A meek and delicate Dorothy Bland spoke the first lines of her acting debut in whispers, as told in the scene framed by Otis Skinner in Mad Folk of the Theater: Ten Studies in Temperament (177). No one in the audience would have known that this frail creature would go on to dominate the acting scene of her day, winning the affections of not just audiences but future kings. Yet as seen through the eyes of Jane Austen, herself a young theatre attendee and playwright, one might have been conscious of an early Jane Bennett, emerging quietly, timidly playing her part.
Perhaps the pages of Austen’s manuscripts held more pictures of this fascinating woman. A young Mary Bennett might be recognized in the shadow of this industrious, devoted actress, who watched the performances of Mrs. Brown in “The Country Girl” and rigorously imitated her until she found her own talent to display (Skinner 182). This self-sacrificing diligence would be the vehicle to take her from acting in “third-rate plays” that barely kept her and her mother out of the poor house, to landing roles like Viola in The Twelfth Night with the Drury Lane Management Company (Skinner 182). The devoted Mary sitting at her piano forte might have felt similarly as she dreamed of what she also could become.
One might also be able to recognize the shape of a Lydia Bennett protruding from Austen’s imagination, as she watched the progression of Dora’s relationship with Richard Ford, the Duke of Clarence and future King. Jordan was already no stranger to scandal, as she’d already had two illegitimate children, being taken in by the seductions of her first boss at the age of twenty (Thompsett). These naïve passions may have been what drove her to stay with Ford long enough to bear him several more children, despite his refusal to marry below his social status (Skinner 183). Watching from the audience, Austen might have visualized her own Mrs. Bennett, a mother whose outlandish behavior could have been blamed on the pressures of raising several children on the income of a middle-class working farm. No wonder she wanted to rush her daughters into marriage – she would have had one less daughter to house and feed.
Yet, while the threat of poverty remained as a pressure for Mrs. Jordan, she could never quite resort to Mrs. Bennett’s manipulative tendencies. She wished for the dignity of a marriage proposal from the Duke, yet stayed faithful to him despite his refusals. The respectability of this devotion may have struck the young Austen as the inspiration of a true heroine. An Elizabeth Bennett could possibly be the result of such a production – one whose value of integrity was greater than the draw of wealth and the lure of a high social status. After Ford finally succumbed to his family’s pressure to dismiss Jordan (Denlinger 84), she continued to put her children first by returning to the stage despite her promise to the Duke to permanently give up acting – she needed the money to save a daughter from financial ruin (Jerrold 376). She died in poverty after the Duke discovered her secret and removed his financial support (Jerrold 377-379). Her life would remain in the hearts of fans that either loathed or adored her for the many different stages of her life and career, and in the imagination of a female novelist who saw a piece of her characters in every one.
Denlinger, Elizabeth Campbell. Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print.
Jerrold, Clare Armstrong Bridgman. The Story of Dorothy Jordan. New York: Brentano’s, 1914. Print.
Skinner, Otis. Mad Folk of the Theatre. Indianapolis: Bobs Merrill Co., 1928. Print.
Thompsett, Brian. Directory of Royal Genealogical Data. Hull: University of Hull, 1994- 2005.
Web. 20 May 2010. < http://www3.dcs.hull.ac.uk/cgi- bin/gedlkup/n=royal?royal5912>