Actresses of the Restoration Period: Mrs Elizabeth Barry and Mrs Anne Bracegirdle. Susan Margaret Cooper. Review by Annette Rubery.

Actresses of the Restoration Period: Mrs Elizabeth Barry and Mrs Anne Bracegirdle. By Susan Margaret Cooper. Yorkshire: Pen & Sword History. 2023. Pp 224. £22.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781399064804.

Susan Margaret Cooper is in the somewhat rare position amongst theatre historians. She is herself descended from a stalwart of the 18th-century stage, Roger Bridgwater, who trod the boards in London for 31 years, and whose biography she published in 2020. This new work is a double biography of two actresses, who, although forgotten today, were hugely influential figures of the Restoration stage. Aside from various biographical dictionary appearances, Cooper’s book is the first mainstream publication to tackle the lives of Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, and to put them into context.

Actresses of the Restoration Period opens with an overview of Restoration London’s cultural scene, before turning to Mrs Barry (‘Mrs’ was the proper form of address for professional actresses, being an abbreviation of ‘mistress’, i.e., one who is skilled at something). Despite the indignity of being considered plain and ‘indifferent plump’, Barry nonetheless made a vital contribution to the British stage, especially in the tragic repertoire. According to Cooper, she inspired passion in the playwright Thomas Otway, and was the lover of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom she had a daughter (Elizabeth or ‘Little Barry’).

Cooper has sifted the sources, giving us excerpts of scandalous poetry and material spoken by Barry in the form of prologues and epilogues. One difficulty, given the lack of primary source material, is capturing Barry’s personality, but Cooper draws on some rare sources including a transcription of a letter by the actress, held at the Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

She also provides interesting reflections on Barry’s sudden illness at Drury Lane in 1688 while acting in John Crowne’s Darius, King of Persia. George Granville wrote that Barry ‘was forced to be carried off, and instead of dying in jest was in danger of doing it in earnest’ (p. 52). Cooper notes that the actress did not return to the stage for 18 months. Putting the incident in the context of her daughter’s illness (who died the following year), she speculates that Barry may have been suffering from a nervous breakdown.

In the case of Mrs Bracegirdle (or ‘Bracey’ as she was affectionately known) Cooper presents some excellent research on the actress’s Northampton relatives and childhood. She also covers her friendship with the playwright William Congreve: ‘It was rumoured by contemporaries that her friendship with Congreve might have been more than just platonic, he regularly visited her until his death in 1729’ (p. 113). In fact, Congreve lodged with Bracey’s sister (Mrs Frances Porter), and his involvement with the Kit-Cat Club helped to establish Thomas Betterton’s new theatre company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where both Barry and Bracegirdle performed.

Bracey (who was famed for her chastity) remained unmarried, although the poet, playwright and Shakespearean scholar, Nicholas Rowe, also fell heavily for her charms. As Cooper shows, his attentions were unrequited, resulting in the publication of some disparaging verses:

Of proffers large her choice had she,

Of jewels, plate, and land in fee,

Which she with scorn rejected:

And can a nymph so virtuous be

Of base-born blood suspected?

(p. 118).

Whether or not this rather simplistic poetry came from Rowe (who was made Poet Laureate in 1715) or a satirical imitator, it’s not clear, and herein lies the problem. The reader of Actresses of the Restoration Period would have benefitted from a closer interrogation of the sources than Cooper provides. Elsewhere she quotes an anecdote about Nathanial Lee’s The Rival Queens, where Barry (playing Roxana) lets jealousy of her co-star, Elizabeth Boutell (Statira), get the better of her during the murder scene at the close of the play: ‘Roxana hastening the designed Blow, struck with such Force, that tho’ the Point of the Dagger was blunted, it made way through Mrs. Boutel’s [sic] Stayes, and entered about a Quarter of an Inch in the Flesh’ (p. 67).

What Cooper doesn’t mention is that the anecdote came from The History of the English Stage (1741) and was therefore probably the work of the scurrilous and unreliable publisher Edmund Curll. Not only did the story appear more than 60 years after the supposed incident, but the tale of one actress almost stabbing the other during The Rival Queens quickly became part of the play’s mythology (it re-emerged in 1756 in the context of Peg Woffington and George Anne Bellamy’s performances as Roxana and Statira, for example). Was it a real incident or simply a fable that grew into a marketing strategy? The proliferation of anecdotes is one of the central challenges of writing theatrical history, especially in the Restoration period, when eye-witness accounts were rare.

