Lane she was with the company at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, where she played the heroine of the ‘Village Coquette,’ an unprinted adaptation from the French by Simons, 16 April 1792; Julia Wingrove in the ‘Fugitive,’ by Richardson, 20 April 1792; and Clara in the ‘French Duellist,’ 22 May 1792. Returning to Drury Lane, she was Lady Contest in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Wedding Day,’ 4 Nov. 1794 (third time); Miss Plinlimmon in the ‘Welsh Heiress,’ by Jerningham, 17 April 1795; Sabina Rosny in Cumberland's ‘First Love,’ 12 May 1795; Albina Mandeville in Reynolds's ‘Will,’ 19 April 1797; Letitia Manfred in Cumberland's ‘Last of the Family,’ 8 May 1797; Sir Edward Bloomly, a boy, in ‘Cheap Living,’ by Reynolds, 21 Oct. 1797; Susan in Holcroft's ‘Knave or not;’ Rosa in Morris's ‘Secret,’ 2 March 1799; Zorayda in Lewis's ‘East Indian,’ 22 April 1799; Julia in Hoare's ‘Indiscretion,’ 10 May 1800; Eliza in ‘Hear both Sides,’ by Holcroft, 29 Jan. 1803; Emma in Allingham's ‘Marriage Promise,’ 16 April 1803; Widow Cheerly in Cherry's ‘Soldier's Daughter,’ 7 Feb. 1804; Louisa Davenant in Cumberland's ‘Sailor's Daughter,’ 7 April 1804; Lady Lovelace in Holt's ‘Land we live in,’ 29 Dec. 1804; Lady Bloomfield in Kenney's ‘World,’ 31 March 1808; and Helen in Arnold's ‘Man and Wife,’ 5 Jan. 1809. After playing for some benefits at Covent Garden, she made her first appearance there as a member of the company in the part of Widow Cheerly on 2 July 1811. Here she played her last original part, 20 April 1814, that of Barbara Green in Kenney's ‘Debtor and Creditor,’ and here, as Lady Teazle, she made, 1 June 1814, her last appearance on the London stage. She is said to have played at the English theatre in Brussels in September 1814, and her final performances were given at Margate ten nights in July and August 1815. She grew stout in later life, but declined to play matronly parts.
In the summer she had visited regularly the principal country towns, reaping everywhere a golden harvest. Upon her revisiting, in 1786, Leeds, where she had previously been no special favourite, it was necessary to turn seven rows of the pit into boxes. In Edinburgh, where, as Hypolita in ‘She would and she would not,’ she appeared 22 July 1786, and in Glasgow, medals were struck in her honour. In these towns she delivered occasional addresses, in the composition of which she had some facility.
As an actress in comedy Mrs. Jordan can have had few equals. Genest says that she had never a superior in her line, and adds that her Hypolita will never be excelled. Rosalind, Viola, and Lady Contest were among her best characters (viii. 431–2). Hazlitt, in unwonted rapture, speaks of Mrs. Jordan, ‘the child of nature whose voice was a cordial to the heart … to hear whose laugh was to drink nectar … who “talked far above singing,” and whose singing was like the twang of Cupid's bow. Her person was large, soft, and generous, like her soul. … Mrs. Jordan was all exuberance and grace’ (Dramatic Essays, pp. 49–50, ed. 1851). Leigh Hunt, after praising her artless vivacity, says: ‘Mrs Jordan seems to speak with all her soul; her voice, piquant with melody, delights the ear with a peculiar and exquisite fulness and with an emphasis that appears the result of perfect conviction’ (Critical Essays, p. 163). Though admitting that she is not sufficiently ladylike, he holds her ‘not only the first actress of the day,’ but, judging from what he reads, the first that has adorned our stage (ib. p. 168). Lamb's praise is not less high. Haydon spoke of her acting as touching beyond description. Byron declared her superb, and Mathews the elder called her ‘an extraordinary and exquisite being, as distinct from any other being in the world as she was superior to all her contemporaries in her particular line of acting.’ Campbell speaks of her beating Mrs. Siddons out of the character of Rosalind, and regards the instance as unique. Sir Joshua Reynolds delighted in a being ‘who ran upon the stage as a playground, and laughed from sincere wildness of delight.’ He preferred her to all actresses of his time. Boaden, her biographer, goes into ecstasies over her.
