Shevelow (English/Univ. of Calif., San Diego) reconstructs the life of a colorful, cross-dressing thespian.
Charlotte Cibber Charke (1713–60) was one of the most talked-about actresses in 18th-century London. She took to the stage at Drury Lane, managed several theater companies (one of the first women to do so), developed a puppet show devoted to Shakespeare, and criss-crossed the country as a strolling player. Nor was her entrepreneurship limited to theater: Charlotte briefly ran an “oil and grocery shop” that stocked “Oils, Pickles, Soap, Salt, Hams, and several other Family Necessaries.” A short marriage to Richard Charke produced one daughter, Kitty. After a few tempestuous conjugal years, unable to pay the court fees for a formal divorce, Charlotte and Richard simply moved into separate lodgings. The more enduring relationship—and perhaps the greatest role of Charke’s life—was with a woman Charlotte identified as Mrs. Brown. Charlotte played the role of Mr. Brown, and the world (except for a few theater friends) took the couple to be a married man and woman. The great strength here is Shevelow’s refusal to flatten out and pigeonhole the dazzling Charlotte. In her hands, Charke is not just a famous actress, nor a strong woman in an age of patriarchy, nor simply an excuse to talk about the history of sexual identity. She is all of these—and an important contributor to the history of puppetry to boot. Shevelow admirably situates Charlotte’s singular life in larger currents and contexts. When discussing Mr. and Mrs. Brown, for instance, the author gives us a concise history of “female husbands” in 18th-century British courts. She pithily explains that Charlotte’s sexuality is hard to categorize, because “our modern notions of ‘lesbian’ and ‘identity’ . . . did not exist as such in Charlotte’s world.” Despite all this nuance, Shevelow doesn’t sidestep the issue; she believes the Browns were probably lovers and that their relationship was akin to the relationships of lesbian couples today.
A larger-than-life story, told with panache.