A “Petticoat Playwright” Wannabe

August 29, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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In the late 1980’s, just about the time I had finished researching and writing my first historical novel, Island of the Swans, I stumbled across a reference to a minor character I’d included in the book , the sister of the heroine, Jane Maxwell, 4th Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812).  I discovered that the duchess’s younger sibling, Eglantine, Lady Wallace, not only enjoyed playing the harp for guests in her home, as you see here, but also penned three plays.

One, The Ton:  or, Follies of Fashion was produced in 1788 to a distinct lack of success at London’s Covent Garden theater; the second, The Whim, was forbidden a license by the official censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office; and the third, an adaptation from a French play, Diamond Cut Diamond, suffered a fate that has been lost in the mists of time.  Frankly, I was amazed to have learned that women were writing plays for London’s finest theaters during the 18th c.–many under their own names, as was the case with Lady Wallace for The Ton.

I remember walking into the Rare Book room at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where I held a Readership in 18th & 19th c. British-American History, and putting in three call slips, certain these obscure manuscripts were only to be found in a dusty corner of some library in London. (No books circulate outside these types of research libraries, so you can see how many tomes began to pile up on my desk as time went on with this project!)

Much to my shock, the Huntington had all three plays! Not only that, they had scores more dramas and comedies written by eighteenth century women playwrights because more than seventy years before, Henry Huntington’s acquiring agents bought the Larpent Collection of plays from the heirs of a long-dead censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the bureaucracy that, up until the early 1960’s, determined which plays could be presented in Britain.

In fact, in the course of researching and writing Wicked Company, I learned that there were a hundred women playwrights in Britain and America who saw their works produced on professional stages between 1660 and 1820.  While in London, I had the pleasure of back stage tours of the latest “editions” of Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters (both places have burned to the ground several times due to the candles used to light the proceedings prior to the invention of electricity).

That moment when I held a copy of Eglantine, Lady Wallace’s failed play in my hand marked the start of a three-year odyssey to discover professional women playwrights whose works were produced to great success–unlike poor Eglantine–at the theatres royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, an image of the latter you see here.

Finding the failed plays of this “petticoat” playwright wannabe also provided the avenue that eventually led me to Edward Capell, a strange little functionary who  had the absolute power to end the writing careers of these professional women playwrights with the stroke of his pen.  Capell was destined to become one of the most intriguing “villains” I’ve ever had the pleasure to create!

But more about this mean, spiteful little toad next time…and I’ll even post an image of what he looked like…

Wicked Company, by the way, will be in bookstores in October, courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark, and I can’t wait!