Little, Brown, $12.50
Brigid Brophy, so often at least half right, has written, “The two most fascinating things in the universe are sex and the eighteenth century.” Fresh evidence in support of this theory arrives in the form of Mary Nash’s biography of Susannah Cibber, actress, singer, friend of Handel’s and Garrick’s, “priestess of sensibility.” This biography plies many trades at once: it is a history of the London stage over a thirty-year period; an episode in the history of music, for Susannah was one of Handel’s favorite interpreters; and a love story as redolent and bizarre as Cymbeline, Most of all it succeeds as a portrait of a gifted, enchanting, and half-forgotten woman.
Susannah Arne was the daughter of a London undertaker and upholsterer who married her off at twenty to Theophilus Cibber, lecher, lout, hypocrite, one of the town’s most notorious actors, and son of the poet laureate. Theophilus mistreated his wife, misappropriated her earnings as singer and actress, and infected her with venereal disease. She bore all this as she bore everything in her life, with sweet reasonableness; but when a rich young squire named William Sloper fell in love with her, she succumbed. Theophilus Cibber pursued her relentlessly and vindictively till the end of his days.
Love conquers all. Love conquers nothing. Susannah was happy with Sloper but, because they were both married to others, she was never accepted in respectable society. She became the most acclaimed actress in London, and one of the richest, but she could get the parts she wanted only by compliance with the wishes of Cibber or Garrick. She was frail. Her last (and worst) performance was in Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, with Garrick, and she died shortly after, at fifty-one, in 1766. She was buried, “not like Garrick or Congreve or Dryden or Mrs. Oldfield, theater’s royalty, within [Westminster] Abbey itself, but in an anteroom of fame, within the sound of ceremony, neither remembered nor utterly forgotten, not really a private person or quite a public figure.” Illustrated.