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Mrs. Jordan's Final Act

By Molly Gartland


Chapter 1

Mrs. Jordan

Bushy House remains exactly as I left it. This three storey red brick mansion, tucked within an enchanted parkland, was once our love nest. A house meant for a duchess – never the likes of me. A gentle breeze stirs the soaring oaks lining the gravel approach. I hear the rustle of the leaves but cannot feel the wind’s caress. 

     This house always made me stop and pinch myself. Throughout my time here – nearly fifteen years – I couldn’t quite believe it was my home. I feared I’d wake from this dream and the house would disappear. Or the stage manager would order a change of scenery with a clap of his hands and the house would be pushed off into the wings. But today Bushy is like a magnet. I don’t question my homecoming and float up the front steps with certainty. I reach for the door handle and my hand slips through the weathered brass, penetrating the oak door.

     Countless pairs of muddy boots line the entrance way. An array of umbrella handles poke up from the stand beside a mountain of coats hanging from hooks on a wall. Bushy is well lived-in. 

            “Squawk! Mama loves me!”

            Polly. In the dayroom my pink parrot perches in her golden cage. I slip between the bars and reach out to stroke her neck feathers but she doesn’t tip her head. She doesn’t feel my touch.

            I pucker, blowing kisses.

            She imitates me, her usual response, and looks me right in the eye. I am seen and heard. 

            “Squawk! Mama loves me.”

            That’s right, Mama loves you.

            My portrait, a Romney from my early days in London, hangs above the mantelpiece. The Duke cast me aside like an old newspaper but he hasn’t removed this evidence of me. I hover close to this portrait, taking in the brushstrokes which form my face. My affair with Richard Ford, several years before I met the Duke, was an early ember when it was painted. I examine my eyes, searching for that sparkle of a girl in love. I was twenty-five, dazzling the London stage and living in a beautiful home near Drury Lane Theatre. A starlet on the rise, reaching for giddy heights. And terrified I would tumble down, back into the muck. While the likeness is accurate, Romney hasn’t captured these worries and secrets, the true me. 

     The story of the Duke and I fits into the standard three act formula. We fall in love. Our lusty love making gives us ten children. But following a twist to the third ac I am buried in exile, penniless and alone in a French village. 

     The headstone, placed on the grave by a man I never met, reads Mementote Lugete.  Remember her and weep. 

      I am restless, this ending doesn’t satisfy. I don’t want his pity or yours. 

Footsteps stir in the house. I curl up small and hide within the folds of a curtain.


Sophy enters with quick deliberate steps and stops, placing her hands on her hips and glancing about the room. My daughter has grown into the woman I always knew she would be and this fills me with pride. She carries herself with confidence, shoulders pressed back and spine straight, the aristocratic air which I always lacked. 

My portrait looms above her and I realise that she is nearly the same age as I was when it was painted. She has my eyes and is a beautiful blend of William and I, a creation of our love. I had endured much by this age, her first two decades of life could not be more different. She does not know the gnawing pains of hunger or the hopeless terror of being without a home. She is still an innocent, I hope.

I go to her but she slips through my embrace, leaving my arms empty. Her gaze hones in on the embroidery and sewing baskets near the window and her brow furrows.

            “Have you seen my riding crop?” a little voice calls from the corridor.

            “Don’t bellow from another room,” Sophy scolds.

            Mely, our youngest daughter, skips in and searches between the cracks of the sofa cushions. She will always be my baby and I swirl around her, wishing I could feel her in my embrace. But she carries on lifting cushions, oblivious to my affection. 

            “Why are you wearing your riding clothes?”

            Mely stops searching. “Just one more ride,” she begs. 

            “We’re not packed,” Sophy says. “Look, your embroidery basket is still here. Have you sorted through your paints and brushes? You’ll want them at South Audley Square.”

            Mely bites her lip and shakes her head. Her chin trembles. I wrap myself around her, but I cannot comfort. I’m a mother unable to mother.

            “I know it is difficult for you to leave Bushy but there’s nothing to be done. Papa’s bride will become mistress of the house.”

            Bride. The word stings. What’ll become of my children?

            “But Jasper...”

