Elizabeth Inchbald

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Elizabeth Inchbald
Portrait, c. 1796
Portrait, c. 1796
Stanningfield, Suffolk, England
Kensington, England
OccupationNovelist, dramatist, critic, actress

Elizabeth Inchbald (née Simpson, 15 October 1753 – 1 August 1821) was an English novelist, actress and dramatist.[1] She wrote two novels that have remained prominent to this day. She successfully translated and adapted several plays from German and French.


Born on 15 October 1753 at Stanningfield, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Elizabeth was the eighth of the nine children of John Simpson (died 1761), a farmer, and his wife Mary, née Rushbrook. The family, like several others nearby, was Roman Catholic. Her brother was sent to school, but Elizabeth and her sisters were educated at home.[2] Elizabeth had a speech impediment.[3]

Determined to act at a young age, Elizabeth worked hard to manage her stammer, but her family discouraged an attempt in early 1770 to gain a position at the Norwich Theatre. That year her brother George became an actor. However, Elizabeth went to London to become an actress in April 1772 at the age of 18.[3] Some thought her stammer affected her performance and the audience's reaction. Young and alone, she apparently suffered sexual harassment.[3] Two months later, in June, she agreed to marry a fellow Catholic, the actor Joseph Inchbald (1735–1779), possibly also for protection. Joseph at the time was not a well-known actor, was twice Elizabeth's age and had two illegitimate sons. Elizabeth and Joseph did not have children together. The marriage was said to have met difficulties. Elizabeth and Joseph appeared on the stage together for the first time on 4 September 1772 in Shakespeare's King Lear. In October 1772, the couple toured Scotland with West Digges's theatre company, for almost four demanding years. In 1776, the couple made a move to France, where Joseph went to learn to paint and Elizabeth to study the French language. However, the couple became penniless in a month. They moved to Liverpool and Inchbald met actors Sarah Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble, both of whom became important as friends after joining Joseph Younger's company. The Inchbalds later moved to Canterbury and Yorkshire and in 1777 were hired by Tate Wilkinson's company.

After Joseph Inchbald's sudden death in June 1779, Elizabeth continued to act for several years, in Dublin, London and elsewhere. She quarrelled publicly with Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, when Wollstonecraft's marriage to William Godwin made it clear that she had not been married to Gilbert Imlay, the father of her elder daughter Fanny. This was deeply resented by Godwin.[4] Her acting career, only moderately successful, spanned 17 years. She appeared in many classical roles and in new plays such as Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem.

Written work[edit]

Elizabeth Inchbald.jpg

Inchbald's success as a playwright meant she did not need a husband's financial support and did not remarry. Between 1784 and 1805 she had London theatres perform 19 of her comedies, sentimental dramas and farces (many of them translated from the French). Her first play to be performed was A Mogul Tale, with her in the leading feminine role of Selina. In 1780, she joined the Covent Garden Company and played a breeches role in Philaster as Bellario. Other plays of hers produced included Appearance is Against Them (1785), Such Things Are (1787), and Everyone Has Fault (1793). Some of her other plays such as A Mogul Tale (1784) and I'll Tell You What (1785) were shown at the Haymarket Theatre. Eighteen of her plays were published. She wrote 21 or 23 more, but the exact number is disputed.

Inchbald's two novels have been frequently reprinted. She also did much editorial and critical work. Her literary start began with writing for The Artist and Edinburgh Review.[5] A four-volume autobiography was destroyed before her death on the advice of her confessor, but she left some of her diaries. The latter are held at the Folger Shakespeare Library and an edition was recently published.

Her play Lovers' Vows (1798) was featured as a focus of moral controversy by Jane Austen in her novel Mansfield Park.[6]

After her success, Inchbald felt she needed to give something back to London society and decided in 1805 to try being a theatre critic.

A political radical and friend of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft, her beliefs are clearer in her novels than in her plays, due to constrictions on the patent theatres of Georgian London.[7] "Inchbald's life was marked by tensions between, on the one hand, political radicalism, a passionate nature evidently attracted to a number of her admirers, and a love of independence, and on the other hand, a desire for social respectability and a strong sense of the emotional attraction of authority figures."[3] She died on 1 August 1821 in Kensington and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary Abbots.[8] Her gravestone calls her one "whose writings will be cherished while truth, simplicity, and feelings, command public admiration." In 1833, a two-volume Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald by James Boaden was published by Richard Bentley.

