(Originally aired 2022/04/16 - listen here)
It is, perhaps, an odd coincidence that there are two prominent actors of the English-speaking stage named Charlotte whose lives are of interest to the topic of queer history. You’ve probably heard me go on at length about 19th century American actor Charlotte Cushman and the complex community of feminists, performers, and sculptors that she was enmeshed in and supported. But today I want to talk about another Charlotte on the stage, 18th century English actor Charlotte Charke.
I think we can say with confidence that Charlotte Charke was queer, but it’s less possible to sort out with any certainty how to describe her gender and sexuality. Charlotte Charke’s life and career raises issues of the multiple functions that cross-dressing had in the 18th century, and the ways it was interpreted by its various audiences. We see the ways that gender presentation interact with economic factors, and the fluidity with which some people moved within the gender spectrum. And we see how difficult it is to try to apply modern sexuality categories in a context where people engaged with gender identity in different ways than we’re used to. Finally, there is the challenge of interpreting the evidence—even first person evidence—in a context where candid truth was a ways down the list of functions that the narrative was meant to fulfil.
Charke left us an autobiography that—while written for public consumption and therefore of questionable reliability—offers some evidence for what we might consider today a transmasculine identity. But Charke also begins by stating that her narrative is “the product of a female pen.” On that basis, I’m going to feel free to identify Charke with female pronouns in this podcast by default, while using male pronouns in contexts when Charke is choosing a masculine presentation. In so doing, I’m not committing to any particular interpretation, but rather emphasizing the complexities of identification. My alternation in reference is not meant to confuse or to misrepresent, but to acknowledge not only the ambiguity of the evidence, but the potential fluidity of Charke’s identity.
Charlotte Charke was born in 1713, the twelfth and last child of actor-playwright Colley Cibber and his wife, actress and musician Katherine Shore. As was not unusual in that era, most of her siblings had died in infancy, and Charlotte came along fairly late at a time when her mother had hoped to be done with children. From a combination of factors, she was left much to her own devices as a child, and in addition to a rather classical education at a girls school, she was attracted to male-coded hobbies and activities such as shooting, horse racing, science, gardening, and medicine.
But the family as a whole revolved around the theater, and it was perhaps inevitable that she would enter the family business. Her father, Colley Cibber, was the manager of the Drury Lane theater, a prolific writer and adapter of plays, and best known for his comic parts. In the later part of his life, he was named poet laureate of the United Kingdom, somewhat to the dismay and ridicule of contemporary poets such as Alexander Pope and Ambrose Philips who felt it was a political appointment.
The social politics of the theater community of the time were prominent influences in Charlotte’s life. Charlotte’s marriage at age 16 to musician Richard Charke was short-lived due to Charlotte’s conclusion that Richard was far more interested in being Cibber’s son-in-law than her husband. But marriage gave Charlotte entrance to an acting career—something less acceptable for an unmarried woman. Her stage career was briefly interrupted by pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Catherine within the first year of her marriage. When she returned to the stage, Charlotte began specializing largely though not exclusively in breeches roles---male parts played by a woman.
While the English theater of the 16th and early 17th centuries was characterized by the female roles being played by young men, later in the 17th century it became acceptable for women to appear on stage to play female roles and men cross-dressing to play female roles fell out of favor except as broad comedy. But the pendulum kept swinging and by the early 18th century it was common for women to cross-dress to play male roles. While part of the appeal was the erotic attraction for male audiences of seeing a female performer’s limbs revealed in male clothing, the dynamics were more complicated than that. As hinted at in Charke’s writings and in the general reception of “breeches roles”, female audiences were also open to enjoying the erotic delights of appreciating the female form within the socially licensed context of a male role. In the mid-18th century, a writer noted male and female audience members might debate over whether a particular performer was “the finest woman or the prettiest fellow.” As we’ll see, this dynamic played out for Charke off-stage as well. And despite Charke’s position that the women who were attracted to her male presentation were ignorant of her assigned sex, this may be simply a convenient trope to deflect the accusation of being an “improper object” of desire. Charke was not the only female actor of the time who cross-dressed offstage, on occasion, as well as on. In Charke’s own writing, we may be seeing some of the careful negotiation of how such behavior was understood and made—if not entirely acceptable—then at least not directly challenging to heterosexual norms.