            “The groom will look after him and I’m sure you’ll be able to come out for a ride from time to time.’ Sophy’s expression softens and she kneels beside her little sister. “This is a great opportunity for all of us. London has ever so much to offer.”

            Seeing our eldest daughter comfort our youngest stirs my soul. Sophy has always been rather focussed on herself. It is not her fault, William spoiled her from day one. She’s always been his princess, regardless of legalities. 

            “I found it!” sings Ta, entering the room and waving the riding crop over her head. She too is wearing riding clothes. “Let’s go!”

            “Not you too!” Sophy says. “Amelia and Augusta FitzClarence, you’re absolutely no help.”

            “What’s the rush?” Ta asks firmly. “Does it really matter when we leave? Another ride won’t hurt anyone.”

            “Once you’re out there, the pair of you will do the length and breadth of the park and decide to do it all over again.”

            Ta scowls. “Why are YOU telling us what to do? You aren’t our mother.”

            I’m your mother. 

            They take no notice of me and their argument grows louder. Polly joins the cacophony with her usual phrases and several new obscenities.

            Sophy rolls her eyes. “The carriage is leaving in an hour. With or without you.”

            “Fine,” says Ta. “We’ll stay here”. 

            “What’s all this shouting?” Mary says, entering the room alongside Eliza, completing my brood of FitzClarence girls. Pride and pleasure swells seeing them together.

            I swirl around our daughters, trying to calm. But they carry on bickering, volume rising.

            Eliza presses her fingers to her lips and releases a long and impressive whistle, which Polly imitates marvellously.

            The effect is immediate and silence takes over the room.

            Wherever did Eliza learn to whistle like that?

             “What would Mama say if she saw us like this?” Eliza asks.

            Eliza, always the sensible one. I’m enjoying every minute. I’ve missed you, arguments and all.

            “She’d tell us to stop arguing, and find a solution,” Mely says. “She never abided our arguing.”

            She’s grown into a clever young lady. Hearing her speak of me, I’m less lonely.

            The sisters exchange glances. 

            “We absolutely PROMISE to be back in an hour,” says Ta. 

            Mely places her hand on her heart solemnly.

            “A departure immediately after lunch would be the most practical,” Mary says. “Giving us plenty of time to pack and we won’t be late to London.” She looks to Sophy, waiting for her response.

             “I suppose. No point travelling on an empty stomach.”

The two youngest race off towards the stables.


Their trunks and cases are all packed and loaded into a cart and my girls climb into the carriage. They are ribboned and bowed and snuggly fit in the carriage, like pretty confections in a decorated giftbox.

I want to creep in and curl up on Eliza’s lap like a slumbering kitten. I long for the warmth of embrace, the tickling breath of whispers in my ear. But Bushy beckons.

 I must remain and see the bride.



Chapter 2


From the moment we arrive at Grillon’s Hotel, I sense Mutti’s dissatisfaction growing.

            “Why are we in a hotel?” she asks. “With so many palaces and residences in London, why are we here? And nobody from the royal family has come to meet us.” She shakes her head and rests her hand on her hip. 

            “Well if their palaces are anything like their yacht and carriage, we should probably be thankful to be here,” I reply, remembering their dilapidated state. “I’m sure we’ll meet them in due course.” 

I am in no rush to face my future in-laws scrutiny. I have heard so much gossip about them, it is as if we have already met and their reputations do not flatter.

             “So many betrothals fall apart at the last minute, we simply cannot...”

            “We have no reason to believe they will not be true to their promise.” My words have a sharp defensiveness to them. 

            “I just hope this is not a mistake.”

           When we received the Duke of Clarence’s proposal, Mutti took her time carefully considering our options. But there weren’t alternatives and at twenty-five years old and not a natural beauty, little advantage was on my side. I was not the Duke’s first choice, or second or third or fourth but I try not to think of his failed proposals. I am thankful Mutti agreed to the union and am determined to make the marriage a success. I do not want to end up a forgotten spinster in a sleepy duchy and even worse – childless. Despite his flaws, the Duke is the third born son of the King of England and this marriage will elevate me to levels far beyond Mutti’s dreams.

            “We’ve accepted the proposal. There is no point going over it again,” I say with more certainty than I actually believe. Shouldn’t she be reassuring me?

            “You are right, dear. I’m just nervous.”


