Shakespeare's sweeping themes meet the wit of Jane Austen in a mashup of theater riots and drawing room angst.
Oh my stars, this book! Can I give it a standing ovation? Or throw roses at it? Or…what did people do back then when they enjoyed a theater performance…propose! Can I propose to this book, please?
Stacie Tyson, Pursuing Stacie Reviews
After the death of her mother, Grace Johnson follows her abusive father to London and discovers a passion for the stage. But she must fight against social norms to find her place as a Shakespearean actress in the fraught world of early 19th Century theater.
Aided by Ned, a foundling who takes charge backstage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Grace becomes ensnared by intrigues and setbacks that mar the pathway to stardom she craves.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Old Price Riots of 1809, Grace and Ned find common purpose in a quest that threatens to tear both their worlds apart.
The Muse of Fire won First in Category in the Goethe Awards presented by Chanticleer Reviews.
Scroll down to check out my Author Notes and Discussion Questions for a book group. If you have questions about The Muse of Fire, I'm always happy to chat! Just Contact Me.
Several years ago, I was cleaning out my office (always a dangerous thing to do) and came across an essay I’d written when I was a graduate student many years earlier in the Centre for Drama at the University of Toronto. The essay described the Old Price Riots at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1809. At the time I unearthed the essay, I was just finishing my first novel, The Towers of Tuscany, about a fictional woman artist in fourteenth-century Italy and was working on my second novel, A Woman of Note, about a fictional woman composer in nineteenth-century Vienna. I decided to complete my trilogy with a story about another woman in the arts—an actress. The Muse of Fire was born.
When I read a work of historical fiction that is based on real events, I love discovering which bits of the novel are fiction and which bits are real. In The Muse of Fire, fact and fiction are inextricably linked. Ned and Grace, along with Alec, Olympia, Thomas Renfrew, Percival and Augusta Knowlton, Charlotte and Tobias Johnson, Betsy the maid, and Mr. Harrison, are fictional. So far as I know, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, did not employ a stage manager with Ned’s responsibilities, and a Grace Green never acted in any of the performances described. However, most of the performances mentioned in the novel are real, with the exception of the production of Romeo and Juliet in Bath and As You Like It in London. I must make posthumous apologies to the actresses and actors who took the roles that I assigned to Grace, Thomas, and Olympia. For example, the role of Lady Anne that Grace plays with such spirit several times during the OP Riots was actually played by Miss Norton. All other actors mentioned, such as Mr. Cooke, who played the doomed Richard III, and Mr. Charles Kemble, who played Romeo to Grace’s Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, are real. All references to roles taken by Mr. John Philip Kemble and Mrs. Siddons are also real.
Mr. John Philip Kemble (1757–1823) plays an integral role in The Muse of Fire. He was a force to be reckoned with, and most of the actions ascribed to him really happened. His conversations with Ned are fictional; however, his stubbornness in the face of the ongoing theater riots is both real and legendary.
Here’s a partial list of all the real people and events mentioned in The Muse of Fire in the order in which they occur in the novel.
- Sarah Siddons (1755–1831) was considered the greatest tragic actress of her time. Her most famous role was Lady Macbeth. With her striking figure and expressive eyes, “The Siddons” was the rock star of her era. She was also the sister of John Philip Kemble and Charles Kemble. Mrs. Siddons did not play Lady Macbeth opposite Mr. Thomas Renfrew in Bath, and she didn’t have an understudy named Grace Green at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. However, Mrs. Siddons did appear as Lady Macbeth opposite her brother Mr. John Philip Kemble, who played Macbeth, on the opening night of the New Theatre Royal on September 18, 1809, and she did sweep off the stage declaring that she would not return until the disturbances were resolved. Mrs. Siddons did not act again at Covent Garden until January 1810. Two years later, she retired from the stage at the age of fifty-seven.
- Peg Woffington (1720–60) was an Irish actress discovered when she was a child in Dublin. She achieved great acclaim on the London stage, particularly for her performances in breeches parts, and was known to have several lovers including David Garrick, the great eighteenth-century tragedian.
- Dora Jordan (1761–1816) was a famous comic actress, who appeared frequently at London’s two Theatre Royals—Drury Lane and Covent Garden. She was particularly popular in the role of Rosalind in As You Like It—a breeches part assigned to Olympia Adams in the novel. Mrs. Jordan was also the long-time mistress of William, Duke of Clarence, later King William IV (the uncle of Queen Victoria). Mrs. Jordan had ten illegitimate children with the Duke of Clarence, and all of them took the surname FitzClarence. Mrs. Jordan’s life ended sadly. She and the Duke of Clarence separated in 1811, and she eventually lost custody of all her children. She died penniless in Paris five years later at the age of fifty-five.
- The events related to the fire that devastated the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on September 20, 1808, occurred as written in the novel and claimed the lives of twenty-two people, including several firemen. Was the fire that burned the Theatre Royal to the ground started by unextinguished pistol wadding? No one really knows, but it is a popular theory. We do know for sure that Thomas Renfrew did not hand the smoking pistol to Grace and that she did not throw the pistol onto a pile of scripts.
- Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816) was the owner of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where both Mrs. Siddons and Mr. Kemble acted before moving to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Sheridan was also a renowned parliamentarian and a famous playwright. The School for Scandal and The Rivals are considered his best works, although he also adapted the version of Pizarro, an extremely popular play of the period, that is described in the novel.
- The King’s Theatre at the Haymarket featured Mr. Kemble and Mrs. Siddons in a production of Douglas shortly after the fire destroyed the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden. The pompous speech delivered by Mr. Kemble in the novel is reproduced exactly as reported in the press at the time.
- The Duke of Northumberland forgave a loan of £10,000 to build the New Theatre because of his gratitude to Mr. Kemble for teaching the duke’s son elocution. The letter forgiving the loan is reproduced verbatim in the novel.
- The stone-laying ceremony for the New Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on December 31, 1808, occurred almost exactly as described. Both Mr. Kemble and Mrs. Siddons stood next to the Prince of Wales (later King George IV), and both refused to hold umbrellas.
- Astley’s Amphitheatre across the Thames in Lambeth presented its productions in the summer months. I’ve taken an historical liberty by setting the scene with Olympia in the late winter and having an elephant make a cameo appearance. Elephants and other wild animals, particularly lions and tigers, were not featured at Astley’s until after 1825, when Astley’s was acquired by a new owner.
- The Theatre Royal at Drury Lane did indeed burn down in February of 1809, leaving London without its two patent theaters until the New Theatre Royal at Covent Garden opened in September.
- The riots began as described in the novel on Monday, September 18, 1809, with a production of Macbeth starring John Philip Kemble and his sister Mrs. Sarah Siddons. All the events related to the riots—the reading of the Riot Act; the committee struck to investigate the theater’s finances; the OP placards, dances, and medals; and the productions mentioned in the novel—are real.
- Angelica Catalani (1780–1849) was one of the most celebrated sopranos of the time, particularly famous for her three-octave range. Her exorbitantly high fees (she was known to receive 200 guineas for singing God Save the King and Rule Britannia) and her Italian origins attracted the ire of the Old Price rioters, who booed her with cries of Cat and Nasty Pussy.
- George Frederick Cooke (1756–1812) was one of the principal actors at the Theatre Royal. He is famous both for his legendary binge drinking and for initiating the romantic style in acting later made famous by Edmund Kean. The role of Richard III was one of his most famous.
- Kemble hired professional pugilists Dutch Sam and Dan Mendoza to battle the rioters in early October 1809. The OP rioters particularly objected to Kemble hiring the boxers and would not stop the riots until Kemble apologized.
- Harrison mentions being booed when he played Hamlet in place of Mr. Garrick in the 1770’s. While this event is fictional, theater riots occurred at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden throughout the eighteenth century for a variety of reasons, including ticket price increases, one actor taking roles associated with another actor, and disapproval of a particular playwright or play.
- Brandon, the box office keeper, was charged with assaulting and falsely arresting Mr. Henry Clifford, a lawyer and one of the leaders of the OP riots.
- Clifford and his cronies dined with Mr. Kemble at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in Covent Garden on December 14, 1809, and the terms of the peace were established.
- The riots ended on Friday, December 15, 1809, when Mr. Kemble finally apologized for hiring the boxers, and the We are satisfied banner was hoisted from the pit.
- What is the nature of Grace’s journey to becoming an actress? Consider the choices she makes in the novel. How does she grow and change?
- What motivates Ned—is he a nice guy, or does he have his own demons to battle? How does he grow and change? Why does he want to stay away from women until finally he falls in love with Olympia?
- Is Percival a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
- Why has Tobias Johnson never been a good father to Grace? Tobias has a negative influence on Grace, but what is his point of view?
- Why is Grace prepared to give up everything for the theater? Or is she?
- What role does Olympia play in Grace’s growth as a woman and an actress?
- Why does Olympia suddenly agree to marry Ned?
- Mr. Kemble was a real person. Why do you think he refused to accede to the demands of the OP rioters for so long, and then finally capitulated?
- What does the novel show about the position of actresses in the early nineteenth century?
- What does the novel suggest about the value and function of the theater in a society?
- What is the theme of The Muse of Fire?
- Hundreds of women found fame on the stage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Several of the most famous names are mentioned in the novel. Research the stories of Sarah Siddons, Dora Jordan, and Peg Woffington to identify their influences on the development of British theater and to determine the challenges they faced in seeking a career on the stage.
- Several actors are also mentioned in the novel, including John Philip Kemble, Frederick Cooke, David Garrick, and Charles Kemble. Research their stories—why were they famous? What innovations did they bring to the theater?
- Isaac Cruikshank, a well-known political cartoonist in the early nineteenth century, created a wonderful series of cartoons about the Old Price Riots. Do a search for Cruikshank’s cartoons and enjoy viewing the riots through his sardonic eye.