In the next half-dozen years after her debut, Charlotte’s professional life was tumultuous. Her father sold his interest in the Drury Lane Theatre and without that connection, Charlotte’s somewhat boisterous personal life and tendency to quarrel with theatre managers made it difficult for her to find steady work. Her estranged husband fled debts by leaving the country and died shortly after. So at age 24, Charlotte Charke was a widow, a single mother, and a largely unemployed actor. It was also around this time that Charke began to adopt a male presentation regularly off the stage as well as on-stage.
In her autobiography (which, it should be noted, was written and published largely to raise money and so may be suspected of playing to public tastes and opinions to some extent) Charke suggests that her transmasculine interests began at an early age. She was given an education “such indeed as might have been sufficient for a Son instead of a Daughter” and suggested that she disdained needlework. She recounts dressing up to mimic her father at age four, putting on his breeches, waistcoat, wig, and hat—which was taken as an amusing entertainment by her family. As noted before, she recounts her love for masculine-coded pursuits such as horses, hunting, and medicine.
These broad interests and her willingness to take up occupations normally restricted to men served her in good stead when acting roles dried up when she left the Drury Lane Theatre. After a brief stint running a traveling puppet theater, sold to pay off medical bills, she was reduced to begging for donations from friends and was imprisoned for debt, her bail being paid—according to her autobiography—by a consortium of coffee-house keepers and prostitutes from the Covent Garden neighborhood that was theatre central in London.
The circumstances of her arrest, as recounted in her autobiography, provide a vivid example of her gender-crossing. She explains that her accuser identified her “by Dint of a very handsome lac'd Hat I had on, being then, for some substantial Reasons, EN CAVALIER; which was so well described, the Bailiff had no great Trouble in finding me.” (“En cavalier”—that is, as a cavalier—was an expression for cross-dressing women at the time.) Charke immediately set to the complicated business of finding someone willing to stand as bail, but was stymied by the need to also cover the original debt. “I had not been there Half an Hour, before I was surrounded with all the Ladies who kept Coffee-Houses in and about the Garden, each offering Money for my Ransom: But nothing then could be done, without the Debt and Costs; which, though there was, I believe, about a dozen or fourteen Ladies present, they were not able to raise. As far as their Finances extended, they made an Offer of 'em; and would have given Notes jointly or separately, for the Relief of poor Sir Charles, as they were pleased to stile me.”
There were many more economic opportunities for a man than a woman, and Charke’s interest in cross-dressing became something of a profession at several periods in her life, taking up the identity of Charles Brown, which gave him access to a succession of jobs he could not have had as a woman: pastry cook, sausage-maker, farmer, grocer, even valet to the Earl of Anglesey.
Charke recounts close brushes with romantic entanglements as Mr. Brown, though (in the autobiography) presenting them as amusing and embarrassing misconstruals. Here is one episode.
“Notwithstanding my Distresses, the Want of Cloaths was not amongst the Number. I appeared as Mr. Brown, …in a very genteel Manner; and, not making the least Discovery of my Sex by my Behaviour, ever endeavouring to keep up to the well-bred Gentlemen, I became, as I may most properly term it, the unhappy Object of Love in a young Lady, whose Fortune was beyond all earthly Power to deprive her of, had it been possible for me to have been, what she designed me, nothing less than her Husband. She was an Orphan Heiress, and under Age; but so near it, that, at the Expiration of eight Months, her Guardian resigned his Trust, and I might have been at once possessed of the Lady, and forty thousand Pounds in the Bank of England: Besides Effects in the Indies, that were worth about twenty Thousand more.”
The matter went farther than Charke was willing to risk and, having been maneuvered into a private conversation with the lady:
“With much Difficulty, I mustered up Courage sufficient to open a Discourse, by which I began to make a Discovery of my Name and Family, which struck the poor Creature into Astonishment; but how much greater was her Surprize, when I positively assured her that I was actually the youngest Daughter of Mr. Cibber, and not the Person she conceived me! She was absolutely struck speechless for some little Time; but, when she regained the Power of Utterance, entreated me not to urge a Falshood of that Nature, which she looked upon only as an Evasion, occasioned, she supposed, through a Dislike of her Person: Adding, that her Maid had plainly told her I was no Stranger to her miserable Fate, as she was pleased to term it; and, indeed, as I really thought it.
I still insisted on the Truth of my Assertion; and desired her to consider, whether 'twas likely an indigent young Fellow must not have thought it an unbounded Happiness, to possess at once so agreeable a Lady and immense a Fortune, both which many a Nobleman in this Kingdom would have thought it worth while to take Pains to atchieve.”
