British novelist, playwright, and actress Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821) was among the first women to find renown as a playwright. Drawing on her experiences on the stage, Inchbald also became the first prominent British female theater critic. In total, she wrote or adapted about 20 plays, as well as publishing two novels later in her career. Her work is primarily remembered for her deft use of comedy and for her expression of contemporary social issues in her works.
Youth and Marriage
Inchbald was born Elizabeth Simpson on October 15, 1753, in a small village called Standingfield near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, located near the eastern coast of England. Inchbald's father, John Simpson, a respected farmer, and her mother, Mary, had seven other children. In 1761 John Simpson died, leaving Mary Simpson to care for their large family. She did so while successfully managing the family farm, maintaining a home that became a center of Suffolk society, and instilling in her children a love of literature by reading to them as well as taking them to see plays in nearby Bury.
As a young person, Inchbald struggled with a speech impediment. However, Annibel Jenkins noted in I'll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald that "no one seemed to mind," and Inchbald, intent from a young age on seeing the world, followed her brother George to London in 1772 to commence a career in acting. Despite being considered a great beauty, Inchbald had a difficult time finding work as an actress due to her speech impediment; not until after her marriage to actor Joseph Inchbald in June 1772 did Inchbald begin working seriously as an actress.
Career as an Actress
Inchbald's first dramatic appearance was on September 4, 1772, as the character Cordelia opposite her husband's King Lear in Shakespeare's King Lear. By the end of 1772, the couple—accompanied by Robert, one of Joseph Inchbald's sons from a previous relationship—had traveled to Scotland to join a theatrical company that performed in Glasgow and Edinburgh. There, Inchbald spent much of her time studying parts but little time in playing them; Jenkins commented that Inchbald "was very discouraged about her acting; after all, she had very little experience, but she was then—and always—very impatient." Inchbald continued to struggle with her speech impediment, but made enough progress to appear in several featured roles, such as the eponymous Jane Shore and Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello, during the winter season.
The Inchbalds remained with the Scottish theatrical company until the close of the spring season in 1776. They then left Scotland to travel to France, where they hoped to settle for some time. However, the couple quickly ran out of money and was forced to return to London, arriving there in October of 1776. This stay was also brief, and the Inchbalds again left for the countryside where they could more readily find work. Over the next several months, the Inchbalds passed through Cheshire, Liverpool, Manchester, and Canterbury before taking positions with a theatrical touring company serving York and the surrounding area. They remained there, taking major roles in several productions, until Joseph Inchbald's unexpected death from an apparent heart attack on June 4, 1779.
After the death of her husband, Inchbald continued to act—she made her London debut on October 3, 1780, as Bellario in Philaster—but increasingly turned her attention to writing. Her first works were short farces titled "A Peep into a Planet," "The Ancient Law," and "Polygamy." The pieces were performed and no manuscript remains, although the Dictionary of Literary Biography speculated that the works "were probably in the same broad farcical style as her surviving farces." During the summer of 1781, Inchbald traveled to the country and stayed on a farm with her mother and sister. There she wrote her first comedy.
In 1784 Inchbald had her first work accepted by a theatrical company for production. This play, A Mogul Tale, was staged in the summer of that year; Inchbald appeared in the play herself in the role of Selina. The run was successful, and Inchbald received a fair amount of money from the performances. In 1785 another of Inchbald's plays, I'll Tell You What!, was staged by the same theatrical company, again with significant success. The money Inchbald earned from her plays made it unnecessary for her to marry again for support; writing in Ten Fascinating Women, Elizabeth Jenkins commented that Inchbald "was now impatient of any idea of marriage to which she could not attach some romantic luster of her own peculiar kind." Indeed, Inchbald never remarried.
Also in 1785, another company put on Inchbald's Appearance is Against Them. Both the King and Prince saw this play, which became Inchbald's first to appear in print. This work, along with The Widow's Vow, are among the few of Inchbald's early works to survive to this day. During the 1780s Inchbald also turned her hand to translation and adaptation. Among these works were a series of plays in a large set called The British Volume, and several pieces by the German dramatist Kotzebue. Inchbald's adaptation of one of Kotzebue's plays makes an appearance in Jane Austen's classic novel Mansfield Park. Beginning in 1788, Inchbald's plays were presented during the summer theater season at Haymarket.
