Carrying All Before Her: Celebrity Pregnancy and the London Stage, 1689-1800. Chelsea Phillips. Newark, New Jersey: University of Delaware Press. 2022. $34.95, 304 pages, 15 b-w images (paperback) ISBN 9781644532485
With the Restoration of the monarchy and the now famous warrant from Charles II in 1662 that women rather than boy actors were now to play all female roles, it was inevitable that theatrical companies would have to work around occasions when their leading ladies were pregnant, lying in, or nursing infants. By the late eighteenth century, however, Covent Garden theatre was declared by Rambler’s Magazine to be the “‘most prolific place in England’” because six of its “female performers were pregnant or lying in” during the 1784 season (p. 208). Scholars of the Restoration stage have long acknowledged that actresses worked whilst pregnant and have made assumptions about what parts an actress could or could not perform in whilst expecting a baby. Chelsea Phillips’s study of six London actresses’ personal and professional lives across the long eighteenth century is a significant intervention to the field as it looks afresh at actresses who were famous in varying degrees during their reproductive years and centres their experiences. Phillips’s careful use of performance history and other records adds nuance to many of the pre-existing assumptions about pregnant women’s experiences in the theatre. For example, Susanna Mountfort Verbruggen was in her third pregnancy when playing Mrs Wittwoud in Thomas Southern’s The Wives Excuse, or Cuckolds Make Themselves in the 1691-92 theatre season. The play premiered in December when Mountford Verbruggen was midway through this pregnancy. She gave birth to Elizabeth Mountfort on 22 March the following year (under twelve months after her delivery of Edward on 1 April 1691, which too came under a year after Susanna’s birth on 27 April 1690). Phillips makes the case that rather than this being an expedient casting to accommodate the pregnancy, Mountfort Verbruggen was well-known as a comic actress and the pregnancy may even have been advantageous to the role since Mrs Wittwoud was “adapt at pawning illegitimate pregnancies off on unsuspecting husbands” (pp. 46-47). This sort of reappraisal makes Phillips’ book invaluable to those interested in theatre studies, women’s studies, and early celebrity.
This study is organised chronologically around the lives of its subjects, but not all chapters take the same approach. So, Chapter One, “Inheriting Greatness” begins with Susanna Mountfort Verbruggen and Anne Oldfield. The women’s careers overlapped in the Drury Lane company by four years. They are connected in the study as “for both women, pregnancy aided the development of a new line of business” (p. 31). In the 1712-13 season Oldfield continued performing in The Distrest Mother, set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, almost until she gave birth. She appeared as Andromache regularly between September 1712 and April 1713; the later performances would have been particularly poignant as Andromache sacrifices herself and her unborn child (p. 57). So just as for Mountfort Verbruggen, pregnancy helped her develop “parts that capitalised on the grotesque comic potential of the pregnant body[,] for Oldfield, portraying noble tragic heroines whose stoic natures enabled her to construct her pregnant body as classically contained” (p. 31).
Values and social expectations changed during the course of the long eighteenth century and so Chapter Two “Pregnant Sensibility: Susannah Cibber and George Anne Bellamy” considers the challenges faced by two rival actresses in “integrating pregnancy into their professional work in the age of sensibility” (p. 31). Chapters Three “Conceiving Genius: Sarah Siddons” and Four “Prolific Muse: Dorothy Jordon” also “function as a pair,” according to Phillips, because they consider the “similarities and differences in reception and self-fashioning for two women living very different lives” (p. 32). Jordan was the most prolific of the actresses in this study, having at least eighteen pregnancies in her thirty-year career. Thankfully, Carrying All Before Her contains a useful appendix listing the known births and baptism dates of the subjects’ children (pp. 223-34).
In thinking about early celebrity, Phillips raises the question of audience response to the loss of a famous actress. Mountfort Verbruggen died a few months after giving birth to son Lewis Verbruggen. Mountfort Verbruggen’s death did not attract the kinds of public mourning which followed the murder of her first husband William Mountfort, but Phillips considers whether audiences thought of her when watching the production of Oroonoko which was staged in the weeks following her death. Was watching Oroonoko’s grief for pregnant Imoinda all the more poignant (p. 48)? Phillips’s detailed analysis of the effects of Sarah Siddons’s visible pregnancies to her renowned performances of Lady Macbeth in 1785 and 1794 again asks questions of the way an audience might interpret that body in relation to the character (pp. 136-142).
Readers of Carrying All Before Her will discover that reasonable adjustments for pregnant women are not new and that in 1788 Dorothy Jordan received accommodations such as being exempted from having to make two performances an evening from around the four month point and the “temporary suspension of particularly strenuous roles in her repertoire” (p. 168). Others negotiated breaks to nurse their infants on performance days. And while readers won’t find themselves journeying into the birthing chambers of all the women in this study, they will hear George Anne Bellamy’s account of her eleven-day labour, in 1749, which needed the interventions of an accoucheur or man-midwife and likely his forceps as Bellamy refers to a “forced birth” (p. 97).
Phillips notes that the presence of pregnant actresses on stage marks a significant cultural moment as these women were the first “nonroyal, nonaristocratic, nonfamilial, working pregnant bodies to which a significant cross-section of the population had almost daily visual and/or print access” (p. 29). This is right because while this was an era in which most working-class women in all trades had long continued to work until the moment of delivery, meaning that sight was not new, the cross-section of London society who went to performances would include many for whom this was their first sustained encounter with the working female body in a public sphere. Seeing pregnant women in such high-profile roles displaying the latest fashions of pregnancy to an audience and to readers of popular publications would indeed be “utterly new” (p. 29). Carrying All Before Her brings out new insights into this cultural moment. As Phillips acknowledges, a challenge of the project “is the diversity of the embodied experience of pregnancy” and that it is “difficult to recapture a sense of exactly what a woman felt and looked like when pregnant, in every performance across her lifetime” (p. 117). While this is true, it is certainly the case that readers of Carrying All Before Her come away with a much better sense of how actresses incorporated their celebrity pregnancies into their careers than they would otherwise have had. This book is a most welcome addition to the cultural recovery of women’s lived experience in the long eighteenth century.
Sara Read is a Senior Lecturer in English at Loughborough University. She is widely published in the area of early modern women’s reproductive health; she is also a novelist whose second novel – The Midwife’s Truth set in 1666 -has just been published. Sara is a member of the organising committee of the Women’s Studies Group. Her personal website is www.sararead.co.uk