Have you ever heard the one about the actress and the king-to-be?
On Tuesday 18th May, Dr Johnson Reading Circle meet to talk about Mrs Jordan’s Profession, Claire Tomalin’s biography of the actress Dora Jordan who managed to juggle a hugely successful career as an actress with being the twenty-year partner of the future King William IV.
She took to the stage a young age after her father left their fledgling family and she became the main source of income. It’s impressive how quickly she developed a coherent stage persona, not a glamorous figure, but a ‘girl-next-door’ with an appearance of naturalness that she maintained her whole career. She specialised in ‘pert’ roles: confident, tomboyish women with an active role to play in the story.
We reflected how hard it is to describe a live performance. Even with today’s ability to film an event, good stage acting is such an ephemeral and delicate thing, depending on the atmosphere in the auditorium and tiny details in body and face. Those writing about Dora throughout her career were remarkably consistent: she made it seem like learnt lines were occurring to her at the moment, she moved energetically around the stage seemingly on impulse and she had an incredibly natural and infectious stage laugh. While she certainly seems to have been born for the stage, it’s clear that one of her talents was being able to hide the hard work that went into making her performance seem effortless.
After appearances in Ireland, she moved to the northern circuit with a babe in arms and conspicuously, no husband. While this threatened to derail her career, her likability on stage, her dependability as a performer and her quiet life outside the theatre allowed her to weather any scandal and make a name for herself. In our reading around the eighteenth century, it’s very easy to assume that everything cultural happened in London but the existence of Tate Williamson and his northern circuit reminded us of the energy and activity all around the country, in thriving cities like Hull and Grimsby, up-and-comers like Leeds and Manchester, providing knowledgeable audiences with strong opinions of what they wanted in a performer.
Dora was spotted by the London theatres and ensured that her debut performance was in The Country Girl, a role she had been preparing for herself during her time in the northern theatres. She became a fixture in Drury Lane and it was there that she was seen by William, the third son of George III and his wife Charlotte. He’d had a restricted upbringing in a famously dull court and had been sent off as a child to be a midshipman in the navy where he’d had middling success. He began to show attention to Dora and gossip started to flow, not helped by the fact that as well as a daughter by an unscrupulous Irish producer, she now had two children with her partner Ford. With the pragmatism she had used in her career thus-far, she used the prince’s attentions to force Ford to make his mind up about marrying her. When he failed to do so, she set up house with William.
They moved to Bushy and set about making it a cosy home for the next twenty years. Naturally the press were spiteful, writing lampoons upon them and using them as the subject of many satirical portraits - many of them using the ‘jordan’ or chamberpot to represent Dora. What marks this early period is William’s desires to protect his partner and her own decisive and effective handling of the press. Able to take as many aspersions on her private life as were thrown at her, she would not take any on her professionalism as an actress, writing a letter in a journal and speaking from the Drury Lane stage.
William and Dora proved to be a very successful couple, having ten surviving children, even whilst Dora maintained her acting and touring schedule. This is where Tomalin introduces Dora’s letters, domestic epistles from various dressing rooms where she discusses the little things that happen to her (like her dress catching fire during a performance) and little details of the children. It’s hard to escape the impression that they were a close, comfortable couple, dedicated to family - and far from the scandal that could be expected from such an arrangement.
This was not to last though, and the death of the heir, Princess Charlotte seemed to put a panic in the royal family which spread to William. He deserted Dora, leaving the details to his ministers and lawyers who put barriers between them, and started to chase more eligible women before marrying a German Princess. To make matters worse, Dora gave her son-in-laws access to her finances, which they proceeded to ruin. She ran to France to escape her creditors and stripped of the two main pillars of her life, family and work, she quickly declined and died.
Claire Tomalin steps slightly outside of her position of neutral biographer at this point, revealing her own sense of tragedy at a family ripped apart and her disgust at the way Dora, who had kept her family together, was left alone to die. Yet, she’s not unsympathetic to William. While she clearly lambasts him for his actions to Dora, he remains a sympathetic figure. In this book he comes across as a lost man, happiest playing with his children and altering his house but pulled by the feeling that he ought to do and be more.
There are times when a book causes disagreement within the Reading Circle, whether it’s that some love it and others don’t, or we have different views on the character and motivations of the people in it - but Mrs Jordan’s Profession was not one of those books. As a result of its skill, its clarity of telling and mustering of detail, we all found ourselves agreeing. It’s impossible to read this book and come away without being impressed by Dora’s strength, her dedication as an actress and mother and to feel a mixture of anger and sorrow about what happened to her. It’s a fascinating story and very well told.