Today’s Illustrated Woman in History was written by Catherine Haustein.
In her fifty-four years of life, Dora (Bland) Jordan experienced poverty, a sexual assault resulting in a child, abandonment, and an attempt to wipe her name from history. She overcame them all.
The comic actress and ultimate working mother known to fans as Mrs. Jordan appeared on British stages between 1777 and 1815, drawing large audiences and acting up to three different parts a night as she supported her large family. She had a lifetime settlement from Prince William and according to a granddaughter they married but it was not recognized by the crown. The two had ten children—five boys and five girls—and enjoyed twenty years together.
Dora played Shakespearian roles as well as “breeches” comedies in which she took the part of a man, a young boy, or a woman who posed as a man. Her singing was compared to Cupid’s bow and her voice sounded as if she’d just eaten a ripe peach. Other women coiffed their hair as high as Marie Antoinette or in tight corkscrews. Dora wore her lush brown curls loosely natural and appeared to her audiences to be completely joyful, full of life, and unaffected.
This talented woman wrote songs and plays, and captivated audiences with her spirited performances and rich laugh. Additionally, she nursed her brood of children through measles, scarlet fever and whooping cough, bought and read them books, passed on her musical talent, and helped the prince entertain.
Dora saw the arts as a way to bring joy and humanity to the public. Never forgetting the poverty she came from, Dora donated to women’s causes, particularly ones supporting unmarried pregnant women and education for girls.
Under pressure, William ended the lifetime proposal to seek the throne and a young wife. He took the children—and swept them into the aristocracy. William married a respectable princess, had no more children, and became King William IV. His biographers brushed Dora aside as a youthful indiscretion and there were multiple attempts to discredit her as an actress and a person. The King must have felt differently. When he died he left behind every letter she wrote to him. They showed her to be an affectionate and thoughtful consort. He commissioned a marble statue in her honor depicting her as a goddess-mother with a small mask of comedy at her feet.
Her decedents, historians, and biographers have kept the memory of this talented working mother alive. Thanks to Queen Elizabeth, Dora’s statue is on display in Buckingham palace.
Biography by Claire Tomalin– Mrs. Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King, Penguin Books, London, 1995
A version of this appeared on the Sheroes of History blog.
Catherine Haustein blogs at catherinehaustein.com. She is a chemistry professor and author from the U.S. She was once part of a Shakespeare Festival and has an extensive Pinterest board on Dora Jordan.