Fashioning Celebrity

Eighteenth-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making

Laura Engel


Performing Arts/Theater/General; Literary Criticism/European/English
184 pp. 6x9

$44.95 cloth 978-0-8142-1148-9
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Table of Contents

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The author recommends the following links:

The Costumer’s Manifesto: 18th Century Costume Resources Online

The Long Eighteenth

The Burney Centre at McGill University

The Lewis Walpole Library

Women’s Theatrical Memoirs, edited by Jennie Batchelor et al.


“Throughout Fashioning Celebrity, Laura Engel demonstrates visually, as well as textually, the effectiveness of multiple media in creating (or damaging) women’s reputations—the very lesson that the eighteenth-century actresses learned. . . . Engel offers excerpts from memoirs, theatrical reviews, letters, biographies and other varieties of writing, treating each piece of evidence with careful attention and setting it within the context of other media. Her own methods of scholarship are as nuanced, persuasive and ingenious as the strategies of the celebrities she describes.” —Visual Culture in Britain

“Throughout the book Engel demonstrates a great deal of critical acumen when analyzing the portraits of Siddons, Robinson, and Wells in relation to their own writings and how they shaped public perception.” —Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research

“Laura Engel makes an important contribution to a growing body of scholarship on performance, both as it pertains specifically to the theatre, and as it extends to the wide variety of creative practices that shape identity off the stage as well as on. Fashioning Celebrity is a rewarding book for students and scholars in theatre studies, performance studies, eighteenth-century studies, and gender studies.” —Kristina Straub, professor of English, Carnegie Mellon University

“Where other scholarly projects in the fields of theatre history and cultural studies have explored either the pictorial images or the writings associated with each figure, the great virtue and the original contribution of Laura Engel’s study rests in its interest in demonstrating how these actresses coordinated their use of various media—theatre, portraiture, and print—to construct, enhance, or modify the contours of their celebrity.” —Lisa A. Freeman, associate professor of English, University of Illinois at Chicago

This volume takes a new approach to the study of late eighteenth-century British actresses by examining the significance of leading actresses’ autobiographical memoirs, portraits, and theatrical roles together as significant strategies for shaping their careers.

In an era when acting was considered a suspicious profession for women, eighteenth-century actresses were “celebrities” in a society obsessed with fashion, gossip, and intrigue. Fashioning Celebrity: Eighteenth-Century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making, by Laura Engel, considers the lives and careers of four actresses: Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Mary Wells, and Fanny Kemble. Using conventions of the era’s portraiture, fashion, literature, and the theater in order to create their personas on and off stage, these actresses provided a series of techniques for fashioning celebrity that still survive today.

By emphasizing the importance of reading narratives through visual and theatrical frameworks and visual and theatrical representations through narrative models, Engel demonstrates the ways in which actresses’ identities were imagined through a variety of discourses that worked dialectically to construct their complex self-representations.

Fashioning Celebrity suggests that eighteenth-century practices of self-promotion mirror contemporary ideas about marketing, framing, and selling the elusive self, providing a way to begin to chart a history of our contemporary obsession with fame and our preoccupation with the rise and fall of famous women.

Laura Engel is associate professor of English at Duquesne University.