Just as we finish dinner in our hotel room, Count Münster is announced. From the moment the Hanoverian Minister enters, he is all business, efficient and direct. 

            “You must understand the present disarray of the royal court.” He scoffs. “The truth is, there isn’t a functioning court. The King’s at Windsor and has succumbed to the curse of madness. He thinks he’s dead and surrounded by angels! He spends his days talking to the trees and playing an organ.”

Thoughts of such madness sends shivers down my spine.

     “That must be terrible for the Queen,” Mutti says.

     “The Queen’s become a recluse at Kew. Nobody dares ask the Regent’s whereabouts. And then there’s his wife!” 

     “We’ve heard the rumours...” Mutti says.

      “It’s all true.” He takes a deep breath. “Princess Caroline tours the continent, wearing outlandish costumes and riding in a shell covered carriage with a child dressed as a cherub at the reins.”

            I shrink into the seat beside Mutti, thankful for her presence, horrified by the minister’s appraisal of the royal family. An uneasy feeling spreads from my core. 

            Mutti, a widowed duchess who has been acting as regent for my brother for many years, is accustomed to complicated diplomatic matters. She handles the conversation with the minister and soon dispatches him.

            Exhausted, I long for this day to end. 

Mutti takes my hand. “By all accounts the Duke is not like the rest of them.” She sighs. “Of course we know he is not perfect...”

         The Duke’s unusual past and his former lover have occupied my imagination ever since we received the proposal. While I am certain I will never measure up to the famous actress who was so widely adored, I also find a comfort in their story. Mrs. Jordan was not with the Duke out of obligation or duty. She could have captured the hearts of many but she chose the Duke. Surely, he must be a good man. 

           “Do you think he still thinks of her?” I ask, hoping Mutti will be more diplomatic than truthful.

             “They lived together for twenty years. And he’s bound to see her in the faces of their bastards.” She spits the word bastardwith disdain, as if she has tasted something remarkably sour.

         I immediately regret posing the question. I am fascinated by Mrs. Jordan and her success on stage. She is unique and piques curiosity.

        “Regardless, you shouldn’t worry. She’s dead.”

        Although she died two years ago, Mrs. Jordan is impossible to ignore. 

       “You need allies, not adversaries, and all will fall into place.” Mutti forces a smile. “It’s been a long day.”


Just as we prepare to retire, the Regent is announced. I anxiously seek out a mirror only to find my untidy hair and sallow complexion in the reflection. The late hour and arduous journey to London has taken its toll. I hoped to make a better first appearance than this. 

The Regent bounds into the room, making an entrance which is more theatrical than regal. His plump face is heavily painted in garish makeup and he wears a strange uniform-like jacket, covered with embroidery and orders. A broad belt circles his ample girth and a high collar on his jacket and a black neck cloth covers his wobbly jowls. 

My hand trembles as he takes it in his. He scans me from head to toe, nodding, but I am unclear if he is indicating his approval or his satisfaction at seeing me tremble in his presence.

         Once again, I shrink while Mutti grows taller. She is fully capable in awkward situations and opposite this peculiar Regent, she is the picture of grace and dignity, even though travel weary.

        Just as our meeting is coming to a close, the groom himself, the Duke of Clarence –the man with whom I am meant to spend the rest of my life– is announced. 

My cheeks warm in horror. 

          The Duke ambles into the room, his long limbs incongruent with his portly body, with a countenance and swagger more akin to a sailor than a duke. His head, true to rumour, is shaped like a pineapple. He is twice my age and although I have been fully aware of this fact, seeing his receding hairline and wrinkles, disappointment is bitter. Despite his years, he stands in the shadow of his older brother with an awkwardness of an adolescent, unsure how to stand and where to look. He fidgets, shifting his gaze about the room

       This is the man that captured the heart of Mrs. Jordan.

        I force my slight figure taller, mirroring Mutti, listening to the Regent and my future husband. They chatter on, highlighting the important sights to visit in London and dwell on this year’s unusually wet English summer. William curses several times in the exchange and Mutti flinches, tightening her lips, with each expletive. Unused to speaking English, I try my best to keep up with the conversation but I am exhausted, mute and terrified, clasping my hands together tightly in an effort to mask my trembling.

