Charlotte Charke: Actress, Novelist, and Transvestite

Charlotte Charke, Public Domain
Charlotte Charke, Public Domain

Charlotte Charke seemed to have a hard time defining her career and her sex. Born as a female to actor/playwright and poet laureate Colley Cibber and his wife, musician/actress Katherine Shore, Charlotte as they named her, at one point, began to call herself Charles Brown. As a young child, she also began to imitate the males around her and once reputedly “defended the house from an attack of thieves by firing pistols and blunderbusses out of the windows.” Moreover, from an early age she was said to enjoy male activities, such as sports, shooting, and horse racing, rather than female pursuits.

Her tendency towards everything male resulted in one writer noting that her “favourite resort was the stable, and although she could not use a needle she could handle a curry-comb most dexterously.” While she might have been handy with a curry comb, she was not successful in holding down any male occupation. Her failures were epic and numerous: She attempted to be a sausage maker, pastry chef, tavern owner, valet, and farmer.

Scene From the Provok'd Wife, Public Domain
Scene From the Provok’d Wife, Public Domain

Charke’s father served as a manager at the Drury Lane Theatre, and it was there she met her husband: At the age of sixteen she married composer and violinist Richard Charke on February 4, 1730. It was also after her marriage that Charke found success on the stage. She made her stage debut on April 8, 1730. Her role as Mademoiselle in “The Provok’d Wife” was minor, and her career on stage did not last long as she found herself pregnant and gave birth to a daughter in December of 1730.

Charke was unhappy in her marriage and fought incessantly with her husband. Therefore, six months after her daughter’s birth, in June of 1731, Charke was back on stage. A month after that she made her first stage appearance in breeches and developed a fascination with transvestite roles. She was said to be quite talented in such roles and, in fact, most of her roles thereafter required she wear breeches. Moreover, from that point forward she also began to wear breeches not only on stage but also off stage.

Dressed in Pink Breeches, Charlotte Charke, Plays Damon,  a Role in Her Father's Pastoral Farce "Damon and Phillida", Courtesy of Wikipedia
Dressed in Pink Breeches, Charke, Plays Damon, a Role in Her Father’s Pastoral Farce “Damon and Phillida”, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Her affinity for male dress, resulted in her family trying to force her to amend her unorthodox ways. Unfortunately, their attempts to get her to conform were unsuccessful. She loved breeches and refused to stop wearing them. She later wrote that male clothing had appealed to her from a young age, and she mentioned that at the age of four her “natural propensity [was] to a hat and wig.” This propensity resulted in her frequently pilfering her brothers and father’s stockings, waistcoats, and bushy tie-wigs. Then, dressed in disguise, she would slip unseen outdoors and travel up and down a nearby ditch pretending to be a boy and “bowing to all who came by.”

Charlotte Charke in Men's Clothing Portraying Scrub in George Farquhar's, "The Beaux' Stratagem", Courtesy of Wikipedia
Charke in Men’s Clothing Portraying Scrub in George Farquhar’s, “The Beaux’ Stratagem”, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Charke soon found that her unhappiness was not just with her husband. She became unhappy with the theatre manager and they quarreled to the point that she left both the stage and her husband. She then undertook a variety of jobs (many of those mentioned above). Eventually, she joined “with some strolling players; a young lady fell in love with her and proposed marriage,” but instead Charke chose to marry John Sacheverell in 1746. Her time as Charlotte Sacheverell was short-lived because her husband died soon after their marriage.

In the early 1750s, Charke needed to earn a living and acquired a job writing for the Bristol Weekly Intelligencer. But by 1754 she was in Bath working as a prompter. When that job didn’t work out, she realized writing was her only option. In 1754 her introduction into the publishing field began with a meeting between her and a bookseller and one of his writers. It was an “initiation in to the mysteries of biblopolism and the state of authorcraft.”

The men were surprised upon meeting her and one of them wrote:

“[Charke was] sitting under the mantle-piece, by a fire … On one hob sat a monkey, … at our author’s feet, on the flounce of her dingy petticoat, reclined a dog … A magpie perched on the top round of her chair … and on her lap was placed a mutilated pair of bellows; the pipe was gone … Her ink-stand was a broken tea-cup, the pen worn to a stump … The work was read, remarks made, and alterations agreed to.”

Colley Cibber, Esq. at Age 67, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Colley Cibber, Esq. at Age 67, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The result of the meeting was her novel published in 1755 titled The History of Mr. Henry Dumont, Esq; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn. A year later, in 1756, Charke wrote an autobiography about her life titled, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, Youngest Daughter of Colley Cibber. It initially appeared in installments and because it sold extremely well, it was converted into a book. She wrote it hoping to reconcile with her father as they had become estranged. However, that did not work. When her father died on December 12, 1757, despite being wealthy, he left Charke a mere £5. Because they did not reconcile, in 1758, Charke wrote, The Lover’s Treat, or, Unnatural Hatred, a novel about families at war with themselves.

Writing must have got Charke thinking about the stage because she attempted to return to it in 1759. Her role was that of Marplot in Susan Centlivre’s The Busybody, and it was a role that required Charke to wear breeches. Unfortunately, in April of 1760, Charke caught a “winter disease,” never recovered, and died at her home in London on April 6, 1760.

Remembrance of Charke’s life boiled down to five-lines published in a local newspaper that read:  “A few days since died, at her lodgings in the Hay-market, the celebrated Mrs. Charlotte Charke, Daughter of the late Colley Cibber, Esq., poet-laureate, a gentlewoman remarkable for her adventures and misfortunes.”

References:

  • “A Chequered Life,” in Dundee Evening Telegraph, 14 May 1878
  • Charke, Charlotte, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, Youngest Daughter of Colley Cibber, 1826
  • The Pocket Magazine of Classics and Polite Literature, Vol. 2, 1818

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