Sunday, July 11, 2010

ramble: Sophia Baddeley, 18th-century courtesan

Sophia Baddeley (1745-1786) was a terrible actress.

This, however, hardly held her back. She became one of the wealthiest and most popular of the notorious women of mid-eighteenth-century London.

But though she is a vibrant character and we may wish to see her life as self-determined, we should remember, as Katie Hickman writes (in her book Courtesans), that "[f]or all the power which her beauty and desirability conferred, a courtesan, even the most fashionable one at the very height of her career, was still negotiating in a man's world" (p. 53). Sophia shone brightly, but she played a dangerous game in order to do so.

Sophia came from a middlingly well-to-do family, but her elopement with actor Robert Baddeley (when she was nineteen) meant she'd chosen her course (though the pair hardly got along and soon separated). Though her acting was apparently wretched, she was a lovely singer, and her popularity skyrocketed. As her friend Elizabeth Steele, who wrote her memoirs, said:
"Such persons as have moved in a conspicuous line of life naturally excite the curiosity of the world. The public has always had it's [sic] favourites, and since the Drama has been known on the English stage, merit in that line has been the best road to acquire it's [sic] favour" (The Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley, Vol. I, pp. 2-3).
After all, fame need not necessarily grow from talent. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, actress was still nearly synonymous with courtesan, though respectability was becoming more and more possible (Hickman, pp. 40-3). Sophia, however, was not respectable. She went through an extravagantly long string of men (including Lord Melbourne and the Duke of Northumberland), living with some, teasing others. "A pattern was already emerging in her life: a pattern of love affairs and unscrupulous admirers, of reckless extravagance, debt--and laudanum" (Hickman, p. 38).

Nothing in Sophia's world was stable, and her lovers always fluctuated as wildly as did her expenditures. Her only constant companion was Elizabeth, who stayed with her and tried to protect her from the men around her and from herself. As Amy Culley writes in her article on the Memoirs,
"[T]hroughout the Memoirs their connection remains highly ambiguous: perhaps a sentimental friendship, a lesbian relationship, or a business arrangement in which Steele acted as Baddeley’s procuress" (p. 679).
But Elizabeth could not, ultimately, keep Sophia safe.

As the entry for Robert Baddeley in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, "[Sophia's] beauty and her extravagance rendered her celebrated, but the money which she made in all sorts of ways was so freely squandered that she was obliged to take refuge from her creditors in Edinburgh." There she became very ill, and took more and more laudanum in order to cope.

She died when she was only forty-one. But she acted (still terribly? perhaps!) until the very end.

"Sophia Baddeley had neither moral strength nor level-headedness. She was vain, spoilt, impetuous, lazy, spendthrift, only moderately intelligent, and possessed of a great deal of sexual energy. She was also warm-hearted, affectionate, funny, mercurial, and generous to a fault" (Hickman, p. 33). She sounds like she would have been fascinating to spend time with--and indeed, her vast popularity proves that she was.

- Sophia Baddeley as Joan of Arc [via link]

- Culley, Amy. "The Sentimental Satire of Sophia Baddeley." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer 2008): pp. 677-692. [via Project Muse]
- Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. London: Harper Perennial, 2003.
- Steele, Elizabeth. The Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley, Late of Drury Lane Theatre. 6 vols. London: 1787. [read online: vols 1-2, vols 3-4, vols 5-6]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Baddeley, Robert." 1911. [via Wikisource]
- Wikipedia [link]

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