“My Wife’s Affair,” recently published by Amy Einhorn books, is the story of loving married couple Georgie and Peter. When the two move to London, Georgie plays Dora Jordan, mistress of King William IV, in a one-woman show. As Georgie begins to identify more and more with Dora, she has to question the assumptions of her life. I will be reviewing “My Wife’s Affair” later this summer.
My husband loves to tell people that I had one child in my twenties, one in my thirties, and one in my forties, suggesting that I am some sort of agelessly fertile being who chose to spread her pregnancies out over three decades. In truth, my first child was born five days before I turned 30, the second when I was 32, and the last just six weeks after my fortieth birthday. The age spread is really only ten years, but even that wreaked a fair amount of havoc on my life, work and otherwise. It’s a rare woman who could say that the arrival of any child didn’t catapult her immediately and permanently into some version of the work/motherhood conflict. I reflected on that lately as I studied and wrote about another working mother, one whose children have a far wider age spread than I have.
Her name is Dora Jordan. Her first child was born around her 21st birthday, her last when she was 45. Altogether, she had fourteen children, including one boy who died in infancy, and on top of that there were several miscarriages. For the better part of 25 years, she was pregnant, or nursing, or both.
And she was also working. She worked right up until the birth of each child and did not usually take any maternity leave at all–she simply brought the latest baby to work with her. Her usual commute was two hours each way, and she travelled extensively for work; often, she was away from home for weeks at a time. She stayed in constant touch when she was on the road, sending daily messages to her partner and all of the children. Her working was a necessity: although her partner had some income, there were long stretches where her earnings alone supported the entire family. But that was okay, because like many women she loved her work. Perhaps she even lived for it.
She was a stage actress, wildly successful, much beloved, the most famous comic actress of her time–which you may have guessed was not our time. With her star power, her high-profile romance, and her large family, Dora Jordan was a kind of Angelina Jolie of her day, though she didn’t need to scour the world’s continents to adopt babies. She simply had them on her own.
Dora Jordan lived from 1761 to 1816, Georgian England, and yet as I studied her life, I found her conflicts remarkably similar to mine and my friends’, two hundred years later. She missed her children desperately when she was away from them, yet she missed her job and sunk into melancholy when she tried—for short periods of time—to forego her career to stay at home and manage the unruly household. Sound familiar?
Yes, there were nannies and servants, but she was a real mother, tending to her children’s needs. Even in an age of wet nurses, she chose to breastfeed them herself. She slept with the babies in her bed, she kept up their immunizations, ordered their clothes and shoes, sent them packages when they were away at school or in the army, took them on long walks, devised amusements for them all. In short, she did everything any modern mother would do. Nannies and servants made it easier, but this was a time when every bit of food had to be cooked from scratch, when washing clothes took all day, when the toilet facilities were. . . questionable. Who knows what they did about diapers–the safety pin wasn’t even invented until 1849!
Dora also had another job—as a royal mistress. Although her first child was the product of a seduction or quite possibly a rape and the next three were from a liaison with a commoner, she had ten children with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV of England, and Queen Victoria’s uncle. He was her domestic partner for a full twenty years.
We know a lot about Dora Jordan’s life because hundreds of her letters to the Duke survive. She worries about her little ones: “The doctor has advised postponing inoculating little Tuss until the weather is decidedly cooler. Poor dear, I must wean him tomorrow. The rest of the young ones are well, though Lolly’s cold is rather troublesome.” When her eldest daughter hits puberty, she writes, “Sophy has come in very cross, I’m afraid, an complains of a headache. I fear her constitution will shortly undergo a change. It is with the greatest difficulty that I can get her to stir out of her bedroom or hit on anything to amuse her.” Another letter , written as she contemplates yet another renovation of her house, says, “Honestly, I really didn’t know how on earth to manage the bricklayers!”
These are just the kind of messages you can imagine passing between a husband and wife today, via email or phone conversations. The actual concerns of day to day life as a mother haven’t changed all that much in 200 years. Are the children healthy? Is anybody miserable? Is my house ever going to not be a wreck? Because of the 25-year age spread, her duties straddle all facets of child-rearing, providing dowries for her older daughters while nursing the younger ones, saying goodbye to the sons who went off to boarding school (at seven!) or to the sea as navy midshipmen (at eleven!) I think about this when I am struggling with two teenagers and a kindergartener, trying to figure out how to combine a college-hunting trip with a visit to Sesame Place, while still getting my own work done. I am grateful for the things I have that Dora Jordan didn’t.
Dora Jordan’s life ended sadly. The Duke eventually dumped her for a younger, richer woman, and though her children weren’t specifically taken from her, she needed them to live under their father’s protection. “Giving the children up would have been death to me,” she said, “if I were not so strongly impressed with the certainty of it being fort their future advantage.” As an actress, she had no social standing; as a woman she had no power. Her children entered royal society as the Fitzclarences, the bastard children of the Duke. The sons were successful; the daughters married well; UK Conservative Party Leader David Cameron is one of Dora’s direct descendants. And Dora herself? She retired from the stage at 53, became ill, and died penniless and alone. This is the part where she ran up against the 18th century. In this regard—though I have never been famous or consorted with royalty—I am luckier. I have power, equality, birth control.