The Inconstant: A Life of Peg Woffington
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.
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 Peg tried to re-brand herself as an exponent of sentimental drama. Drawing on legal documents and other materials, it also highlights her determination to succeed in a man’s world.
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 England, Ireland and America, 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 aspects of Peg’s career.
In 1999, I graduated from the University of Warwick with a PhD in English and Comparative Literary Studies. Afterwards I worked as a writer and editor on a daily national newspaper (Metro), where I reviewed restaurants, theatre, and visual art. After Metro I returned to Higher Education in a series of communications roles: managing social media, editing magazines and writing marketing copy.
I’m passionate about history and historical biography. In 2012, I published Lichfield Then & Now with The History Press. The book comprises historic photographs paired with contemporary colour versions of the same views, taken by me and captioned with nuggets of history which I unearthed from local archives.
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 and had a warm reception for my talk, “Lovely Peggy: David Garrick’s unsuitable mistress”.
I’ve published occasional pieces on Peg Woffington 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 and in a subsequent book chapter for Routledge. In 2020, an essay I wrote about Peg’s travesty performances won the Society for Theatre Research’s New Scholar’s Prize and will soon be published in Theatre Notebook.
When I’m not writing, I like to spend time with my husband and our charismatic cat, Rusty.
Hardcover: 96 pages
Publisher: The History Press Ltd (Nov 2012)
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. Now available from Pavilion Books >>