The Celebrated Mrs. Oldfield: The Life and Art of an Augustan Actress

The Celebrated Mrs. Oldfield: The Life and Art of an Augustan Actress

The Celebrated Mrs. Oldfield: The Life and Art of an Augustan Actress

The Celebrated Mrs. Oldfield: The Life and Art of an Augustan Actress


Anne Oldfield, who lived from 1683 to 1730, was one of the first great female stars of the London stage.

Although her origins are so obscure that the place and exact date of her birth are not known, she was buried with pomp in Westminster Abbey- the first actress to be so honored for her personal achievement.

She was certainly, by the standards of her time, an unconventional woman, earning her own way in the world, choosing to live openly with two successive lovers, and rearing two natural sons. Yet she was particularly successful in portraying conventional or idealized female characters. In comedy she specialized in the "fine" or fashionable lady, a role with which she became popularly identified despite the contrast between her busy professional life and that of the leisured, aristocratic women she portrayed. In tragedy (which she professed to dislike), she broke new ground, bringing to prominence a characteristically Augustan heroine, the noble patriot and martyr. In an important sense, these stage roles contributed not only to the fame but to the respectability of the woman who became known as "the celebrated Mrs. Oldfield."


Anne Oldfield began her career nearly forty years after the first women began to perform professionally on the English stage, but she is the first English actress whose life and career can be examined in some detail. During her lifetime, the first theatrical biographies were published. Incomplete, inaccurate, often sensational, they are at least a starting point for the work of the modern biographer. They are also an index of popularity or notoriety.

Anne Oldfield was the subject of two early biographies: Authentick Memoirs of tile Life of that Celebrated Actress, Mrs. Ann [sic] Oldfield (London, 1730) and Faithful Memoirs of the Life, Amours and Performances of that justly Celebrated, and Most Eminent Actress of her Time, Mrs. Anne Oldfield (London, 1731). Authentick Memoirs , rushed into publication less than a week after her death, is the work of an anonymous author who attempted to discover something about the actress's origins and early life but knew almost nothing about the history of the stage or her early theatrical career. Faithful Memoirs , by "William Egerton, Esq."—a pseudonym for the bookseller, Edmund Curll—is much more reliable about Mrs. Oldfield's stage career, but it is a typical product of Grub Street, a magpie's nest of excerpts from earlier published works, letters from contributors, and lucubrations on related subjects. Curll dedicated the book to Margaret Saunders, an actress whom Mrs. Oldfield had taken into her household and who was therefore hardly an unbiased source of information. in his History of the English Stage, published in 1741, Curll included a statement from Mrs. Saunders that corrected details about John Vanbrugh's patronage of Mrs. Oldfield and the age of young Arthur Maynwaring. in using material from Authentick Memoirs and Faithful Memoirs , I have tried to . . .

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