Elizabeth Inchbald passed away on 1 August 1821. Today we mark the bicentennial of her death with a blog post on her works by Rose Hilton. Rose is an English Literature PhD Student funded by the Vice Chancellor’s Studentship at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research focuses on the works of eighteenth-century British female playwrights, and the constructions and presentations of selfhood in their plays. Using a selection of four playwrights spanning the mid-late eighteenth century (Griffith, More, Inchbald, and Baillie), her research applies close reading to the play texts and contextualises contemporary ideas of self using medical and philosophical writing from the same period. She is vice-president and secretary of the SHU postgraduate society and co-organiser of the annual Earth(ly) Matters conference taking place this year 6th/13th/20th August (free registration now open!). She would love to share memes with you on Twitter @RoseMHilton.
I stumbled onto the work of Elizabeth Inchbald (née Simpson) about three years ago when selecting female playwrights for inclusion in my thesis. Inchbald stood out because of the tone of her writing and the political, personal, and social themes that she draws on in her work. These features quickly made her one of my favourite eighteenth-century authors. Inchbald’s work has given me plenty to sink my teeth into, both in its successes and its limitations. On the bicentenary of her death, I invite you to join me in considering and celebrating Elizabeth Inchbald’s career.
Inchbald was an actor, author, playwright, critic, and translator. Throughout this varied career she had many connections to the world of the theatre. Born into a Roman Catholic family, she moved to London in 1772 with aspirations of becoming an actress. She also had familial ties to the theatre as her brother George started acting at the Norwich Company in 1770. Inchbald was 17 and unmarried when she moved to London, and it was under these circumstances that she faced sexual harassment from theatre managers including James Dodd in whose face she threw a basin of hot water. Thomas Gilliland, in The Dramatic Mirror (1808), reports the story of Inchbald’s encounter with Dodd in this way: “Indignant at his proposals, and not being perfect mistress of her temper, she availed herself of the tea equipage which lay on the table, and discharged the contents of a bason[HR(1] of scalding water in his face. This spoke sufficiently plain her resentment”. Elizabeth married the actor Joseph Inchbald in 1772, possibly as a way to gain “a protected entrance into her chosen profession”. However, her experiences within, and contributions to, the theatrical world were not limited to personal connections or onstage performances.
Inchbald became a successful playwright, and “she wrote twenty plays, ten of which were adaptation, and ten of which were original”. Inchbald not only wrote a lot, she wrote with a complexity that, as Betsy Bolton wrote, “deserves and repays attention”. In my own work I give Inchbald’s dramas this attention through close reading as well as a thematic analysis of her plays alongside prominent medical and philosophical writing from the eighteenth-century.
Annibel Jenkins characterises Inchbald as “beautiful, witty, and independent”. Inchbald’s wit and dialogue often has a modern feel with lines like the following from her play Wives as they Were, Maids as they Are (1797):
Lady M: “Why don’t you marry, and throw all misfortunes upon your husband?”
Miss Dor: “Why don’t you marry? For you have as many to throw”.
Despite this modern feel to her writing, Inchbald’s work is rooted in the climate in which she wrote. Inchbald’s desire to criticise and reveal the hypocrisy of the forms of power prevalent in British society in this time has led critics like Anna Lott to claim that “Inchbald’s entire corpus of work was boldly radical”.
Although Inchbald used her dramas to express her opinions on a range of topics including social behaviour, her success as a playwright was not the pinnacle of her career. The financial success of her dramas enabled her to continue writing. This writing included two novels – A Simple Story (1791) and Nature and Art (1796). A Simple Story broadly centres on the romantic relationship between Miss Milner, and her guardian, a Roman Catholic priest called Dorriforth. Nature and Art tells the story of Henry Norwynne, a boy born and raised on a fictitious island off the coast of West Africa, later living in England.
The radicalism noted in Inchbald’s writing was restricted in the London theatre scene as “when she did use drama to explore current controversy, the theatre managers refused to stage it”. However, her novels express social and political opinions in a less-censored way. As Kaley Kramer explains “A Simple Story is not that simple. Under the guise of genre fiction, Inchbald unravels a deep tension in the political climate of her England”. Referring to Inchbald’s treatment of the English Catholic experience in this novel, Kramer’s reading of A Simple Story highlights Inchbald’s engagement with political topics. This social criticism is further seen in Nature and Art, as her second and final novel “was openly critical of English social institutions and class structures”.