Charke may well have been playing up the woman’s interest and confidence that Mr. Brown was an acceptable prospective suitor. It’s something of a trope in gender-crossing narratives of this era for the transmasculine figure to be depicted as quite attractive to women, while disclaiming anything more than a hypothetical desire on his side.
On another occasion, Mr. Brown approached a woman who had known Charlotte as a child (and was aware of his dual identity) for assistance in finding work. “The Woman herself knew who I was, but her Husband was an entire Stranger, to whom she introduced me as a young Gentleman of a decay'd Fortune; and, after apoligizing for Half an Hour, proposed to her Spouse to get me the Waiter's Place, which was just vacant, at one Mrs. Dorr's, who formerly kept the King's-Head, at Mary-la-Bonne.”
Brown gave such good service in this job, and was so personable, that Mrs. Dorr let it be known, through a maid-servant, that she would welcome a romantic advance from her new employee. Mr. Brown returned the polite disclaimer that he had no intention of re-marrying, to avoid the risk of giving his daughter a step-mother. (Much of Charke’s financial difficulties were compounded by the need to support a child.) But yet further complications arose.
“In the Interim Somebody happened to come, who hinted that I was a Woman; upon which, Madam, to my great Surprize, attacked me with insolently presuming to say she was in Love with me, which I assured her I never had the least Conception of. No, truly; I believe, said she, I should hardly be 'namour'd WITH ONE OF MY OWN Sect: Upon which I burst into a Laugh, and took the Liberty to ask her, if she understood what she said? This threw the offended Fair into an absolute Rage, and our Controversy lasted for some Time; but, in the End, I brought in Vindication of my own Innocence, the Maid to Disgrace, who had uncalled for trumped up so ridiculous a Story.
Mrs. Dorr still remained incredulous, in regard to my being a Female; and though she afterwards paid me a Visit, with my worthy Friend (at my House in Drury-Lane) who brought my unsuccessful Letter back from my Father, she was not to be convinced, I happening that Day to be in the Male-Habit, on Account of playing a Part for a poor Man, and obliged to find my own Cloaths.
She told me, she wished she had known me better when I lived with her, she would, on no Terms, have parted with her Man Charles.”
Mr. Brown’s repeated insistence that he had no romantic interest in the women who were attracted to him must be considered in the context of publication. This was an autobiography being created to explain and redeem Charke’s career and reputation. Romantic adventures involving the sort of mistaken identity that also featured in comic drama on the stage would further this goal. Admissions of what could only be perceived as unnatural desire would not have benefitted Charke’s purpose.
During this period, Charke sometimes had stints with acting companies, either in London or on the road. She wrote and produced plays of her own, and worked as a puppeteer and prompter. Sometimes Charke worked as Charles Brown, sometimes as Charlotte Charke, and there is some evidence that even as Brown, Charke might be perceived as a cross-dressing woman rather than as a man. On other occasions, Charke admits to using the Mr. Brown alias to dodge creditors she had gathered as Charlotte Charke.
A common theme of gender-crossing narratives is the advantage to the transmasculine figure of having his gender identity confirmed by the presence of a female partner. For an extended period during Charles Brown’s itinerant career, he was accompanied by a woman identified in the autobiography only as Mrs. Brown. The chronology of the narrative is uncertain enough that it isn’t clear whether Charles Brown took his name from that of Mrs. Brown, or whether the woman referred to as Mrs. Brown took her name from Charles. And, if so, it isn’t clear that Mrs. Brown was using that name in contexts when accompanying Charlotte Charke—Charke had been acting under both names at various times when Mrs. Brown makes her first appearance by name. But it’s clear that the existence of Mr. and Mrs. Brown, presenting as a married couple, was not purely a fiction in support of Charles Brown’s existence.
The two were part of a touring company of actors and we have our first clear discussion of Mrs. Brown while they are in Gloucestershire. In introducing her, Charke notes, “I happened to be taken violently ill with a nervous Fever and Lowness of Spirits, that continued upon me for upwards of three Years, before I was able to get the better of it. ” She is assisted in various ways by, “my Friend, the goodnatured Gentlewoman … to whom I am most infinitely and sincerely obliged for her tender Care in nursing me in three Years Illness, without repining at her Fatigue, which was uninterrupted, and naturally fixes on me a lasting grateful Sense of the Favour.”