However, Cooper is a genial guide, and her work is to be applauded, given her necessary reliance on poetry and other secondary sources. The book offers an engaging series of plates, including the interiors and exteriors of playhouses, maps and manuscripts. Cooper also provides a useful list of the actresses’ theatrical repertoire, along with comprehensive extracts from a huge range of 17th-century material. Barry and Bracegirdle were just as recognisable to Restoration theatregoers as Nell Gwyn, but they have not persisted in the public imagination nearly as well. Actresses of the Restoration Period not only brings these fascinating women back into view, it tackles a complex period that’s ripe for further research.

Annette Rubery

Annette Rubery is an independent scholar and an Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She was awarded a PhD in English and Comparative Literary Studies by the University of Warwick in 1999. She has since published a book of local history, Lichfield Then & Now (The History Press, 2012) and is currently writing a full-length biography of the 18th-century actress, Peg Woffington. Annette’s personal website is

Carrying All Before Her: Celebrity Pregnancy and the London Stage, 1689-1800. Chelsea Phillips. Review by Sara Read

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

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

BSECS 2020: Heroines, Hoops, Heels, Witches & Ghosts: Femininity & the Natural, Unnatural & Supernatural. Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Panel

This year at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, the Women’s Studies Group were represented by three fantastic panellists: Tabitha Kenlon, Alison Daniell and Carolyn D. Williams. The session was chaired by Yvonne Noble. This panel was well attended and allowed for a lively discussion, closely linked to the papers. Below is the panel proposal, which provides a little more detail with regards to the overall idea for the panel and the individual papers.

This panel considers different ways in which ideas about the natural, unnatural and supernatural on the one hand, and the characteristics and capabilities of women on the other, can become ambiguous and complicated when brought into contact with each other.

Dr Tabitha Kenlon, in ‘A Handbook for Heroines: Acting the Part in Northanger Abbey’, invokes performance theory to argue that Jane Austen’s heroine, by refusing to adhere to all the rules presented to her by conduct manuals, draws attention to the performative elements of ‘nature’. Although conduct manuals assured readers that women were naturally disposed to certain activities and temperaments, writers nonetheless felt obliged to remind women to behave in ways that, if truly natural, should have required little effort. In this respect they were not so different from the Gothic novels that Catherine found so delightful, and whose popularity gave concern to anxious moralists. She must adjust her own actions to fit the story she is really in, while learning to distinguish between malicious deception and required social performance.

Alison Daniell’s ‘Of False Hair, Bolstered Hips and Witchcraft: The Regulation of Women’s Bodies and an Act of Parliament that Never Was’ discusses the Matrimonial Act 1770 (or, as it is more commonly known, The Hoops and Heels Act 1770), which ostensibly permitted husbands to divorce wives who had seduced and betrayed them into matrimony by using perfume, make-up, heels and other commonplace beauty aids; the wives were also to ‘incur the penalty of the laws now in force against witchcraft, sorcery, and suchlike misdemeanours’. It is a fake: it was never passed, or even debated, by Parliament and its provisions do not exist anywhere in law. Yet it is referenced in a number of academic publications and has been quoted, re-quoted and published in newspapers across the globe for over 175 years. This paper analyses possible legal sources for its provisions and discuss some of the cultural factors associating women’s power over men with witchcraft and a mutable female body. It will also suggest a more prosaic origin for the myth than the emotive combination of witchcraft and divorce we know today.

In ‘”Overcome by the horror of the piece”: Women and Ghosts on the Eighteenth-Century Stage’, Carolyn D. Williams considers some cultural, gendered and theatrical implications of Sarah Siddons’ belief that in Macbeth, Act III, scene iv, when Banquo’s ghost twice appears to Macbeth at a banquet, Lady Macbeth sees it too. Critical opinion has generally opposed her view of this episode, despite contemporary evidence that she made it work on stage. The presentation will conclude with some brief workshopping of a few key moments in the banquet scene, and of one line in Act V, scene i, the sleepwalking scene, once offered as self-evident proof that Siddons’ views were untenable, but which could take on additional, and powerful, resonance if these views are respected.