Inchbald’s radicalism in her writing was not without faults and limitations, like the other radicals with whom she associated, for example William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft. This can be seen in her novels as Angela Rehbein notes, Inchbald’s criticisms of European culture in Nature and Art are inextricable from the “racial thinking of her time in her repeated descriptions of Africa as a land of “savages””. Further, her dramas also reflected the imperialism of the period. As Mita Choudhury explains, “Inchbald’s Orientalism capitalizes upon the most visible Orientalist assumptions, for it is sustained by ridiculing the Other’s power, authority, morality, and legitimacy. It is not an intellectual but a populist discourse”. Whilst Choudhury acknowledges the effect of theatre censorship on Inchbald’s creation of a populist discourse surrounding imperialism, she makes the point: “By refusing to position herself outside the dominant discourse and the material practices of the time, the female playwright implicates herself”.
In her personal life and her literary career Inchbald was capable of complexity, judgement, radicalism, and Orientalism. Although aspects of her life and work are far more laudable than others, her position within and her evident struggle against the prominent power structures of eighteenth-century Britain make her a fascinating author. Just as Bolton argues for giving her drama the attention it deserves, I would encourage any reader to turn to Inchbald’s writing.
 Annibel Jenkins, I’ll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 1.
 Jenkins, I’ll Tell You What, 1.
 Ben P. Robertson, Elizabeth Inchbald’s Reputation: A Publishing and Reception History (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013), 4-5.
 Thomas Gilliland, The Dramatic Mirror: Containing the History of the Stage, from the earliest period to the present time; including a biographical and critical account of all the Dramatic Writers from 1660; and also of the most Distinguished Performers, from the days of Shakespeare to 1807: And a History of the Country Theatres, in England, Ireland, and Scotland Volume 1(London: C. Chapple, 1808), 399.
 Ellen Donkin, Getting into the Act Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829 (London: Routledge, 1995),86.
 Betsy Bolton, “Farce, Romance, Empire: Elizabeth Inchbald And Colonial Discourse,” Eighteenth Century Theory and Interpretation 39, no. 1 (1998): 7.
 Jenkins, I’ll Tell You What, 7.
 Elizabeth Inchbald, Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are (Dublin: P. Wogan, 1797), 8-9.
 Kaley Kramer, “Rethinking Surrender: Elizabeth Inchbald and the “Catholic Novel”,” in British Women and the Intellectual World in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. Teresa Barnard (Oxon: Routledge, 2015), 87.
 Angela Rehbein, “A Small House or Hut, Placed on the Borders of the Sea”: Imperialism, Radicalism and Domesticity in Elizabeth Inchbald’s Nature and Art,” Women’s Writing 22, no. 2 (2015): 173.
 Mita Choudhury, “Gazing at His Seraglio: Late Eighteenth-Century Women Playwrights as Orientalists,” Theatre Journal 47, no. 4 (1995): 492.
 Choudhury, “Gazing at His Seraglio,” 502.
Bolton, Betsy. “Farce, Romance, Empire: Elizabeth Inchbald And Colonial Discourse.” Eighteenth Century Theory and Interpretation 39, no. 1 (1998): 3-24.
Choudhury, Mita. “Gazing at His Seraglio: Late Eighteenth-Century Women Playwrights as Orientalists.” Theatre Journal 47, no. 4 (1995): 481-502.
Donkin, Ellen. Getting into the Act Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829. London: Routledge, 1995.
Gilliland, Thomas. The Dramatic Mirror: Containing the History of the Stage, from the earliest period to the present time; including a biographical and critical account of all the Dramatic Writers from 1660; and also of the most Distinguished Performers, from the days of Shakespeare to 1807: And a History of the Country Theatres, in England, Ireland, and Scotland Volume 1. London: C. Chapple, 1808.
Inchbald, Elizabeth. Wives as They Were, and Maids as They Are. Dublin: P. Wogan, 1797.
Jenkins, Annibel. I’ll Tell You What: The Life of Elizabeth Inchbald. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Kramer, Kaley. “Rethinking Surrender: Elizabeth Inchbald and the “Catholic Novel”.” In British Women and the Intellectual World in the Long Eighteenth Century, edited by Teresa Barnard, 87-107. Oxon: Routledge, 2015.
Lott, Anna. “Sexual Politics in Elizabeth Inchbald.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 34, no. 3 (Summer, 1994): 635-648.
Rehbein, Angela. “A Small House or Hut, Placed on the Borders of the Sea”: Imperialism, Radicalism, and Domesticity in Elizabeth Inchbald’s Nature and Art.” Women’s Writing 22, no. 2 (2015): 172-188.
Robertson, Ben P. Elizabeth Inchbald’s Reputation: A Publishing and Reception History. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013.
Spencer, Jane. “Inchbald [née Simpson], Elizabeth.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.