A woman of rare talents and high spirits, Charlotte Charke (1713-1760) was an actress who delighted in scandalizing proper society—whenever she could. Her London was a stage writ large where bejeweled ladies rode in carriages past prostitutes and pickpockets, crowds munched on ginger-bread while watching hangings, and Mrs. Mapp the bonesetter realigned kneecaps for fascinated crowds. On street corners, fire-eaters, contortionists, tumblers, and dancing dogs competed for attention. Yet even among the spectacles of her stylish, savage metropolis, Charlotte stood out as a self-described "Nonpareil of the Age." Every day of her life was a grand performance.
The daughter of Colley Cibber, a brilliant comic actor famous for foppery, Charlotte was unconventional—even by the standards of her theatrical family. She raised eyebrows with her disdain for needlework and her taste for guns, but when she stepped on stage, none of it mattered. Charlotte seemed destined for greatness. But she would rebel. After making her reputation by playing men, she began dressing in breeches offstage as well. When her father and family disowned her, her life became a picaresque adventure extending from the pinnacles of posh London to its dangerous depths.
In this fascinating work of socio-cultural history, Kathryn Shevelow captures Charlotte—the artist, survivor, mother, wife, and, ultimately, husband as well—in all her guises, from her time among the dueling divas of the glamorous Drury Lane Theatre to her trials as a strolling player and puppeteer, to her comeback as the author of My Unaccountable Life, one of the first autobiographies ever written by a woman. Set against the culture and history of eighteenth-century London—where Hogarth painted, Fielding's satires mocked the prime minister, and The Beggar's Opera drew raves—Charlotte is a tale of pluck and perseverance, enlivened endlessly by the wit, courage, and creativity of its ever-surprising heroine.