We hear of several adventures the two experience while traveling together as Mr. and Mrs. Brown: barely escaping being defrauded by some thieves who befriended them, Mr. Brown’s hapless venture into setting up as a pastry chef and farmer in Chepstow. Mrs. Brown rescued them from that debacle by means of a convenient legacy from an aunt in Oxfordshire. That stop-gap, too, soon ran out and Mr. Brown lamented, “the Winter growing fast upon us, we had no Prospect before us, but of dying by Inches with Cold and Hunger; and, what aggravated my own Distress, was having unfortunately drawn in my Friend to be a melancholly Partaker of my Sufferings. This Reflection naturally rouzed me into an honourable Spirit of Resolution, not to let her perish through my unhappy and mistaken Conduct, which I meant all for the best, though it unfortunately proved otherwise.”
The support was not all one-sided, and when Mr. Brown comes into a minor windfall, he records that he chose to “consign it all to the Use of one, to whom I should have thought, on this Occasion, if every Shilling had been a Guinea, I had made but a reasonable Acknowledgement, after having immers'd her in Difficulties which nothing but real Friendship and a tender Regard to my Health (which, through repeated Grievances, was much impaired) could have made her blindly inconsistent with her own Interest to give into, and so patiently endure.”
But only a couple pages later, Mr. Brown “was obliged to strip my Friend of the ownly decent Gown she had, and pledged it to pay [a debt]”
Mrs. Brown slips out of the narrative at that point and the story shifts to a discussion of Charke’s now-married daughter and the tribulations of another acting troupe they appear to be collectively involved in, with Charke once more going through the world as a woman.
It is probably not possible to be certain of how Charke viewed her endeavors as Mr. Brown. Now returned to the stage as Charlotte Charke, she recounts the following:
“Before I conclude the Account of my Bath Expedition, I cannot avoid taking Notice of a malicious Aspersion, thrown and fixed on me as a Reason for leaving it; which was, That I designed to forsake my Sex again, and that I positively was seen in the Street in Breeches. This I solemnly avow to be an impertinent Falshood, which was brought to London and spread itself, much to my Disadvantage, in my own Family; where I was informed it was delivered to them as a Reality, by an Actress that came to Town, soon after I quitted Bath. I guess at the Person, but, as I know her to be half mad, must neither wonder or be angry at her Folly; yet, as she has sometimes Reason sufficient to distinguish between Truth and Falshood, am surprized she should meanly have recourse to the latter, to make me appear ridiculous, who never gave her the least Provocation to do me so apparent an Injury.”
No, Charke says, the reason she left Bath at that point was not because she had been seen cross-dressing off the stage, but because she was disgusted with the low quality of the actors she was expected to work beside. If the woman referred to as “my friend” is the same as Mrs. Brown (which appears to be the case) then they were still together at that point. As Charke explains that when the acting company at Bath dissolved “My Friend and I went with another Manager” and continued touring, though the friend reproaches Charke for abandoning what had apparently been a good gig in Bath.
At this point in her life, Charke returned to London and decided to open an “oratorical academy” to train actors, and to focus on writing, including the autobiography that provides many of the more sensational details of her life. And although this final portion of her autobiography has several references to “my friends” there is no mention of “my friend” that can clearly be connected with her references to Mrs. Brown using that term.
I’ve spent so much time quoting the passages involving Mrs. Brown because they are the most strongly suggestive that Charlotte Charke (or Charles Brown, or both) had a long-term mutually supportive and emotionally committed relationship with a woman, and that they presented themselves, at least on some occasions, as a married couple, and that Mrs. Brown clearly was familiar with the entirety of Charke’s life and identities. Was this relationship specifically associated with Charles Brown’s masculine identity? Or were the two facets of Charke’s life independent of each other? Some historians have offered a number of events in support of interpreting Charke as heterosexual and a situational cross-dresser, including her marriage to a man, and a lack of evidence that she shared a bed with Mrs. Brown. But there is a clear double standard here. If a man and woman engaged in the relationship depicted in Charke’s autobiography, few would raise doubts that it was a romantic and sexual one.
Charlotte Charke returned to London and gave up the life of a traveling actor in 1754 when she was 41 years of age. But poverty and a lifetime of medical problems had taken their toll and she died of an illness only 6 years later. With all the questions of accuracy that her autobiography raises, we can be sure that without it we would know far less of the details of her life. And her life was packed full of the sort of queer details that are so often silently erased from history. We’re lucky to know her.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online