Elizabeth Inchbald (1753
) was a brilliant English
actress, author and playwright, best known today for her first novel, A Simple Story
Born the eighth of nine children to a small-time Suffolk farmer in 1753, young Elizabeth had an ambition to become an actress from a very young age, and at the age of eighteen ran away to London to follow her dream. At first she could not get any parts because she had a stutter, but her career took off in 1772 when she married Joseph Inchbald, a well connected London actor (who, at 36, was nearly twice her 19 years). This proved to be a very prudent match because Elizabeth was a Catholic in a time when Catholics were still hardly welcome in England and because she was also a naive young girl without a protection in a big city. John, who was a fellow Catholic with many connections, could protect her and also advance her career.
With John's help Inchbald overcame her speech impediment and began to get parts. Over the next decade the Inchbalds acted together in several plays as part of several travelling theatre companies. Elizabeth became increasingly popular due to her incredibly beauty, although by all accounts she was a good actress as well.
In the summer 1776 Inchbald got into trouble in Edinburgh when she became involved in a "great dispute" with the audience at one of her plays. This mysterious incident led her company to terminate her. Deciding to take a break from acting, she and her husband travelled to France where Elizabeth studied French and John studied painting. Their money ran out at the end of August, however, and they were obliged to return to England and take up acting once more.
In 1779, John Inchbald suddenly died. Elizabeth continued to act on the stage, but needed to suppliment her income somehow and therefore began to write plays as well. Her first play was The Mogul Tale, a farce satirizing the hot air ballooning craze of the early 1780s. The play debuted at Haymarket in 1784 and quickly became smashing success, putting Inchbald's writing talents in great demand.
Although her husband was dead in 1779, Inchbald was still a very young and dazzlingly beautiful woman, and now suddenly single. Although she was never to marry again, the early 1780s saw Inchbald at the height of her youthful indiscretion, carousing all night every night, juggling many admirers, and living constantly on the edge of scandal - experiences she would later draw upon when writing of Miss Milner in A Simple Story.
Throughout the 1780s Inchbald continued to write plays, producing several popular comedies and farces and also translating plays from French and German. By 1789 she had become so successful with the pen that she gave up acting entirely to concentrate solely on writing. Two years later she published her masterwork A Simple Story, the novel she had been working on off and on since 1777.
A Simple Story is a brilliant and very readable tale of a beautiful and frivolous but good-hearted young woman who has the misfortune to fall in love with a Catholic priest, who of course has sworn never to marry. Eventually the priest is released from his vows, but the story has only just begun, and several adventures ensue. In many ways A Simple Story prefigures the works of Jane Austen, especially in its masterful prose and insight into human nature.
A Simple Story was a financial success and inspired Inchibald to write a second novel, Nature and Art, in 1776. In 1805 Inchibald stopped writing plays and novels entirely to concentrate on editing a 25-volume collection of plays, The British Theatre, which she completed in 1809. She then retired to the country, where she lived in peaceful contentment until her death in 1821, at the venerable age of 67.