Elizabeth Inchbald (née Simpson) (1753–1821) was an English novelist, actress, and dramatist. Her two novels are still read today.
Born on 15 October 1753 at Stanningfield, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, Elizabeth was the eighth of the nine children of John Simpson (died 1761), a farmer, and his wife Mary, née Rushbrook. The family, like several others in the neighbourhood was Roman Catholic. Elizabeth was educated with her sisters at home. Elizabeth suffered from a speech impediment.
In April 1772, at the age of 18, she went to London to act. (Her brother George had become an actor in 1770.) Her stammer affected her performance and many audience members did not enjoy watching her on stage because of her speech impediment. Young and alone, she was apparently the victim of sexual harassment. Two months later, in June, she agreed to marry a fellow Catholic, the actor Joseph Inchbald (1735–1779), possibly at least partially for protection. Joseph at the time was not a well-known actor, was twice Elizabeth's age, and had two illegitimate sons. Elizabeth and Joseph did not have children together. The marriage was reported to have had difficulties. Elizabeth and Joseph appeared on the stage together for the first time on September 4, 1772 in Shakepeare's King Lear. In October 1772, the couple toured Scotland with West Digges's theatre company, a demanding life for nearly four years. In 1776, the couple made a move to France, where Joseph went to learn to paint and Elizabeth went to study the French language. In only one month, the couple became penniless. They moved to Liverpool and Inchbald met actors Sarah Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble, both of whom became important friends after joining Joseph Younger's company. The Inchbalds subsequently moved to Canterbury and Yorkshire. In 1777, the couple was then hired by Tate Wilkinson's company.
After Joseph Inchbald's unexpected death in June 1779, Inchbald continued to act for several years, in Dublin, London, and elsewhere. She quarrelled publicly with Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, when Wollstonecraft's marriage to William Godwin made it clear that she had not been married to Gilbert Imlay, the father of her elder daughter Fanny. This was deeply resented by Godwin. Her acting career, while only moderately successful, spanned seventeen years and she appeared in many classical roles, as well as in new plays such as Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem.
Due to her success in playwrighting, Inchbald did not need the financial support of a husband and did not remarry. Between 1784 and 1805 she had 19 of her comedies, sentimental dramas, and farces (many of which were translations from the French) performed at London theatres. Her first play to be performed was A Mogul Tale, in which she played the leading feminine role of Selina. In 1780, she joined the Covent Garden Company and played a breeches role in Philaster as Bellarion. Inchbald had a few of her plays produced such as Appearance is Against Them (1785), Such Things Are (1787), and Everyone Has Fault (1793). Some of her other plays such as A Mogul Tale (1784) and I'll Tell You What (1785) were produced at the Haymarket Theatre. Eighteen of her plays were published, though she wrote several more; the exact number is in dispute though most recent commentators claim between 21 and 23. Her two novels have been frequently reprinted. She also did considerable editorial and critical work. Her literary start began with writing for The Artist and Edinburgh Review. A four-volume autobiography was destroyed before her death upon the advice of her confessor, but she left some of her diaries. The latter are currently held at the Folger Shakespeare Library and an edition was recently published.
Her play Lovers' Vows (1798) was featured by Jane Austen in her novel Mansfield Park.
After her success, she felt she needed to give something back to London society, and decided in 1805 to try being a theatre critic.
A political radical and friend of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft, her political beliefs can more easily be found in her novels than in her plays, due to the constrictive environment of the patent theatres of Georgian London. "Inchbald's life was marked by tensions between, on the one hand, political radicalism, a passionate nature evidently attracted to a number of her admirers, and a love of independence, and on the other hand, a desire for social respectability and a strong sense of the emotional attraction of authority figures". She died on 1 August 1821 in Kensington. On her gravestone it states, "Whose writings will be cherished while truth, simplicity, and feelings, command public admiration." In 1833, a two-volume Memoirs of Mrs. Inchbald by James Boaden was published by Richard Bentley.
In recent decades Inchbald has been the subject of increasing critical interest, particularly among scholars investigating women's writing.
- Mogul Tale; or, The Descent of the Balloon (1784)
- Appearance is against Them (1785)
- I'll Tell you What (1785)
- The Widow's Vow (1786)
- The Midnight Hour (1787)
- Such Things Are (1787)
- All on a Summer's Day (1787)
- Animal Magnetism (1788?)
- The Child of Nature (1788)
- The Married Man (1789)
- Next Door Neighbours (1791)
- Everyone has his Fault (1793)
- To Marry, or not to Marry (1793)
- The Wedding Day (1794)
- Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are (1797)
- Lovers' Vows (1798)
- The Wise Man of the East (1799)
- The Massacre (1792) (not performed)
- A Case of Conscience (published 1833)
- The Ancient Law (not performed)
- The Hue and Cry (unpublished)
- Young Men and Old Women (Lovers No Conjurers) (adaptation of Le Méchant; unpublished)
- A Simple Story (1791)
- Nature and Art (1796)
- The British Theatre. 25 vols. (1806–09)
- Collection of Farces and Afterpieces. 7 vols. (1809)
- The Modern Theatre. 10 vols. (1811)