Lesbian, transvestite, bisexual, sensationalist: 18th century actress and writer Charlotte Charke has been labelled as all these. She was a self confessed “odd product of Nature”. The Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly magazine of news and satire wrote “She was cut out for a man, only the devil ran away with the pattern”.
Charlotte’s exact date of birth is uncertain (possibly January 13, 1712), her parents were actor-manager and playwright Colley Cibber and the actress and singer Katherine Shore. The youngest of 12 children most of whom died in infancy, Charlotte was resented as “an unwelcome guest in the family”.
In 1730, aged 17 she made her first appearance on stage and was employed at her father’s Drury Lane theatre. In the same year she married violinist and composer Richard Charke and gave birth to her only child, Catherine. But the marriage was short lived; the couple quarrelled incessantly, Richard gambled and had affairs and, to avoid debtor’s prison, fled to Jamaica.
Charlotte made her first stage appearance in a male “breeches” part in July 1731 and the following year played Roderigo in Othello. It was popular at the time for actresses to play ”travesty” roles, dressed as men in a pantomime “principal boy” style. But Charlotte’s appearances, which included in 1736 the highwayman Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, were more obviously masculine. It was around this time Charlotte began to wear male clothing in everyday life and, being tall and lithe, had the figure both on and off stage.
During the 1730s Charlotte appeared in numerous plays and had her own company. In 1738 she got a licence to run a puppet show which toured the country and became very popular as it caricatured politicians and actors of the day. Her success was short lived as she became ill, was forced to sell the puppet show and imprisoned for debt.
In 1741 she joined a touring theatre company as “Mr Charles Brown”. Charlotte then had several years in a variety of “male” jobs including being a valet, a sausage maker, opened her own tavern in Drury Lane, farmer, hog seller, waiter, conjuror’s assistant, and still acted occasionally. Despite now living openly as “Charles Brown” she got married again in 1746 to a John Sacheverell who died soon after.
In her autobiography Charlotte says two women fell in love with her and one, upon discovering her real sex, attacked her. For about a decade she lived with another woman as “Mr and Mrs Brown” as well as marrying for a third time in 1750 to a John Harman, a man she hated apparently and who soon disappeared! In her 2006 biography Charlotte Kathryn Shevelow says Charlotte’s relationship with Mrs Brown was the “most enduring partnership of her life”. She suspects they were lovers but concedes “the nature of their attachment remains unspecified”. Shevelow further writes Charlotte was “an individual who rejected a fixed definition of her sexuality and gender, testing the permeability of the cultural line that supposedly separates women from men”.
In 1747 Charlotte went on the road in the West Country with a group of strolling players accompanied by her 17 year old daughter Catherine (known as “Kitty”) and “Mrs Brown” who was also an actress. Sometime in 1752 she is believed to have been living in Chepstow and from June to November of the same year was running a pastry cook shop in Pill, a harbour village near Bristol. Judging from her biography, Charlotte was not impressed with the place.
“The place itself is not unpleasant, if it were inhabited with any other Kind of People than the Savages who infest it, and are only, in outward Form, distinguishable from Beasts of Prey. To be short, the Villanies of these wretches are of so heinous and unlimited a Nature, they render the Place so unlike any other Part of the habitable World, that I can only compare it only to the Anti Chamber of that Abode we are admonish’d to avoid in the next Life, by leading a good one here. A Boy there of eight or ten Years of Age is so well versed in the most beastly Discourse and the more dreadful Sin of Blasphemy and Swearing, as any drunken Reprobate of thirty.”
She continues at length, describing the inhabitants of Pill as a “Set of Cannibals”. Charlotte set up shop in this “Terrible Abode of Infamy and Guilt” and put up a board over the door with the inscription “BROWN. PASTRY COOK, FROM LONDON”. Despite admitting she knew nothing of the “Composition of a Tart” she felt that as a Londoner her pastry must be good!
The shop did a good trade in the summer months but had little business in the winter so the trio of women took lodgings in Bristol for two shillings a week. Charlotte writes “Whatever World we next were thrown upon, could not be worse than Pill”. In Bristol Charlotte wrote a short story which was printed in the Bristol Weekly Intelligencer newspaper run by printer and publisher Edward Ward in Corn Street, who then engaged her as a proof reader and writer “at a Small Pittance per Week”. Charlotte writes:
“Having secured something to piddle on, for I can call it no better, I ran back to Pill, to bless my Friend with the glad Tidings …. it was a long and dirty Walk from thence to Bristol, and infinitely dangerous over Leigh Down, which is full three Miles.”
In 1753 Charlotte was engaged as prompt and stage manager at The Old Orchard Street Theatre, Bath. Charlotte and “Mrs Brown” stayed in Bath 1753-1754, however she was soon dissatisfied with the management of the theatre and moved back to London.
In 1755 Charlotte published her biography A Narrative of the Life of Mrs Charlotte Charke (possibly the first by a woman) which sold well, running to several editions. Chatty, witty and intimate, it is a mixture of honesty, humour and self flattery. It was published by three printers in London and a serial edition appeared in Bristol printed by Charlotte’s old employer Edward Ward. At some point, references to “Mrs Brown” in her biography cease without any explanation.
Charlotte’s last appearance on stage in a “breeches part” was in 1755 playing Prince Volscius in The Rehearsal by George Villiers. In 1756 she wrote a novel The History of Henry Dumont and Miss Charlotte Evelyn in which a gay man professes his love for another man, dresses himself as a woman and proceeds to kiss his beloved and is then beaten up by his beloved and his friends.
Charlotte’s father, Colley Cibber, died in 1757 leaving her a token five pounds. The following year her daughter Kitty emigrated to America. Charlotte was now alone, her father dead, daughter abroad, and estranged from her remaining family.
She died in poverty in squalid lodgings in the Haymarket aged 47, remembered only as the British Chronicle reported:
“The celebrated Mrs Charlotte Charke, daughter of the late Colley Cibber Esq, Poet Laureate, a Gentlewoman remarkable for her Adventures and Misfortunes.”
Jonathan Rowe 2021
Kathryn Shevelow ‘Charlotte’: http://kathrynshevelow.com/charlotte/charlotte.html
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