Mrs. Jordan's domestic life was brilliant rather than happy, and caused much scandal. By Daly, her first manager, she had a daughter who was known as Miss Jordan, married a Mr. Alsop, came out at Covent Garden 18 Oct. 1816 as Rosalind, was a good actress, and was praised by Hazlitt, but does not appear to have remained very long on the stage; she left her husband, and died a premature and deplorable death in America. By Richard (afterwards Sir Richard) Ford, whose name she bore for some years, she had four children. One daughter married a Mr. March in the ordnance office, and a second Colonel (afterwards General) Hawker. This connection was broken off before 1790, when she became the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, subsequently William IV. During her long connection with him she bore him ten children, all of whom took the name of Fitzclarence. Two sons, Adolphus Fitzclarence and George Augustus Frederick Fitzclarence, are separately noticed. Lord Frederick Fitzclarence (1799–1854) was lieutenant-general, and colonel of 36th foot; Lord Augustus (1805–1854) was rector of Mapledurham; Henry died a captain in India. Of the daughters, Sophia married Lord De l'Isle and Dudley; Mary married General Fox; Elizabeth married the Earl of Erroll; Augusta married, first, the Hon. John Kennedy Erskine, and, secondly, Lord John Frederick Gordon, who took the name of Halyburton; and Amelia married Viscount Falkland. Her liaison and the frequent absences from the stage attributable to the calls of maternity were noticed in the press, and sometimes led to noisy demonstrations in the theatres. In 1790, a period of great political ferment, her intrigue was specially unpopular. In the December of that year she came forward, and, addressing the public, said that the slightest mark of public disapprobation affected her very sensibly, and that she had never absented herself one minute from the duties of her profession except from real indisposition. ‘Thus having invariably acted, I do,’ she concluded, ‘consider myself under the public protection.’ This speech, printed in various quarters, arrested the complaint. Mrs. Jordan was earning at the time as much as 30l. a week. The duke allowed her 1,000l. a year, but at George III's suggestion is said to have subsequently proposed by letter a reduction to 500l. Mrs. Jordan sent by way of reply the bottom part of a playbill, bearing ‘No money returned after the rising of the curtain.’ To the objections of her lover is ascribed the absence of Mrs. Jordan from the stage in the seasons of 1806–7 and 1809–1810. Her late appearances were due to her anxiety to make provision for her earlier brood of children. She looked upon 10,000l. as requisite for the portion of each of her daughters by Ford. In 1811 she received, while acting at Cheltenham, a letter from the duke asking her to meet him at Maidenhead, with a view to a final separation. From her letters at the time we gather that want of money was the cause of separation. She acquits the duke of all blame, states that his letters are full of the most unqualified praise of her conduct, and wishes to shield him from unfair abuse. The terms allowed her were liberal. For the maintenance of herself, her daughters, and her earlier family an income of 4,400l. was secured to her; but in case of her returning to the stage the care of the duke's daughters and the allowance for their maintenance were to revert to the duke (cf. letter from Mr. Barton, master of the mint, January 1824).
Curious mystery envelopes her last days. She is said to have been in danger of imprisonment in consequence of liabilities which she had incurred in behalf of Alsop, then a civil magistrate at Calcutta, who had married her eldest daughter. But, according to Sir Jonah Barrington, she was really affluent, having made by her acting in 1814 as much as 7,000l. On 3 Dec. 1814 she wrote: ‘When everything is adjusted it will be impossible for me to remain in England. I shall therefore go abroad, appropriating as much as I can spare of the remainder of my income to pay my debts.’ This appears inconceivable, as her debts, due to personal friends, did not much exceed 2,000l.; but, according to Boaden (Life of Jordan, ii. 310), ‘all her connections of every degree were her annuitants.’ In one of her letters, dated Bath, 22 April 1809, she says: ‘My professional success through life has, indeed, been most extraordinary, and consequently attended with great emoluments. But from my first starting in life, at the early age of fourteen, I have always had a large family to support. My mother was a duty. But on brothers and sisters I have lavished more money than can be supposed.’ In August 1815, taking with her a Miss Sketchley and, according to Barrington, her son-in-law, Colonel Hawker, she went to France. Strange and apparently visionary alarms took possession of her. She passed as a Mrs. James, and her place of residence was kept a secret. She first established herself at Boulogne-sur-Mer. This place she quitted for Versailles, and thence, in still greater secrecy, proceeded to St. Cloud. Here, in complete seclusion and under the name of Johnson, in a large, dilapidated, and shabby house in ‘the square adjoining the palace,’ she remained from morning to night, ‘sighing upon the sofa,’ and waiting for news from England. On 3 July 1816, after sending for letters and being told there were none, she fell back on the sofa, and, sobbing deeply, died. She left no will, and letters of administration were taken out at Doctors' Commons by the treasury solicitor on 24 May 1817, and the property sworn to be under 300l. She was buried in the cemetery of St. Cloud, Mr. Forster, the chaplain to the English ambassador, officiating. Ireland, the Shakespearean forger, asserts that he attended the funeral (Vortigern, 1832, Preface). Her personal effects, including her body-linen, were sold in France under dishonouring circumstances. After a delay of years a stone was put on her grave, with a Latin epitaph, in the composition of which Genest says he assisted. Every circumstance connected with her death, which was generally said to be due to heartbreak, was calculated to arouse public sympathy, and a notice in the ‘Morning Post,’ 8 Dec. 1823, that a dividend of 5s. in the pound was to be paid to her creditors caused much outcry, which was met by a declaration that this was not a composition. It was long before the controversy to which these things gave rise was closed. Further mystery remains. A report that she was not dead long prevailed. Various persons, including her daughter, Mrs. Alsop, declared they saw her after she was supposed to have been buried, and Boaden, who knew her well, asserts that he saw her in Piccadilly after 1816, and that she dropped a long white veil over her face.
