Dorothy Jordan’s personal life was as interesting as any play she starred in.
Act 1: Beginnings
Born Dorothea Bland on the 22nd November 1761 in Ireland she was the daughter of Grace Philipps and Francis Bland. At aged 18 she followed in her mother’s theatrical footsteps and appeared in ‘The Virgin Unmasked’ in Dublin (although there is some debate her first appearance was earlier than this in a production of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’). Yet life was to get difficult because of a particular man, one Richard Daly, who was the theatre manager of Smock Alley Theatre. By all accounts he was vile, centuries before the rise of the Me Too movement Daly made offers to help Dorothy whilst taking advantage of her. To keep her talent in his hands Richard Daly threatened to send her to the debtors prison if she did not repay a loan he gave her. Terrified and pregnant out of wedlock, Dorothy fled with her mother and siblings to England.
Act 2: A New Start
After this misadventure, Dorothy and her family went to Leeds to see Tate Wilkinson who was manager of a large Northern theatre circuit. He was an acquaintance of Dorothy’s mother Grace, and offered Dorothy employment. Supposedly he asked which style could she act, the options being tragedy, comedy or opera, and she responded “all”. She gave birth to a daughter Frances in 1782 and took on title ‘Mrs’ for respectability, and also changed her surname from Bland to Jordan. The reinvented Dorothy Jordan took to the Yorkshire stage appearing in a number of theatres on Wilkinson’s circuit. During this period Daly resurfaced, renewing his threat, but a friend of Dorothy’s paid the loan on her behalf.
Three years after her arrival she went to London to appear in the Drury Lane Theatre, with some doubters unsure of this move, including another famous actress of the time Mrs Siddons. Jordan proved them wrong staying at the theatre until 1809 and performing in a number of popular roles and coming into her own as a comedic actress. It was also during this period of her life when she fell in love with Richard Ford (the son of Court physician Dr Ford). They had three children together, although only 2 survived to adulthood: Dorothea Maria and Lucy Hester. Yet for reasons only known to himself, Ford would never fully commit to Dorothy and refused to marry her. According to historian Arthur Aspinall “It was his [Ford] refusal to do so which caused Mrs Jordan in 1790 to seek the protection of the King’s third son Prince William soon to be created Duke of Clarence“.
Act 3: True Love at Last?
The relationship between Dorothy and Clarence was a loving one and they “lived together as husband and wife in all but name” although Aspinall believes that Dorothy would have preferred to marry Ford had that been an option. Regardless though by all accounts Dorothy and Clarence had a very loving relationship for the next 20 years. She bore him 10 children who were all given the surname Fitzclarence. Yet things did get off to a slightly rocky start. It was not particularly unusual for royal men to take mistresses, however, Dorothy faced criticism when she gave her sister money to look after her children by Ford. The press denounced her as not fit to be a mother who had abandoned her children to take up a relationship with Clarence, and was neglecting her theatrical commitments. She managed to overcome the initial scandal and lived happily with Clarence at Bushy House, with their surviving letters to each other showing their affection for one another.
In one letter Dorothy writes “your dear assurances of love and constancy are everything to your Dora who lives but to convince you of her unalterable attachment“. Unfortunately the succession crisis and pressure from the royal family meant Clarence eventually decided to leave Dorothy in 1811, in order to find a wife from the upper class of society and produce a legitimate heir. Clarence did make a financial settlement for Dorothy and his 10 children by her, but there were restrictions including that she wouldn’t renew her career on the stage and if she did this or remarry she would lose custody of her four younger daughters. These are really harsh restrictions considering it was Clarence who was leaving her!
Final Curtain Call
Yet return to the stage she did in 1812. This was because members of her family were falling into debt and she was trying to relieve the problem by earning from the stage. Maybe she thought Clarence wouldn’t enforce his restrictions, but in this case she was tragically wrong. Her financial support was stopped and when a relation Frederick March implicated Dorothy in fraud against her knowledge putting her in trouble with creditors she fled to France. Her curtain closed in 1816 when she died in poverty in St Cloud. A tragic end to a vivacious life lived to the full.
What are your thoughts on Dorothy Jordan? Do you think she was treated fairly by the loves in her life? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Never miss a post and sign up to the Some Sources Say mailing list here.
Twickenham Museum: http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.php?aid=144&ctid=1&cid=14
Dictionary of National Biography: Dorothy Jordan
Mrs Jordan and her Family edited by A.Aspinall