Succeeded in Drama and Literature
In 1789 Inchbald retired from acting altogether, earning her living exclusively through her writing. She returned to the draft of a novel she had written several years previously. She revised this draft and it was published in February of 1791 as A Simple Story. The novel was immediately successful, with its first edition selling out in under a month. Contemporary critics found the story satisfying, and readers continued to buy subsequent editions. A Simple Story became the most popular book written by a woman in more than a decade. Over the following two decades, Inchbald revised the novel several times for various editions; today, most scholars prefer to use the first edition of the novel for its provincialisms, colloquialisms, and grammatical oddities.
Despite the success of A Simple Story, the dramatic field remained a more lucrative one than that of the novel. Inchbald continued adapting dramatic works, primarily relying on what the Dictionary of Literary Biography called "her basic formula for comedy … scenes of comic high life interwoven with a tale of distress, and both plots presided over by one of those moralists so dear to eighteenth-century audiences." Inchbald moved away from these standard concepts with 1792's The Massacre, one of her more unusual works. Using events that took place during the then-contemporary French Revolution, Inchbald's play had a tragic ending, although it was not political commentary. She printed The Massacre in 1792 and then quickly withdrew it, not wanting to become embroiled in political matters. This year also marked her last with the summer theater at Haymarket.
During the 1790s and early 1800s, Inchbald wrote many of the comedies that defined her as dramatist and remained popular for years to come. Many of these plays were first performed in London's Covent Garden. Typically, these works relied heavily on sentimentalism, exemplifying Inchbald's "basic formula." In the midst of this period of high comedy, Inchbald wrote and published her second novel, Nature and Art. This short work was also successful, although less so than A Simple Story. Annibel Jenkins commented that Nature and Art "was admired, not loved" by contemporary audiences. Elizabeth Jenkins noted that "during the last hundred and fifty years, while A Simple Story is remembered, Nature and Art, whose brilliant passages are not only painful but short in relation to the whole, has almost disappeared into oblivion."
In 1797 Inchbald published one of her most successful plays, Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are, which showed Inchbald at the height of her style. Between her novels and dramatic works, Inchbald made a substantial sum of money. She invested this money wisely and managed to acquire a small income from her investments on which she could rely. This financial security allowed Inchbald to help friends and family, as well as to be active in London society.
Beginning in 1805, Inchbald turned her writings in a new direction. Having spent the majority of her life working professionally in the theater as both an actor and writer, Inchbald seemed to her publishers to be an excellent candidate to become a theater critic. They convinced Inchbald to write critical remarks for a series of plays they planned to publish, titled The British Theatre. Although Inchbald had no formal training or education as a critic, she took the position because she needed money. The first play in the series, Colman the Younger's The Mountaineers, appeared in February of 1806, with subsequent plays released weekly. By the time the collected edition was published in 1808, the plays totaled 125 in 25 volumes. Inchbald's remarks on the plays were considered thoughtful and professional, and were clearly informed by her years of experience working in the theater. The Dictionary of Literary Biography summarized Inchbald's commentary by saying: "She knew an adundance of anecdotes about the actors. She had a shrewd knowledge of which plays were vigorous and which [lacked vitality], which scenes and which roles were best…. Most enthusiasts of the theater, though they might disagree with her about a scene or a character, approved her remarks." The plays on which Inchbald wrote included both contemporary British drama as well as such classics as MacBeth.
Later Years and Legacy
About 1809, Inchbald at last moved permanently to St. George's Row near London's Regent Park. At the time, this area was somewhat removed from the main part of London, and Inchbald soon withdrew from dramatic society, spending much of her time attending church, writing letters, and seeing neighbors. Ten years later, Inchbald moved even farther from the city to Kensington. During the 1810s, her health slowly failed; she consulted physicians for an unidentified condition several times. Finally, Inchbald died in Kensington on August 1, 1821.
Inchbald's works have remained in print and continue to be performed; although she wrote her memoirs, they went unpublished and Inchbald burned them prior to her death. Over the years, interpretations of Inchbald's life and works have varied. Victorians made much of her later piety and generous support of her family and friends. Later feminist critics discussed Inchbald in the context of other eighteenth-century women writers, and typically focused on her novels rather than plays. Today, scholars increasingly have turned to the study of Inchbald's drama, looking for a contemporary understanding of the lives of English men and women in the late eighteenth century.
Jenkins, Annibel, I'll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald, University of Kentucky Press, 2003.
Jenkins, Elizabeth, Ten Fascinating Women, MacDonald and Co., 1968.
Manvell, Roger, Elizabeth Inchbald: A Biographical Study, University Press of America, 1987.
"Elizabeth Inchbald," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 89: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Dramatists, Third Series, Gale Group, 1989, reproduced in Gale Literary Databases, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com (December 30, 2006).