Friday, July 10, 2009

Tart of the Week: Charlotte Charke

Charlotte Cibber, daughter of the famous poet laureate Colley Cibber, was a curious creature of many talents. She was an actress, author, transvestite, puppeteer, playwright, and even a sausage maker at one point. Charlotte was born in 1713 and received her education at a girl's school. When she later moved away to live with her mother she continued her education independently by teaching herself skills a women's education usually neglected such as shooting and horse racing. At thirteen she developed an interest in medicine and began studying to be a doctor. As soon as her father began receiving the supply bills, he immediately put a stop to her independent studies.

Time for a new career goal.

Charlotte married musician, Richard Charke and used her new marital status in order to secure a job. This time she tried her hand at acting; her father was the purveyor of Drury Lane, after all. She took to the art and soon was taking on my roles, including breeches roles, where she would have to dress as a boy. Usually young, attractive actresses like Mary Robinson were given these roles as an excuse to show off their legs. After five years on stage, Charlotte had had enough of theatre bureaucracy and went off to start HER OWN theater company. Soon afterward, Parliment passed a censorship law, making it illegal to perform any play that hadn't been approved by them. Charlotte venomously opposed the bill and was left without a job soon afterward. By this time her husband had run off to Jamaica and died shortly thereafter. Charlotte was now a single mother who was unemployed.

The next chapter of Charlotte's life was quite different. She took up puppeteering, eventually owning her own Punch and Judy theatre. She also wasn't just playing the breeches role on stage; now she was dressing as a man in public and would even go by the name of Charles Brown. Whether this was because she identified as a man more than a tart or just a means of escaping debt we do not know. At one point a young heiress fell in love with "Charles" and "he" proposed. Sadly, the engagment fell through. Once she was taken to debtor's prison, but the prostitutes of Covent Garden banded together to spring "Master Charles'" bail Girl power!

After many years of ups and downs with the theatre business, Charlotte decided she was too old for the business and settled down to be an author. After two successful novels, Charlotte wrote her memoirs, which, as that genre tended to be, were eagarly snatched up by the gossip-loving public. Charlotte died at age 47 in 1760, a mere two years after her famous father died.


  1. What a smart cookie this tart was! Her ambiguity and creativity certainly helped propell her to leading a fascinating life-love her/him!!

  2. I pity the historians trying to trace her steps! What a character she was!

  3. i have read there was even a woman who worked as a military doctor in the british army in the first half of the 19th century:-) she pretended to be a man :-) and worked as a doctor for many years. she was quite strict and feared:-)

  4. and : you can read about the woman doctor in elizabeth longford : eminent victorian women.
    sorry ,i didnt sign my previous comment


  5. I remember reading about that somewhere, Asperias! I can't remember if it said she was discovered or not though.

  6. Does anyone know if a film has been made about Charlotte Charke?