On the London stage ill the late eighteenth century, Dora Jordan was a star, probably the greatest comic actress the British theatre has ever known. Seductive and vivacious. as delightful off-stage as on, she was adored by the public and high society alike. Then, in 1791, she attracted the attentions of Prince William, the Duke of Clarence, third son of King George III. who eventually prevailed upon her to live with him. For more than twenty years. in spite of the attacks of caricaturists and satirists. she was a loyal and loving mate, bearing him ten children, helping to pay his debts out of her earnings as an actress, acting for all intents and purposes as his wife.
Yet as Claire Tomalin shows in this brilliant rediscovery of Dora Jordan, the idyll had tragedy at its heart. Under pressure from the royal family and moved by his own ambitions, William abandoned her. For Dora, thrown out of her house, estranged from her children, it was a disaster; she was to die in poverty and loneliness in 1816. And while William evidently regretted the loss of the happiness he had known with her, he went on to marry a German princess and take the throne as King William IV in 1830. When his biography was published in 1884, Dora's name did not even appear in it.
As in The Invisible Woman, her prizewinning biography of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, Claire Tomalin has here retrieved from obscurity a fascinating and important figure. She also offers us insight into an era. For Dora Jordan's tragedy, growing as it did out of the collision and interweaving of two worlds -- the rough and colorful world of the Georgian theatre where she was at home, and the glittering world of the court and the aristocracy, increasingly shadowed by the pall of convention that would define Victoria's reign -- is a vivid reflection of historical change.
Yet the story told in Mrs Jordan's Profession is, ultimately, a personal one, a love story with a sad and brutal ending. Its essence lies in the gaiety and charm of Dora singing and joking onstage in Drury Lane, in the accounts of life with the children at 'dear Bushy,' in the notes she wrote to William in the days of happiness and the helpless, mystified letters that followed her dismissal. It is impossible to read without being moved -- and enchanted.
About Claire Tomalin
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Published April 11, 1995
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