In recent decades Inchbald has aroused increasing critical interest, particularly among scholars investigating women's writing.[citation needed]

Reception history[edit]

The reception history of Elizabeth Inchbald is the story of an unknown actress who became a celebrated playwright and author. As an actress, the start of her career was overshadowed by her husband, but Inchbald was determined to prove herself. Some scholars recognized this, calling her "richly textured with strands of resistance, boldness, and libidinal thrills".[9] An important side of Inchbald's reception history is her workplace and professional reputation. Around the theatre she was known for upholding high moral standards. Inchbald described having to defend herself from the sexual advances brought on by stage manager James Dodd and theatre manager John Taylor.[10]

Inchbald's writing history began with plays that soon earned her a reputation for publishing in times of political scandal.[11][12]

One thing that distinguished Inchbald was an ability to translate plays from German and French into English works of art. These were popular, as she livened her characters.[10] Most of what she translated consisted of farce that received positive feedback from her reading audience.[10] Over the next 20 years, she translated a couple of successful pieces a year, one notable example being the play Lovers' Vows.[13] This translation of an August von Kotzebues original gained compliments from Jane Austen in her 1814 novel Mansfield Park. Earlier, Lovers' Vows had run for 42 nights when originally performed in 1798.[12] Not only her plays, but her novel A Simple Story was praised. A present-day American critic, Terry Castle, called it "the most elegant English fiction of the eighteenth century".[14][15]

However, her theatre reviews were received poorly by other critics.[16] For example, S. R. Littlewood suggested in the 1920s that Inchbald was ignorant of Shakespearian literature.[16][17]


  • Mogul Tale; or, The Descent of the Balloon, 1784
  • Appearance is against Them, 1785
  • I'll Tell you What, 1785
  • The Widow's Vow, 1786
  • The Midnight Hour, 1787
  • Such Things Are, 1787
  • All on a Summer's Day, 1787
  • Animal Magnetism, 1788?
  • The Child of Nature, 1788
  • The Married Man, 1789
  • Next Door Neighbours, 1791
  • Everyone has his Fault, 1793
  • To Marry, or not to Marry, 1793
  • The Wedding Day, 1794
  • Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are, 1797
  • Lovers' Vows, 1798
  • The Wise Man of the East, 1799
  • The Massacre, 1792, not performed
  • A Case of Conscience, published 1833
  • The Ancient Law, not performed
  • The Hue and Cry, unpublished
  • Young Men and Old Women (Lovers No Conjurers), adaptation of Le Méchant; unpublished


Critical/editorial work

  • The British Theatre. 25 vols., 1806–1809
  • Collection of Farces and Afterpieces. 7 vols., 1809
  • The Modern Theatre. 10 vols., 1811

Source materials[edit]


  1. ^ Stephens, Alexander, ed. (1799). "Mrs. Inchbald". Public Characters of 1799-100. Vol. 2. London: R. Phillips. pp. 341–352.
  2. ^ Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Elizabeth Inchbald" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.; "Chronology of Elizabeth Inchbald". In: Elizabeth Inchbald: A Simple Story, ed. J. M. S. Tompkins (Oxford: OUP, 1988 [1967]), pp. xxxi ff. ISBN 0-19-281849-X.
  3. ^ a b c d Spencer, Jane. ODNB.
  4. ^ John Barrell: "May I come to your house to philosophise? The letters of William Godwin Vol 1...", London Review of Books 8 September 2011.
  5. ^ Spender, Dale (1987). Mothers of the novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen ([Repr.] ed.). London: Pandora. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-8635-8251-6.
  6. ^ see also Antitheatricality#Literature and theatricality
  7. ^ Smallwood, Angela. Women Playwrights."
  8. ^ ODNB entry.
  9. ^ Codr, Dwight (2008). ""Her failing voice endeavoured, in vain, to articulate": Sense and Disability in the Novels of Elizabeth Inchbald". Philological Quarterly. 87 (3): 359. ISSN 0031-7977. OCLC 506196606.
  10. ^ a b c Bruwick, Frederick (25 June 2013). "Elizabeth Inchbald's Reputation: A Publishing and Reception History". European Romantic Review. 24 (4): 467. doi:10.1080/10509585.2013.807630. ISSN 1050-9585. S2CID 144729463.
  11. ^ Brown, Deborah (3 April 2012). "Revolutionary Imaginings in the 1790s: Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Elizabeth Inchbald". Women's Writing. 19 (3): 381. doi:10.1080/09699082.2012.666422. ISSN 0969-9082. S2CID 162396474.
  12. ^ a b Frank, Marci e (1 January 2015). "Melodrama and the Politics of Literary Form in Elizabeth Inchbald Works". Eighteenth-Century Fiction. 27 (3–4): 708. doi:10.3138/ecf.27.3.707. ISSN 0840-6286. S2CID 141937465.
  13. ^ Zall, Paul (22 June 2014). "Elizabeth Inchbald: Sex & Sensibility". Wordsworth Circle: 262.
  14. ^ O'Connell, Michelle (1 December 2012). "Miss Milner's Return from the Crypt: Mourning in Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story". Journal for the Eighteenth-Century Studies. 35 (4): 567. doi:10.1111/j.1754-0208.2011.00455.x.
  15. ^ Castle, Terry (1986). Masquerade and civilization: the carnivalesque in eighteenth-century English culture and fiction. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. pp. 290. ISBN 9780804714686. OCLC 13158111.
  16. ^ a b Lott, Anna (15 July 1994). "Sexyal Politics in Elizabeth Inchbald". Studies in English Literature. 34 (2): 635–648. doi:10.2307/450886. ISSN 0039-3657. JSTOR 450886.
  17. ^ Littlewood, Samuel Robinson (1921). Elizabeth Inchbald and her circle; the life story of a charming woman (1753–1821). London, D. O'Connor. p. 111.

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