When Dora Jordan (1761-1816) died in pitiful circumstances in France on 5 July 1816, it was two strangers – a Mr and Mrs Woodgate – who paid for a memorial stone. How could a woman who ended her days alone in obscure St Cloud have been the shining star of the London stage for two decades in the late eighteenth century?
A famous comic actress, Jordan's downfall was in many ways the product of the happiest parts of her life. For just over twenty years, from 1790 to 1811, Jordan had been in a relationship with William, Duke of Clarence, the second son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, and later King William IV. During this time she bore him ten illegitimate children, given the surname Fitzclarence, and they lived a happy domesticated life at Bushy House in Bushy Park, near Richmond-upon-Thames. Throughout this time Jordan continued to appear on the stage but her history and reputation (she already had four other illegitimate children) prohibited them from marrying. In 1811, William's growing debts led him to split from Jordan and seek a wealthy, legitimate bride. Jordan's stable family life came to an abrupt end; William took custody of their sons and she was forbidden to return to the stage under the threat of losing her daughters as well.
Jordan's career has been overshadowed by her personal life (the fate of many of her contemporaries) but we should not forget the extent of her popularity. Jordan was particularly popular in 'breeches' roles, which involved cross-dressing, such as Rosalind in As You Like Itand Viola in Twelfth Night. Jordan was successful not only in London at Drury Lane but also completed several successful provincial theatre tours. Her life often interrupted her art, however – for example, she assumed the surname 'Jordan' rather than her birth name 'Bland' due to her own illegitimacy, and took on the title 'Mrs' in order to give an air of dignity and respectability necessary given her multiple pregnancies out of wedlock.
Jordan appeared with William in several print satires, with many crude and explicit references to him 'Fording the Jordan' (James Gillray's 'The Devil to pay'and William Dent's 'Fording the Jordan'). Presented as sexually available and voluptuous, with her breasts on display, the figure of Jordan in these satires promotes not her career as an actress but her erotic appeal (which she herself utilised in her breeches roles).
Jordan's relationship with William was prudently erased from history during the Victorian period. William probably acquired John Hoppner's famous portrait Mrs Jordan as the Comic Muse, but it was not displayed for many years. Now, hanging proudly in Buckingham Palace, Mrs Jordan has become part of the firm at last.
Find out more:
Satires depicting Jordan in the British Museum, London.
The Royal Collection's portrait of Mrs. Jordan as the Comic Muse by John Hoppner.
Anna Senkiw (University of Oxford)
Images © British Museum
Gillray, The Devil to Pay;- the wife metamorphos'd, or Neptune reposing, after Fording the Jordan, 1791