If I had a chance to have lunch with anyone living or dead I would most certainly chose to have it with Dora Jordan, one of Western history’s most famous comics who graced the British stage for forty years. Not only would she make me laugh, I would uncover some mysteries about her that have persisted for the past two hundred years.
Dora was born in Ireland to a pair of theater folks around 1761. It’s not known for certain if her father was a stagehand or an actor but it is known that when Dora was thirteen, he abandoned his family for a young actress and left them destitute. Fortunately, Dora took to the stage and acted until she was fifty-four, earning around one hundred thousand pounds (approximately 7 million dollars).
Dora played Shakespearian roles as well as “breeches” comedies in which she took the part of a man, a young boy, or a woman who posed as a man. She had the best legs in the United Kingdom and when she wore the short pants and stockings costumed as man of that era, houses were packed. Her singing was compared to Cupid’s bow and her voice sounded as if she’d just eaten a ripe peach. Other women coiffed their hair as high as Marie Antoinette or in tight corkscrews but Dora wore her lush brown curls loosely natural and appeared to her audiences to be completely joyful, full of life, and unaffected.
Dora was known for her warmth and generosity, donating money for schools for girls and for the aid of unmarried pregnant women. Hard working, she sometimes playing three performances per night in the Royal Theater of Drury Lane, holding three thousand people per show.
A child born following an assault left her unmarriageable but she took the stage name Mrs. Jordan to give herself respectability. At the age of thirty, she received a lifetime settlement proposal from Prince William. The two set up a home and had ten children—five boys and five girls—while she worked to support them and the Prince’s lavish tastes. They enjoyed twenty years together before he took the children and ended the lifetime proposal to seek the throne and a young wife. Dora was so popular that his treatment of her made him an ineligible bachelor. Four years after their separation, she acted her last and moved to France where she died mysteriously with no reliable witnesses. It was said that she expired of a broken heart in poverty, her ex-Prince owing her thirty thousand pounds (about 2 million dollars).
In the years that followed, the monarchy did its best to wipe away her memory. William married a respectable princess, had no more children, and became King William IV twenty years after he broke with Dora. If you read biographies of him, written by apologetic men of his day, Dora is brushed aside as a youthful indiscretion and a social climber. The King might have felt differently. When he died he left behind every letter to him from Dora, carefully preserved, and a marble statue he’d commissioned in her honor depicting her as a goddess-mother with a small mask of comedy at her feet.
Fortunately, there have been plenty of biographers and theater historians who have kept the memory of this talented working mother alive and thanks to Queen Elizabeth, her statue is on display in Buckingham palace.
Written for Sheroes of History by Catherine Haustein. Catherine blogs at catherinehaustein.com and is the author of the novel Natural Attraction. Catherine has written a post on her own blog about how she discovered Dora Jordan, you can read it here.
Find out more…
Mrs. Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin is a book about Dora’s life.
Explore the National Portrait Gallery’s collection of portraits of Dora here.