Elizabeth Inchbald (17531821)



  • Author
  • Actress


  • Elizabeth Inchbald
  • Elizabeth Simpson

Biographical details

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)

INCHBALD, ELIZABETH (1753–1821), novelist, dramatist, and actress, the youngest but one of the numerous children of John Simpson, a farmer and a Roman catholic, and his wife Mary, was born at Stanningfield, near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, on 15 Oct. 1753 (Boaden; 16th, Haydn, Index). After the death of her father on 15 April 1761 she picked up such education as she could obtain from books, and after her brother George went on the stage she applied without success in 1770 to Richard Griffith, manager of the Norfolk theatre, for an engagement as actress, a profession for which a serious impediment in her speech seemed to disqualify her. After brief visits to London and elsewhere, in the course of which she made the acquaintance of various people connected with the stage and coquetted with proposals from her future husband, she left home abruptly and without warning on 11 April 1772 to seek her fortune. Endowed with much beauty and very slenderly furnished with money, she underwent various adventures, real or imaginary, in London, where she applied in turn to Reddish and to King. From James William Dodd [q.v.], through whom she sought to obtain an engagement, she received dishonouring proposals, by which she was thoroughly frightened, and which she resented with characteristic impetuosity. Feeling the need of a protector, she married Joseph Inchbald, an actor and portrait painter, on 9 June 1772, at the house of her sister, Mrs. Slender, through the agency of a catholic priest named Rice, and on the following day was married again in church according to protestant rites. This second marriage cast some suspicion upon the statement that her husband was a catholic. On the day of his marriage Inchbald is said—probably in error, since the part, according to Genest, was played by Reddish—to have enacted Mr. Oakley in the 'Jealous Wife.' The following day, 11 June 1772, she started with him for Bristol, where, after some delays, she at length appeared on the stage, 4 Sept., as Cordelia to her husband's Lear. She then visited Scotland, and repeated Cordelia at Glasgow to her husband's Lear, 26 Oct. 1772, and on 6 Nov. played Anne Bullen in ' Henry VIII ' to her husband's Cranmer and the Wolsey of West Digges, her manager. In Edinburgh she appeared, 29 Nov., as Jane Shore, playing subsequently Calista in the 'Fair Penitent.' In the following year she appeared as Calphurnia, Lady Anne in 'Richard III,' Lady Percy, Lady Elizabeth Grey in the 'Earl of Warwick' Fanny in the' Clandestine Marriage,' Desdemona, Aspasia in 'Tamerlane,' Mrs. Strictland in the 'Suspicious Husband,' and the Tragic Muse in the 'Jubilee.' From Edinburgh or Glasgow she visited Dundee, Aberdeen, and various other Scottish towns, playing a large number of characters, among which were Juliet, Imogen, Violante in the 'Wonder,' Monimia in the 'Orphan,' and Sigismunda. She also took lessons in French, and practised painting. Her journeys were taken in the roughest fashion, sometimes on foot. On 2 July 1776, after her husband had quarrelled with the Edinburgh public, she took ship with him from Shields for Saint Valery, and went to Paris, where Inchbald vainly sought occupation as a painter, and his wife conceived the notion of writing comedies. Returning to Brighton on 19 Sept. she proceeded on the 30th to London, and on 4 Oct. by Chester to Liverpool,where she made the acquaintance of Mrs. Siddons, which ripened into friendship, and played on 18 Oct. Juliet, followed by Cleopatra in ' All for Love,' &c. While here and at Manchester she made many applications to Tate Wilkinson, which were ultimately successful, and wrote the first outline of 'A Simple Story.' Mrs. Inchbald and her husband here also formed their close friendship with John Philip Kemble, who sat for his portrait to Inchbald. After a visit to Canterbury, the pair reached York in January 1778, and were treated with much friendliness by Tate Wilkinson. She acted in York, Leeds, and other Yorkshire towns, and was well received in Yorkshire society. On 6 June 1779 her husband died suddenly, under painful circumstances (see Tate Wilkinson, The Wandering Patentee, ii. 56-9). Inchbald, as an actor, although little seen in London, stood high in favour in comic old men, Justice Credulous, Sir Anthony Absolute, &c., and did some scene-painting for Tate Wilkinson, who had a warm regard for him as a friend and an actor ( ib. i. 277). A son George, not by Mrs. Inchbald, was also a member of Tate Wilkinson's company, and George's wife subsequently played in Bath. Inchbald was buried in Leeds, John Philip Kemble, who contemplated marrying his widow, writing a long Latin epitaph for his tombstone, and dedicating to his memory a poem palpably imitated from Collins.