       “The date for the wedding is set for the eleventh of July,” William says. 

       I tense, feeling as nauseous as I had been during the crossing of the channel. Judging Mutti’s expression, she is satisfied with the soon approaching date. The Duke has little time to wiggle out of his promise.

       “And the Queen would like to see you tomorrow. There will be a carriage for you at noon,” William adds.

      “Very good.” Mutti presses her shoulders back. She is a woman who appreciates the security of having tomorrow rooted in a definite plan.

       There is a pregnant silence – that awkward moment when guests should make a move toward the door.

     William glances at me with a gentle nod, takes my hand in his and kisses it gently. “It’s been very nice to meet you.” Our eyes meet, there is kindness in his gaze.

      Some of the tension in my shoulders fades.

      This old man, with his rough, irregular ways, seems genuine. 


The red brick of Kew Palace is warm in the bright sunshine, complementing the verdant green garden surrounding it. The Dutch style building is not grand and imposing, but rather compact and neat. 

     “What a charming palace,” I whisper to Mama as we stride up the path.

     “But what awaits us behind this door?” 

     Rumours of Queen Charlotte have been rampant around Europe, adding a certain intrigue and mystery to this meeting.

     “Let’s wait and see.” I clench my jaw, taking in the idyllic setting, fresh country air and birdsong.

        The decoration on the ground floor is austere, reminding me of our home in Meiningen. We follow the German lady-in-waiting upstairs and the colours of the decoration become warmer. The floorboards, covered in a thick wool carpet, creek underfoot as we make our way to the Queen’s north-east facing bedroom. 

      A geometric print carpet covers the floor from wall to wall. I have heard of this new fashion but this is the first time she has seen it in practice. This great expanse of wool has attracted moths, which flutter freely about the room. 

      The Queen sits by the window, diminished and crooked, the burden of her fifty year reign deeply etched on her face. She does not bother with pleasantries.

      “William’s finances are a mess and it’s unfortunate that you are bringing little to this match,” the Queen declares. 

      Mutti shifts her weight, affronted by this jibe. 

      “You must sort out his debts. Given the strained finances, there will be a simple wedding. The ceremony for both the Duke of Clarence and his brother, the Duke Kent, will be performed here simultaneously. And due to the ill-health of the King, there will not be any balls or soirées in your honour. It’s quite impossible.” She coughs. Her lady-in-waiting is quick to offer her a goblet. 

      The Queen drinks and clears her throat, catching her breath. 

“Alongside his finances, you must tend to William’s health. His diet and habits are atrocious.” She takes a deep breath. “And you must travel to the continent after the wedding.”

      I hesitate, surprised and disappointed by this suggestion but I do not labour this point with the Queen. I will discuss it with William after the wedding.

“My foolish son’s declined his parliamentary grant, claiming it is too small, despite his mountain of debt and expenses. He simply cannot afford to remain in England.” The Queen has read my doubt. “You must go to the continent and economise.” She folds her hands on her lap, leaving her command to resonate. Her spine is defiantly crooked. “As for the FitzClarences, the feral bastards should be rejected. Focus on filling your own nursery.” 

      I glace at Mutti and she subtly nods. She and the Queen are of a similar view. When William proposed, he was adamant that I would also accept his children as my own, a point which Mutti never gave whole hearted approval. She saw this as a little matter of no consequence, one that could be agreed to at first but in time ignored, especially once the Duke and I have our own children.

      Queen Charlotte scans me from head to toe. “Although not fair, you’re prettier than I expected.” She pauses. Only the whispers of moths’ wings flitting about the room disturb the silence. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?” 

            “Your Majesty,” I begin. “I’m grateful for your wise council and fully aware of the Duke’s situation – both financial and personal. I assure you, I’ll do everything I can to restore the Duke’s finances to a firm footing and will look after his health.” 

            The Queen takes a deep breath and looks me directly in the eye. “Since the tragic death of my granddaughter, succession to the throne isn’t secure. The Regent will not have more children with his abhorrent wife. And my second son, the Duke of York, is childless with a wife long past childbearing years. Your child will inherit to the throne.”

            I am acutely aware of the situation. 