Many stories are current, all to the credit of her generosity and her good-heartedness, including one in which she effected a complete conquest of a Wesleyan minister, who left her with a warm blessing. Her brother, as Mr. Bland, was engaged by Kemble, and more than once played Sebastian to her Viola. Mrs. Inchbald is among those who spoke highly of her, and Kemble, quoting from Sterne, said: ‘I could have taken her into my arms, and cherished her, though it was in the open street, without blushing.’ A portrait of her by Romney, as the Country Girl, was in the possession of Colonel Fitzclarence, afterwards first Earl of Munster. The Garrick Club possesses two portraits of her by De Wilde, one as Phædra in ‘Amphytrion,’ a second as the Country Girl. A statue of her by Chantrey, executed for William IV, was in 1851 at Mapledurham, Oxfordshire, then the seat of one of her sons. She usually signed her name ‘Dora.’
[The chief source of information is the Life of Mrs. Jordan by James Boaden, 2 vols. 1831. ‘The Great Illegitimates: a Public and Private Life of that celebrated Actress, Miss Bland, otherwise Mrs. Ford, or Mrs. Jordan, late Mistress of H.R.H. the D. of Clarence, now King William IV, etc., by a confidential Friend of the Departed,’ was published, s.d., by J. Dunscombe, 19 Little Queen Street, London, 12mo, about 1830, with portraits. It is a somewhat scandalous production, exceedingly rare, of which a reprint, probably with some excisions, has recently appeared. The latter only is in the British Museum. Jordan's Elixir of Life and Cure for the Spleen, 1789, 8vo, a collection of the songs in her various pieces, had a portrait of her as Sir Harry Wildair and an untrustworthy biography, in which it is said that she was born in St. Martin's, London, 1764. Tate Wilkinson, in the Wandering Patentee, gives a long and animated account of her. For one or two scandals, Memoirs and Amorous Adventures by Sea and Land of King William IV, London, 1830, is responsible. See also Personal Sketches of his own Time, by Sir Jonah Barrington; Personal Memoirs of P. L. Gordon; Georgian Era; Genest's Account of the Stage; the Era Almanack for 1876.]
Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)
JORDAN, DOROTHEA (1762–1816), Irish actress, was born near Waterford, Ireland, in 1762. Her mother, Grace Phillips, at one time known as Mrs Frances, was a Dublin actress. Her father, whose name was Bland, was according to one account an army captain, but more probably a stage hand. Dorothy Jordan made her first appearance on the stage in 1777 in Dublin as Phoebe in As You Like It. After acting elsewhere in Ireland she appeared in 1782 at Leeds, and subsequently at other Yorkshire towns, in a variety of parts, including Lady Teazle. It was at this time that she began calling herself Mrs Jordan. In 1785 she made her first London appearance at Drury Lane as Peggy in A Country Girl. Before the end of her first season she had become an established public favourite, her acting in comedy being declared second only to that of Kitty Clive. Her engagement at Drury Lane lasted till 1809, and she played a large variety of parts. But gradually it came to be recognized that her special talent lay in comedy, her Lady Teazle, Rosalind and Imogen being specially liked, and such “breeches” parts as William in Rosina. During the rebuilding of Drury Lane she played at the Haymarket; she transferred her services in 1811 to Covent Garden. Here, in 1814, she made her last appearance on the London stage, and the following year, at Margate, retired altogether. Mrs Jordan’s private life was one of the scandals of the period. She had a daughter by her first manager, in Ireland, and four children by Sir Richard Ford, whose name she bore for some years. In 1790 she became the mistress of the duke of Clarence (afterwards William IV.), and bore him ten children, who were ennobled under the name of Fitz Clarence, the eldest being created earl of Munster. In 1811 they separated by mutual consent, Mrs Jordan being granted a liberal allowance. In 1815 she went abroad. According to one story she was in danger of imprisonment for debt. If so, the debt must have been incurred on behalf of others—probably her relations, who appear to have been continually borrowing from her—for her own personal debts were very much more than covered by her savings. She is generally understood to have died at St Cloud, near Paris, on the 3rd of July 1816, but the story that under an assumed name she lived for seven years after that date in England finds some credence.
See James Boaden, Life of Mrs Jordan (1831); The Great Illegitimates (1830); John Genest, Account of the Stage; Tate Wilkinson, The Wandering Patentee; Memoirs and Amorous Adventures by Sea and Land of King William IV. (1830); The Georgian Era (1838).