On 14 June 1779 a performance was given at Leeds for Mrs. Inchbald's benefit. She acted her old characters in Wakefield and Doncaster in September, her first part after her bereavement being Andromache, and finished writing ' A Simple Story.' The following year she refused offers of from 'Dicky' Suett and others, began a new play, and obtained a long-coveted engagement from Harris for Covent Garden. She quitted the York company 19 Sept. 1780. As Bellario in 'Philaster,' to the Philaster of Lewis and the Arethusa of Mrs. Mattocks, she made on 3 Oct. 1780, at Covent Garden, her first appearance in London, but failed to attract much attention. Other characters followed, including Mrs. Strictland, Queen in 'Richard III,' Mariana in ' Measure for Measure,' Constantia in the ' Chances,' and many others. Her salary rose from 1l. 6s. 8d. per week to 3l. She appeared at the Haymarket on 16 July 1782 as Emma Cecil in the ' East Indian.' She quitted the Hay market on 16 Sept. 1782, acted a month at Shrewsbury, and opened in Dublin in November as Bellario, returning to London in the following spring. She resumed acting at Covent Garden at an augmented salary, and retired from the stage, where her success was never great, in 1789. According to Genest, her last appearance was on 14 May 1789, when she acted Mrs. Blandish in the 'Heiress' at Covent Garden Theatre.

Mrs. Inchbald had at an early date written farces, but when she first sent her manuscripts to Harris and to Colman neither manager took any notice of them. In the summer of 1782, however, Harris accepted a play from her, and gave her 20l. on account. Colman agreed on 7 March 1784 to give her one hundred guineas for 'The Mogul Tale, or the Descent of the Balloon,' and produced it at the Haymarket 6 July 1784, with much success. It was not apparently printed until 1824. Mrs. Inchbald played a small part, in which she all but broke down. Colman produced, on 4 Aug. 1785 (8vo, 1786), her 'I'll tell you what,' a five-act play which greatly augmented her reputation; her manager wrote both prologue and epilogue. On 22 Oct. Harris gave at Covent Garden her 'Appearance is against them' (8vo, 1785). Her subsequent dramatic productions consisted of: 1. 'The Widow's Vow,' an adaptation of 'L'heureuse Erreur' of Patrat (8vo, 1786), Haymarket, 20 June 1786. 2. 'All on a Summer Day,' Covent Garden, 15 Dec. 1787, damned the first night, and not printed. 3. 'Such things are,' a comedy, Covent Garden, 10 Feb. 1787 (8vo, 1788). 4. 'The Midnight Hour,' a comedy, Covent Garden, 22 May 1787 (8vo, 1788), from the French of Damaniant. 5. ' Animal Magnetism,' a farce, Covent Garden, 26 May 1788, eighth performance (12mo, 1789 ?). 6. ' The Child of Nature,' Covent Garden, 28 Nov. 1788 (8vo, 1788), from Madame de Genlis. 7. 'The Married Man,' Haymarket, 15 July 1789 (8vo, 1789), from 'Le Philosophe Marié' of Destouches. 8. 'Hue and Cry,' farce, Drury Lane, 11 May 1791, from the French, not printed. 9. 'Next-door Neighbours,' Haymarket, 9 July 1791 (8vo, 1791), from 'L'Indigent' of Mercier and ' Le Dissipateur of Destouches. 10. 'Young Men and Old Women,' Haymarket, 30 June 1792, from the French, not printed. 11. 'Every one has his Fault,' Covent Garden, 29 Jan. 1793 (8vo, 1793; attacked in the 'True Briton,' and successfully defended by the author). 12. ' The Wedding Day,' a comedy, Drury Lane, third time, 4 Nov. 1794 (8vo, 1794). 13. 'Wives as they were, and Maids as they are,' Covent Garden, 4 March 1797 (8vol, 1797). 14. ' Lovers' Vows,' Covent Garden, 11 Oct. 1798 (8vo, 1798), from Kotzebue. 15. 'Wise Man of the East,' Covent Garden, 30 Nov. 1799 (8vo, 1799), from Kotzebue. 16. 'To Marry or not to Marry,' comedy, Covent Garden, 16 Feb. 1805 (8vo, 1805). 'The Massacre' and 'A Case of Conscience' were printed from her manuscripts by Boaden with the ' Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald 'in 1833. Most of these pieces are translations, and some of them are trifling enough. Those which are original are chiefly improbable, but display power of characterisation and command of dialogue.