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

            “Nothing should distract you from this task.” She sits back in her chair, more weary than when we arrived. “Focus on that, not the burdensome FitzClarences.” 

The Queen turns away, returning her attention to a cypress tree beyond the window and mutters our dismissal.

       “The princesses also want to meet you,” the lady-in-waiting says, guiding mother and I into an adjoining dayroom, which is a bit brighter than the Queen’s boudoir. Princess Augusta, the elder sister, sits at a desk and upon seeing us enter the room, she sets down her quill and stands. Taking my hand, she welcomes us to Kew Palace.

Princess Sophia rises from the window seat, leaving her embroidery and hurries to her sister’s side. The spinster sisters are closer in age to Mutti than me. Warm and welcoming, the pair could not be more different from their mother. 

      We settle around a little table as the servants bring in tea and cake.

      “William will be an excellent husband,” Sophia says. “He is certainly my favourite brother.”

      Augusta nods. “He is most kind and good at heart.” Her masculine features soften. “He’s forever giving his money away to his sailor friends when they are in need.”

       Knowing he does not have deep pockets for such largesse, I will have to rein in his generosity. As we chat and finish our tea, Mutti’s expression lightens and my confidence grows. William’s sisters, both charming and without pretence, will be a source of support, crucial allies in this unconventional family. The princesses do not mention the FitzClarences but the thoughts of them weigh on my mind. I dread our meeting.



Chapter 3

Mrs. Jordan

A new servant, I’ve heard her called Sarah, enters the dayroom and opens Polly’s cage. She tips some fresh seed into the parrot’s bowl and Polly quickly hops down to a lower perch and tucks in.

            “Mama’s here!” the parrot says. 

            That’s right. Mama’s here.

            “I’ve never heard you say that one.” Sarah giggles. “You calling me Mama now?” She tickles her neck feathers and Polly leans into her fingers, relishing the gentle stroke.

            I’d love to feel her feathers again, that whisper of softness.

            “Sarah,” Mrs. Lambert says entering the room.

        She leaps out of her skin and quickly closes Polly’s cage.

       “There’s no time to dawdle.” She scans a piece of paper with her spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose. “The Duke and Duchess arrive this evening.” 

      I worry for my children. If this bride sways the Duke away from them, they will never have security. 

      “Put fresh linens on the Duke’s bed, and thoroughly clean his room. I want to make an excellent impression.”

      “Mama’s here!” Polly squawks.

      “That’s a new one,” Mrs. Lambert says, running her finger along the mantlepiece checking for dust. “Did you teach her that?”

     “Of course not. When would I have time?”

       “Let’s just hope the new Duchess gets settled and becomes a mama soon.”

      “Mama’s here!”

      “Well? Get on with it. That bed isn’t going to make itself.”

      As Sarah departs, a couple of men from the stables enter the room.

      “Take down all of the portraits of Mrs. Jordan. There are ten about the place.” She points to the Romney above the mantlepiece. “Take ’em up to the attic.”

      If I still had a heart it would break. But what did I expect? The bride cannot live surrounded by my image.

       The men return with a ladder, rest it against the wall and one of them scuttles up the rungs. He lifts the painting up and lowers it down to the other man.

      “I saw her perform once at Drury Lane,” the older one says. “Never laughed so hard in my life. No one quite like her. And a good heart. Always treated everyone around here kindly.”

   I recognise this man. Duncan’s worked in our stables for years.

     "Never knew her, but saw her several times at church and walking in the park,” the other says.

     “Never been the same without her here at Bushy.”

      I swirl around him, drinking in his praise, thrilled to be remembered.

      “That’s quite enough,” Mrs. Lambert says, appearing out of nowhere. “Less gossip.”

      The two men carry the portrait out of the room and I follow them upstairs to the attic. They rest the painting on its side and Mrs. Lambert brings up a dust sheet. 

“Once you have them all up here, just drape this over them. Give ‘em a bit of protection.” She looks around the attic with a sad nostalgia and her gaze lingers for a moment on a stack of trunks in the corner. She shakes her head and departs down the staircase.

