The Female Rake: Peg Woffington’s scandalous life on the Georgian stage

Peg Woffington was a beauty, wit, courtesan, and one of the best-loved comic actresses of the 18th-century stage. Discovered by an Italian acrobat in 1730s Dublin, she rose from poverty to become a woman of wealth, and a theatrical favourite at London’s playhouses. She was the last, great cross-dressing actress in the Restoration tradition, and won acclaim for her portrayals of soldiers, rakes, and men of fashion. Her lovers were some of the most influential men of the age, including the actor-manager, David Garrick.

Legacy

Like a star shooting across the sky, Peg’s existence was glittering, but all too brief. Having suffered a collapse on-stage while playing Rosalind in As You Like It, she died a few years later, in 1760, while still in her mid-forties. History remembers her as an ’18th-century Nell Gwyn’, but this book – the first full-length biography for over half a century – reveals how she drew on the legacy of her predecessor, Anne Oldfield, in order to rebrand herself as a patriotic icon. Drawing on legal documents and other archival materials, it also highlights her determination to succeed in a man’s world.

My Approach

Since her death, Peg has been immortalised in plays, novels, visual art, cinema, music, even cookery. This book is unique in considering the myth as well as the life. It unites material from archives in England, Ireland and the United States, including documents thought to have been lost in the 1922 bombing of Dublin’s Public Record Office. I’m also the first of Peg’s biographers to draw on The London Stage and A Biographical Dictionary of Actors: two landmarks of American scholarship which reveal new lines of enquiry about her career. 

About Me

In 1999, I graduated from the University of Warwick with a PhD in English and Comparative Literary Studies. For a decade I worked as a writer and editor on a daily national newspaper (Metro), and now work in a communications role for a UK university.

I am passionate about history. In 2012, I published Lichfield Then & Now with The History Press, a book comprising historic photographs paired with contemporary colour versions of the same views.

Since 2014, I’ve been researching and writing a biography of the 18th-century Irish actress Peg Woffington. I’ve presented papers about her at Bath Spa University, the National University of Ireland, Galway, and St Hugh’s College, Oxford. In 2017 I was invited to address the Samuel Johnson Society of Lichfield to mark the tercentenary of David Garrick’s birth.

I’m an active member of various scholarly communities, including the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837, The Biographers’ Club and the Samuel Johnson Society of Lichfield. I’m also an Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

I’ve published occasional pieces on Peg for academic audiences, such as “Visual Art as Celebrity Memoir: The Paradox of Peg Woffington’s Sick-bed Portrait” which appeared in the journal Life Writing. In 2020, an essay I wrote about Peg’s travesty performances won the Society for Theatre Research’s New Scholar’s Prize and was published in Theatre Notebook in 2021.

In my spare time I volunteer for the Samuel Johnson Society of Lichfield both as a member of Council and the editorial board of its annual journal (Transactions). I also enjoy spending time with our charismatic cat, Rusty.

Read my bibliography >>

Annette Rubery: Lichfield Then & NowLichfield Then & Now

Hardcover: 96 pages
Publisher: The History Press Ltd (Nov 2012)
ISBN-10: 0752461133
ISBN-13: 978-0752461137

Lichfield Then & Now pairs 45 carefully chosen photographs from archives, postcards and private collections with 45 contemporary colour versions of the same views, providing a fascinating visual chronicle of the city’s progress. Compare the old layout of Lichfield’s streets – its shop-fronts, parks and pools – with the Lichfield of today and see for yourself the subtle march of time, even in this most historic of places. Lichfield Then & Now will delight all local historians and will awaken nostalgic memories for those who used to live or work there.

Annette Rubery signing Lichfield Then & Now

Book Review: David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity by Leslie Ritchie

Celebrity was still a relatively new concept in the eighteenth century. Often seen as an ignoble version of ‘fame’ or ‘glory’, celebrity has its roots in Grub Street, where it flourished in the rich soil of Georgian print culture. To be ‘celebrated’ was to be both...

Queen Mab and the Pantomime Wars

Pantomime has a long and complex history but was well underway as a form of popular entertainment in Britain by the middle of the eighteenth century. With its roots in commedia dell’arte, it had become a mainstay of Lincoln Inn’s Fields playhouse under the well-known...

Fashion, Celebrity, and the Courtesan Portrait

I have been living with this portrait of an unknown woman (purchased from the excellent Cabinet Antiques) for a while now. She hangs on the wall of our office at home, above the filing cabinet, gazing softly down at me as I type. Her manner is unmistakeably...

Introducing Rusty

It was in the summer of 2020 that we spotted an advert for Rusty on an animal shelter’s website. “I’m a big cuddly boy who came to the centre after being found as a stray injured and hungry,” it said. “As you can see, I haven't had a great life on the streets, I am...

In Memoriam: Boris Bratby (2004-2020)

We lost our cat, Boris, just before 8am on May 7th 2020 during the Coronavirus lockdown. We adopted him aged 4 in February 2009, having first chosen a dainty long-haired cat called Juliette, which my boyfriend Richard adored. As we prepared to sign the paperwork in...

Annette Rubery: Bibliography

B.A. Combined Honours in Fine Art and English Literature, University of Chester, 1994

M.A. The Word and the Visual Imagination, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 1995

Ph.D. English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick, 1999

BOOKS

Lichfield Then & Now (Stroud: The History Press, 2012). 45 carefully chosen photographs from archives, postcards and private collections with 45 contemporary colour versions of the same views, providing a fascinating visual chronicle of the city’s progress.

ARTICLES

“‘Thus Let Me Wipe Dishonour from my Name’: Peg Woffington as Lothario in The Fair Penitent”, Theatre Notebook, 75 (2021), 76-93. Winner of the The Society for Theatre Research’s New Scholars’ Prize 2020.

“Visual Art as Celebrity Memoir: The Paradox of Peg Woffington’s Sick-bed Portrait,” Life Writing, 16 (2019), 213-230. Also published in book form in Life Writing and Celebrity: Exploring Intersections, ed. Sandra Mayer and Julia Novak (Routledge, 2020).

“‘Lovely Peggy’: David Garrick’s Unsuitable Mistress,” The Johnson Society Transactions (2018), 39-51. Delivered as a lecture to the Society to mark the tercentenary of David Garrick’s birth.

REVIEWS

“David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity by Leslie Ritchie”, The Johnson Society Transactions (2021), 83-85. Read it here >>