Mrs. Inchbald's great romance, by which she is principally known, 'A Simple Story,' was finished by her at her lodgings in Frith Street, and was published, 4 vols. 12mo, 10 Feb. 1791. It obtained an immediate success, a second edition being ordered on 1 May. For the copyright she received 200l. In spite of the break in the middle, which practically divides it into two parts, and of the unexpected frailty of the heroine, it is a supremely tender and touching work, written with much happiness of style, and giving a very lively portraiture of character. It exercised a powerful influence; it was one of the earliest examples of the novel of passion, and seems to some extent to have inspired 'Jane Eyre.' 'Nature and Art,' an able but inferior story, followed in 1796, 2 vols. 12mo. In 1806-9 she edited 'The British Theatre,' in 25 vols., with biographical and critical remarks. Though sensible in the main, her observations upon various plays involved her in disputes with George Colman the younger and others. The contents of the `Modern Theatre,' 10 vols. 1809, and 'A Collection of Farces,' 7 vols. 1809, were simply selected by her. When in 1808 John Murray was starting the 'Quarterly,' under the guidance of Gifford and Walter Scott, he was most anxious to secure Mrs. Inchbald as a contributor, and it was only her extreme diffidence which led her after some hesitation to decline the offer (Smiles, Mem. of John Murray, i. 122). She contributed, however, to the 'Edinburgh Review,' and received 50l. for her first article, or, as she said, 'for five minutes' work.' The prices paid her for literary work were invariably high. She received, indeed, from Harris as much as 600l. for a single play. She invested her money so as to secure herself a yearly independent income of over 260 l.; but, equally prudent and generous, she gave large sums to various members of her family. Mrs. Inchbald died Wednesday, 1 Aug. 1821, at Kensington House, and was buried on the 4th in Kensington churchyard. The memoirs of her life, for which she had been offered 1,000l., were by her peremptory injunction destroyed at her death; in this matter she acted on the advice of Bishop Poynter. Her will was signed 29 April 1821. In all she left about 6,000l. In her private life she was blameless, though she was given to sentimental attachments, and, despite her anxiety to marry again, she declined many offers, some of them advantageous. She died a devout Roman catholic. Singularly fascinating and gracious, although a little apt to take and give offence, she was very popular in both literary and fashionable society (cf. Clayden, Rogers and his Contemporaries, i. 4, 46). William Godwin's daughter, Mrs. Shelley, wrote in a notice of considerable interest 'relative to Mrs. Inchbald ' that she had heard a rival beauty complain that when Mrs. Inchbald came into the room and sat in a chair in the middle of it, as was her wont, every man gathered round it, and it was vain for any other woman to attempt to gain attention. Godwin admired her greatly. (He used to describe her as a piquante mixture between a lady and a milkmaid, and added that Sheridan declared she was the only authoress whose society pleased him' (Kegan Paul, Godwin i. 74). Her beauty she retained until late in life, and she always dreaded its loss. According to an account penned by an admirer which she preserved in her papers, and endorsed 'Description of Me,' she was handsome in figure, but stiff; above the middle height; fair, but a little freckled, and 'with a tinge of sand, which is the colour of her eyelashes; no bosom; hair of a sandy auburn; … face beautiful in effect and beautiful in every feature; … countenance full of spirit and sweetness, excessively interesting, and, without indelicacy, voluptuous; … dress always becoming and very seldom worth so much as eight-pence.'