      I recognise the trunks immediately. I’d filled them with various newspaper clippings and programs. Perhaps even a few costumes and props from over the years. Relics of the past, an outgrown rocking horse, out of fashion hats, discarded games and books, languish in this attic. The dust and darkness do not bother me, there is comfort amongst the cast offs. I curl up in a corner upon a ripped upholstered chair and watch the men bring up all of the portraits. They stack them against each other, drape the sheet over and retreat down the stairs one last time.

      I remain in the attic. 


Bushy House is in darkness when carriage wheels rattle along the gravel drive. From the attic window, I see Mrs. Lambert come out, lantern in hand. The Duke steps out of the carriage. I cannot see him very well from this vantage point but I know it is his silhouette. He walks around the carriage, opens the door and a gloved hand takes his. The bride eases herself out.

            Curiosity pulls. I fly downstairs and find them in the dayroom. 

            They’re an incongruous bride and groom. She’s half his age, only a handful of years older than Sophy, yet a girl, not fair, and as tiny as a finch. He’s aged and put on weight since our last fateful meeting in Maidenhead and there’s a heaviness about him, as if he’s shouldering a great burden; quite unlike the young man I met all those years ago at Drury Lane Theatre, swilling gin and larking about in the royal box with his brother.

My heart has hardened to him, bitterness has taken hold. Seeing these newlyweds together, I have not a drop of jealousy. She’s but a brood mare. 

William pours them each a glass of sherry. Oh to taste that nectar and feel the tingle of my shoulders after a couple of sips.

            To be a ghost is to lurch from one unsatisfied longing to the next.

            She appears absolutely terrified. Her little eyes perpetually dart about the room, avoiding William, and they stop on the empty space above the mantlepiece. My portrait has left a shadow on the wall where  sun and time has faded the paint. She tips her head, clearly wondering what used to be there.

            She bites her lip nervously.

            He’s equally nervous, fidgeting with the hem of his jacket. It’s as if he has never been in the company of a woman. 

            I stretch out on top of Polly’s cage and blow kisses to my beloved bird.

            “Mama’s here!” Polly squawks. 

            “This is Polly,” he says, walking over to the cage. He opens the golden door, offers the parrot his finger and she steps onto it. He whistles a few bars of an old sailor’s tune and the bird joins in. I sing in full voice, dancing alongside them. But neither Adelaide nor William can see or hear me. 

            “Land ahoy!” Polly says at the end of their duet. “Mama’s here!”

            I return to the top of the cage, stretching out along the golden bars.

            He gently ruffles the feathers on her neck and the bird clucks with pleasure. “Polly meet Adelaide.”

            She copies him, tickling the bird’s neck. Polly, lightning quick, cranes her head and bites the bride.

            “Autsch!” she exclaims jerking her finger away in horror.

I shriek in laughter. If there was a fragile ember of romance to this scene, Polly has completely extinguished it. Two strangers, bound by obligation, awkwardness and an injury inflicted by my parrot, are locked in farcical tragedy.

            Polly flies away and lands on top of the cage. She flaps, trying to perch on my shoulder but she falls right through me and lands on the golden bars. I blow kisses in an effort to console but my efforts do little to calm. She paces the back and forth along the cage, clucking and shaking her head.

            An angry purple bruise grows beneath the skin on Adelaide’s finger.

            William is speechless for a moment, looking at his bride and then the bird, completely aghast. “I...I’m so sorry. She never bites.” He takes her hand in his and inspects the injury. “She didn’t break the skin, but it must be very sore.”

            Tears well but she holds them back, nodding.

            He snatches the bird from the top of the cage, returns her to the perch and closes the door.

            “Mama’s here!” Polly repeats.

            William curses the bird and drapes a cloth over the cage.

            He guides Adelaide to the sofa and the couple sit side by side. He clasps her trembling hand in his and gently kisses the purple mark.

            Her face is drawn and pale. 

William caresses her hand, pulling her close and kissing her lips. “I have many regrets. But I promise, I will never ill-treat you,” he says.

Hah! He’ll do whatever suits him. Don’t believe him!

She musters a sweet smile, thinly veiling her terror. But she does not pull away. 

            I haven’t the stomach for this voyeurism. 

I retreat to the attic, curling up inside a trunk. Memories of my own first coupling with a man–thoughts which had been pushed away come flooding back. Mine, too, was a story of a naive young girl and an older man, long before I became Dorothea Jordan.

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