BOOK REVIEW / The actress, the prince and a comedy of errors: 'Mrs Jordan's Profession' - Claire Tomalin: Viking, 17 pounds

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DORA JORDAN was the greatest comic actress of her day. In the mid-1780s, while the majestic Sarah Siddons reigned over British theatre as queen of tragedy, a lively young Irish girl, only six years Siddons's junior and also from a poor acting family, was beginning to attract attention in the north of England; within a very short time, she was equally famous. And while the playwright Richard Sheridan rudely said of Mrs Siddons that he would 'as soon think of making love to the Archbishop of Canterbury', audiences fell instantly in love with Mrs Jordan for her sweet, friendly, bubbly sexiness - and terrific legs. Claire Tomalin's intelligent, finely made and wonderfully readable new biography not only brings to life a remarkable character and unusual talent, but also provides us with a whole rich background of English life and society, the theatre and its workings, the position of women, especially actresses, and (topically enough) the perils of falling in love with a Royal prince.

It is a story of great poignancy and great romance. Dorothy - as she began life - was the child of a stage- struck couple who both abandoned respectable homes to tread the boards, but somehow, even though they may have had as many as nine children together, never quite got round to getting married. Her father, after many apparently happy years with his family, took off, married someone with youth and money, and left his wife and children to fend for themselves. It was a situation that was to recur in Dora's life: for now, Dora - as she soon became - had from the age of 14 to support herself, her mother and several siblings, equipped with nothing but her charm and talent.

There is a moment, early in the book, when we feel with urgent force the precariousness of Dora's young life, the tiny ripples of chance that determined her fate. She and her raggle-taggle band of dependants had left Dublin, where Dora had met with some success with audiences, but unfortunately also with the womanising theatre manager, and moved to Leeds.

Young, visibly pregnant and on the edge of destitution, she had to get herself a job in Tate Wilkinson's Yorkshire company, who moved miles on foot to small theatres around the region. Had he said no, we feel, there would have been no glittering London successes, no long and honourable career, certainly no long and happy domestic life with the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. There would only have been the gutter, even starvation.

But Wilkinson said yes. There was just one little nicety to be dealt with, before Dora could be presented to the good people of Yorkshire, and that was the presence of a new- born baby (the first of 13) and the absence of any discernible husband. Many an actress styled herself 'Mrs', so that was easy: the other part was supplied by way of a small Biblical joke by the amiable Wilkinson. Since she had crossed the water from Ireland, out of enslavement to the treacherous Dublin theatre manager, he hit on the name Jordan.

From here on, Mrs Jordan made a steady progress, through furiously hard work, good sense, good temper and great talent, towards a pinnacle of fame and success. She moved to London, of course, though throughout her career she continued to tour the provinces - and even when she was commanding a fee per night that would have kept a working family for a year, her touring work was rough and hard, with marathons of bumpy travel and unremitting work. She fell in love with Richard Ford, the son of one of the theatre owners she worked for: they set up house together (largely on Dora's earnings), Dora had two more babies; they were, to all intents and purposes, married - in everything, that is, but the letter of the law.

For the truth was - and Claire Tomalin's book is particularly good on this - that although Dora Jordan might be the most celebrated and respected of actresses, she was an actress nevertheless: even a theatre owner such as Ford's father was dismayed by his son's liaison. Sheridan called the theatre 'the Greatest Nursery of Vice and Misery on the Face of the Earth' and railed against actresses: 'everything around them is unchaste - their studies are Lessons of Vice and Passion - Like Wretches who work in unwholesome Mines, Their senses are corrupted in the operation of their Trade'. If this was the view of a practising playwright, imagine what a more conservative view might have been. Richard Ford wouldn't marry Dora; he eventually tired of her; it was her mother's story all over again.

But for Dora, something else happened. In the summer of 1789, she caught the eye of Prince William, Duke of Clarence, the third son of George III. That William was not the firmest of personalities is clear from the start, since he was simultaneously showing a lively interest in Sheridan's wife Elizabeth -but never mind. His relationship with Dora, once under way, became more domestic, loving and companionable than most marriages. They settled at Bushy, a huge house that soon accommodated their 10 children, and although they never married, and Dora was - of course - never accepted by the Duke's family, their letters to each other, which are extensively quoted, display a depth of affection, respect and humour that would be hard to beat.

Dora went on working. Partly because they were eternally short of money - the Duke was clueless about financial matters; they had a vast family (Dora was of course also supporting her other three daughters, and in time their feckless husbands); they were recklessly generous - but partly, as Tomalin shrewdly deduces, because, for all the warmth and security and family happiness to be found at Bushy, Dora Jordan really came alive when she was on stage.

But disaster, or the same old story, was waiting. In his mid-forties, the Duke had what we might now politely call a 'mid-life crisis': in fact, he behaved in a way that makes the behaviour of all the other rats in Dora's life pale by comparison. When he first began to trawl the fashionable watering- places in search of a rich bride, Dora seems to have been an angel of gentle understanding: perhaps she always knew, somehow, that one day it would happen. Or perhaps even she could not foresee just how pathetic and shameful her own fate would be.

The end of the tale, Dora's enforced separation from the children she adored and her heartbreakingly sad death, should not be told here, because this is a book that can be read as a novel: it is certainly as gripping as the best fiction. But it isn't, and Tomalin tells this rich story with unflagging variety and interest. The research is prodigious, but it never overwhelms: the book is excellent at conveying the curious byways of contemporary life - from conditions at sea in the Navy to the extraordinary ease with which audiences accepted the sight of an actress eight months pregnant playing the part of a 16-year-old boy. It is a fine achievement.

(Photograph omitted)