A portrait of her was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and one by W. Porter was exhibited in the Royal Academy. A third, by Harlowe, is in the Garrick Club, where is also a representation of her, by De Wilde, as Lady Jane Grey. Most of her plays have been reprinted in collections, such as those of Cumberland, Oxberry, Lacy, and 'The London Stage.' Her 'I'll tell you what' was translated into German, Leipzig, 1798, and her stories were more than once translated into French. Of 'A Simple Story' and 'Nature and Art ' many editions have appeared, one, with a memoir by William Bell Scott, being published in 1880. Both works are in the 'Collection of British Novelists,' Thomas Button, author of the 'Dramatic Censor,' 1801, in which Mrs. Inchbald is freely handled, wrote 'a satirical poem' on her entitled 'The Wise Men of the East, or the Apparition of Zoroaster, the Son of Oromases, to the Theatrical Midwife of Leicester Fields.'

[The chief authority for the life of Mrs. Inchbald is the Memoir by James Boaden, 2 vols. 1833. Boaden seems to have had access to her correspondence, and to have seen in manuscript portions of her diary. Most of the magazines of the last century supplied biographies more or less untrustworthy, which were copied into the theatrical biographies of the early years of this century. In works such as Peake's Colman, Dunlap's Cooke, Fanny Kemble's Records of a Girlhood, Forster's Goldsmith, and the Life of F. Reynolds are many particulars concerning her. Tate Wilkinson rhapsodises over her beauty and virtues in the Wandering Patentee. Genest's Account of the Stage; the Biographia Dramatica; the Georgian Era; Gillow's Bibl. Dict. iii. 532; New Monthly Magazine, 1821; Rose's Biog. Dict.; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. may be consulted.]

J. K.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

NCHBALD, MRS ELIZABETH (1753–1821), English novelist, playwright and actress, was born on the 15th of October 1753 at Standingfield, Suffolk, the daughter of John Simpson, a farmer. Her father died when she was eight years old. She and her sisters never enjoyed the advantages of school or of any regular supervision in their studies, but they seem to have acquired refined and literary tastes at an early age. Ambitious to become an actress, a career for which an impediment in her speech hardly seemed to qualify her, she applied in vain for an engagement; and finally, in 1772, she abruptly left home to seek her fortune in London. Here she married Joseph Inchbald (d. 1779), an actor, and on the 4th of September made her début in Bristol as Cordelia, to his Lear. For several years she continued to act with him in the provinces. Her rôles included Anne Boleyn, Jane Shore, Calista, Calpurnia, Lady Anne in Richard III., Lady Percy, Lady Elizabeth Grey, Fanny in The Clandestine Marriage, Desdemona, Aspasia in Tamerlane, Juliet and Imogen; but notwithstanding her great beauty and her natural aptitude for acting, her inability to acquire rapid and easy utterance prevented her from attaining to more than very moderate success. After the death of her husband she continued for some time on the stage; making her first London appearance at Covent Garden as Bellario in Philaster on the 3rd of October 1780. Her success, however, as an author led her to retire in 1789. She died at Kensington House on the 1st of August 1821.

Mrs. Inchbald wrote or adapted nineteen plays, and some of them, especially Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are (1797), were for a time very successful. Among the others may be mentioned I’ll tell you What (translated into German, Leipzig, 1798); Such Things Are (1788); The Married Man; The Wedding Day; The Midnight Hour; Everyone has his Fault; and Lover’s Vows. She also edited a collection of the British Theatre, with biographical and critical remarks (25 vols., 1806–1809); a Collection of Farces (7 vols., 1809); and The Modern Theatre (10 vols., 1809). Her fame, however, rests chiefly on her two novels: A Simple Story (1791), and Nature and Art (1796). These works possess many minor faults and inaccuracies, but on the whole their style is easy, natural and graceful; and if they are tainted in some degree by a morbid and exaggerated sentiment, and display none of that faculty of creation possessed by the best writers of fiction, the pathetic situations, and the deep and pure feeling pervading them, secured for them a wide popularity.

Mrs Inchbald destroyed an autobiography for which she had been offered £1000 by Phillips the publisher; but her Memoirs, compiled by J. Boaden, chiefly from her private journal, appeared in 1833 in two volumes. An interesting account of Mrs Inchbald is contained in Records of a Girlhood, by Frances Ann Kemble (1878). Her portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence.