Charlotte Charke

Charlotte Charke
Charlotte Charke, in pink, plays Damon as a breeches role in her father Colley Cibber's pastoral farce Damon and Phillida.

Charlotte Charke (née Cibber, also Charlotte Secheverell, aka Charles Brown) (13 January 1713 – 6 April 1760) was an English actress, playwright, novelist, autobiographer, and noted transvestite. She acted on the stage from the age of 17, mainly in breeches roles, and took to wearing male clothing off the stage. She assumed the name "Charles Brown" and called her daughter "Mrs. Brown." She suffered a series of failures in her business affairs after working in a variety of trades commonly associated with men, from valet, to sausage maker, farmer, pastry chef, and tavern owner, but finally achieved success under her own name as a writer, ending her life as a novelist and memoirist.


Early life

She was the twelfth and last child born to actor/playwright poet laureate Colley Cibber and the musician/actress Katherine Shore. Although she had many siblings, most died before living out their first year of existence. According to her autobiography, her brothers and sisters resented her arrival when she was young and many of them maintained their dislike throughout their lives.

She was educated in the liberal arts and learned Latin, Italian, and geography at Mrs. Draper's School for girls between 1719 and 1721 and then moved to live with her mother in Middlesex. She suggested that her gender identification with men showed up early in her life, as she recalled impersonating her father as a small child, and, when she moved in with her mother, she taught herself shooting, gardening, and horse racing, but this may also be normal dress-up for a child, and especially one with a famous father. In 1724, she and her mother moved to Hertfordshire, and there she continued engaging in country sports and education, focusing on subjects and pursuits usually associated with males. According to her anecdotes, she also "studied medicine" there and, in 1726, tried to set herself up as a doctor (she was thirteen years old). Colley Cibber, however, stopped her when the bills for her supplies came due.


Like her brothers and sisters, she had an interest in the theatre. She spent time at Drury Lane, where her father was manager, and in 1729, when she was sixteen, she was courted by the composer and violinist Richard Charke, and the two were married on 4 February 1730. Once married, Charlotte, no longer a minor to her parents, began to appear on stage. She made her debut on 8 April 1730 in the stereotypically ultra-feminine minor role of Mademoiselle in The Provok'd Wife, by John Vanbrugh, at Drury Lane. She had to stop performing soon thereafter, however, when she discovered that she was pregnant. Her daughter, Catherine, was born in December 1730, and a month later, January 1731, Charlotte was back on stage as Lucy in The London Merchant by George Lillo. In July of that year she made her first appearance in a breeches role as Tragedo in the same play and followed that the next year with Roderigo in Othello. She would later appear as Mrs. Slammerkin in The Beggar's Opera and the tomboyish Hoyden in The Relapse. Around this time, Charke began wearing male clothing off the stage as well, although intermittently.

In 1733, Colley Cibber sold his controlling interest in the Drury Lane Theatre to John Highmore, and Charlotte felt that it should have gone instead to herself and her brother, Theophilus Cibber. In fact, it is likely that the sale was at a vastly inflated price and that Colley's goal was simply to get out of debt and make himself a profit (see Robert Lowe in his edition of Cibber's Apology). Theophilus, who likely knew of the scheme, grew bolder in demands when his father was not liable for payment and organized an actors' revolt. Charles Fleetwood then came to control the theatre, and Charke went to the Haymarket Theatre and began appearing in many male parts on that stage. She returned to Drury Lane for the role of Cleopatra but eventually walked out to have her own company in the summer of 1735 in Lincoln's Inn Fields. She wrote her first play, The Art of Management, in September 1735. It was an explicit attack on Fleetwood, who attempted to buy up all printed copies of the play to prevent its circulating.

She took the consequential step of joining Henry Fielding in the Haymarket in 1736. For him she appeared as Lord Place, a parody of her father, Colley Cibber, in Fielding's Pasquin of 1737. The play was a powerful attack on Robert Walpole and his government, and Colley Cibber was satirized for his fawning attachment to Walpole and his undeserving occupation of the place of poet laureate. Walpole led Parliament into passing the Licensing Act of 1737, which closed all non-patent theatres and forbid the acting of any play that had not passed official censors. Charlotte Charke's famously antagonistic relationship with both of London's government-recognized patent theatres meant that she would have great difficulty finding legitimate employment as an actress. For his part, her husband Richard, who had remained at Drury Lane, had already become estranged from Charlotte through his constant and costly affairs. He fled his heavy gambling debts by moving to Jamaica, where he soon died. Charlotte was suddenly without either occupation or husband, alienated from her powerful father, and herself a single mother, all at the age of twenty-four. It was at this point that Charlotte Charke began wearing male clothes with frequency even off the stage.

Mr. Brown and poverty

In 1738, she was granted the unusual privilege of a license to run Punch's Theatre at St. James's. This was a puppet theatre, and she used her wooden cast to perform a number of satirical plays. Many of the stringed figures were caricatured after current politicians and actors, including, of course, her father Colley. Her puppet shows were popular; nor could the government shut them down, as, technically, no human actors appeared onstage at Punch's. She decided to take her theatre on tour throughout the rest of the nation, but, while traveling, she fell seriously ill, likely with nervous exhaustion. Medical bills, according to her autobiography, cost her the theatre, and she was obliged to sell her puppets at a serious loss. She sent young Catherine off with begging notes to her friends and relatives, but no one in her family was willing or able to help her monetarily. Her father in particular was furious with her for the actors' rebellion at Drury Lane and her unflattering impression of him in Pasquin under his old enemy Fielding.

According to the autobiography, the principal aid she received at this stage of her life was from other actors. Dressing as a man could of course be explained as one way to avoid being recognized by her many creditors, but it was also clearly Charke's preference. While trying to raise money from friends, she was arrested for debt and imprisoned. According to her an intriguiging passage of her Autobiography, it was the coffee-house keepers and prostitutes of Covent Garden who banded together to raise the money for her bail, and these women, knowing her well, jokingly referred to her as "Master Charles" as if she were a young gentleman.

In fact, she had by now begun appearing in public almost exclusively as a male. She called herself "Charles Brown" and, some time later, began to refer to her daughter as "Mrs. Brown." She boasted further that a young heiress fell in love with her, believing her to really be a man, and proposed marriage. This resulted, not surprisingly, in disappointment for both Charke and the hopeful heiress. Unable to earn a living in the sanctioned theatres, Charlotte began to work any job she could in order to support herself and Catherine, but she was always attracted to jobs she could perform as a man. Therefore, she was a valet to Richard Annesley, 6th Earl of Anglesey, and then even took up as a sausage maker. Anglesey was famous as a bigamist and libertine, and lived with a paramour during Charlotte's employ. Charlotte claimed that when Anglesey was not entertaining guests, the trio would dine together as friendly equals. As a valet's service would indeed be personal, normally including dressing one's master for the day, the entire arrangement would have been quite unusual. (Anglesey was soon a central party to an infamous scandal, being dispossessed of his lands—but allowed to continue using his title—after a court ruled that he had sold his young kinsman, James Annesley, who had a better claim to the inheritance, into slavery.)

In 1742, Charlotte got a new acting company in the New Theatre in St. James's, and she produced her second play, Tit for Tat, or, Comedy and Tragedy at War. In the flush of early success, she borrowed money from her uncle and opened the Charlotte Charke Tavern in Drury Lane. This failed due to thieving by her customers and her own generosity; she sold it at a loss. In the summer season, she appeared in a series of male roles. At this point, she was "Charles Brown" in public in London on an everyday basis. She joined with Theophilus Cibber at the Haymarket in 1744 and then joined William Hallam's company. She married John Sacheverell in 1746, but scholars cannot determine anything about this man, and Charke refers to him only in passing in her autobiography, and not even by name. Whatever the nature of the marriage, it was cut short by Sacheverell's death. It did give Charke a new surname under which to appear for a time.

At a typical moment of penury, Charlotte was offered the leading male role of Punch (of Punch & Judy fame) in a new puppet theatre proposed by a Mr. Russell, due to her recognized abilities as both a comic performer and a proven manipulator of difficult stringed marionettes. The short season was an artistic and financial success for Charlotte, but before it could be repeated the theatre's founder was arrested debts and confined Newgate Prison, where he died after having lost his fortune and his mind. Charlotte attempted to buy her friend's puppets from Russell's landlord, who had claimed them, but she could not meet his asking price and the little company likewise passed out of existence. An unproduced script Russell had written was also kept by the dead man's creditors as collateral, thus preventing Charlotte from staging it as she had promised its author. The script was thereafter lost as well.

Some time in 1747, Charke went on the road as a strolling player, traveling the West Country with Charlotte's daughter in tow. In 1750, Catherine Charke married an actor named John Harman, despite Charlotte's aversion to him. During these peripatetic years, Charlotte was once imprisoned (with males) as a vagabond actor, worked as a (male) pastry cook, and set herself up as a farmer. Earlier she had run a grocery store. All her attempts at business ended alike in failure. Between 1752 and 1753, she wrote for the Bristol Weekly Intelligencer, and in 1754 she worked as a prompter in Bath, under her own name but in men's clothing. She found many of the players difficult and untalented compared to those she had known in her privileged youth. At the end of the year, she decided to move back to London and make her living as a writer.

Charlotte Charke as writer

In 1754, Charke wrote her first novel, The History of Mr. Henry Dumont and Miss Charlotte Evelyn and sold it for ten guineas. It was published in 1755, and the publisher's estimate of its value was apparently confirmed, as it did not sell especially well. However, Charke, like her father, was still famous and infamous, and she began writing her autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, which began to appear in instalments. These sold very well, and the instalments were collected and sold as a book, which went into two editions in the year. An abridged form appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, as well. This was one of the first autobiographies ever written by a woman.

Charke's tone is, like her father's, chatty, witty, relaxed, and intimate. It is a mixture of honesty and self-flattery, but with nothing like her father's self-aggrandizement. She wrote the autobiography, she said, to reconcile herself to her father. It did not work. He would not communicate with her, returning a letter unopened, and when he died in 1757, a very wealthy man, he left Charlotte a token ₤5. In response, Charke wrote The Lover's Treat, or, Unnatural Hatred, a novel about families at war with themselves.

In 1758, Catherine and her husband moved to America, and in 1759 Charke attempted to return to the stage in the breeches role of Marplot in Susanna Centlivre's The Busybody. She died in April 1760 at her Lodgings in Haymarket, London, forty-seven years old.

Gender issues

Charke's Narrative has received renewed attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Part of this has come from scholars who have viewed her as a transgressive figure, a woman who challenged and redefined gender. She has also been viewed as an openly lesbian figure. However, the Narrative has little sure evidence of lesbianism, and none for open lesbianism, and Charke indicates that her transvestitism was very rarely met with shock or outrage. Those who met her as "Mr. Brown" and knew her actual sex did not seem to be, in her account, very disturbed by her clothing or very interested in her sexual orientation. Thus, some have even seen in Charke's transvestitism and possible lesbianism a sign of how loosely female gender was policed and controlled, or how thoroughly actors and actresses were outside of social norms. Whatever contemporaries perceived of Charke's habits and orientation, her constant financial difficulties and vocational limitations are, at the least, examples of the openness and restrictions of the mid-18th century economic system in England.


Further reading

  • Morgan, Fidelis The Well Known Troublemaker - A life of Charlotte Charke 1989, London: Faber
  • Shevelow, Kathryn Charlotte: Being a True Account of an Actress's Flamboyant Adventures in Eighteenth-Century London's Wild and Wicked Theatrical World 2005, Henry Holt & Co.
  • A narrative of the life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke / by Charlotte Charke ; edited by Robert Rehder. Charke, Charlotte, 1713-1760.

Brookfield, Vt. : Pickering & Chatto, 1999.

  • The art of management; or, tragedy expell'd. By Mrs. Charlotte Charke, 1713-1760. London : printed by W. Rayner, and sold at the pamphlet-shops, 1735.
  • Stage favourites of the eighteenth century, by Lewis Melville [pseud.] with a frontispiece in colour Benjamin, Lewis Saul, 1874-1932.

Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday Doran & company, inc., 1929.

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