Nicola here. Last week I had the fabulous treat of a trip to Stratford-On-Avon to see the play “The Roaring Girl,” written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, who were contemporaries of William Shakespeare. The poster for it is on the left. I love the Swan Theatre at Stratford; it is small and intimate with the stage projecting into the audience and a three-sided gallery. You feel transported back to the sort of theatre that 17th century audiences would have visited, though probably these days we have more comfortable seats.
The Roaring Girl is the story of a character called Moll Cutpurse. The name Moll is a pun: as well as being short for Mary it was a word used to describe a young woman of disreputable character who has a reputation as a thief or “cutpurse.” The phrase The Roaring Girl is more often used to refer to “roaring boys”, the gallants who got drunk in taverns, roistered about London, got into fights, smoked, and generally behaved badly.
The ideal modest woman of the 17th century was described in one conduct book as someone whose “home is her delight, at public plays she never will be seen and to be a tavern guest she hates.” Moll most decidedly does not fit this image with her men’s clothing, her smoking, drinking and swordfighting. Yet the play, written in 1611, is surprisingly sympathetic to Moll. She is portrayed as a woman determined to be her own person in a society that demands conformity. It can be construed as a proto-feminist piece. Moll is called a whore by those men who disapprove of her behaviour and want to control her, yet she is shown to be honest with a more powerful sense of morality than those who try to entrap her.
The real Mary Frith upon whom the play was based was perhaps not such a sympathetic character
although the records of the time were very biased against her. A book written in 1662 sensationalised her life and created a myth around her. The picture on the right shows her in full cross-dressing finery.
Mary was born in the mid-1580s, the daughter of a shoemaker and the niece of a minister who tried to reform her criminal ways when she was still young by sending her to New England. She allegedly jumped overboard before the ship sailed.
Mary’s first criminal indictment came in 1600 when she was about 16 years old and she was accused of stealing 2 shillings and 11 pence. She was known as a pickpocket or “cutpurse” who would steal from passers-by in the environs of St Paul’s Cathedral. She worked with an accomplice who would distract the victim whilst Mary cut the strings that attached their leather purse to their belt. By 1620 she was working as a procuress supplying women for her male clients and also providing male lovers for bored wives. She also worked as a fence for stolen goods.
So far, so criminal. It was other aspects of Mary’s behaviour that caused greater outrage, however. In a society with very clear gender roles she simply did not conform. She dressed in a doublet and breeches, smoked a pipe (it was claimed that she was the first woman in England to smoke), carried a sword and swore liberally. She would carouse in taverns and pick fights in the street for entertainment. Given that such behaviour was the exclusive reserve of men, Mary’s antics provoked accusations of “evil living.” She even appeared on stage at the Fortune Theatre in 1611, which was a breach of convention for a woman. The fact that she wore men’s clothing, played bawdy songs and bantered with the audience presumably only cemented her poor reputation further. She was accused of dressing indecently and of being a prostitute, the general consensus of the day being that women who dressed in men’s attire were “sexually riotous and uncontrollable.” Mary was required to do penance for her bad behaviour at St Paul’s Cross and apparently wept bitterly and seemed to repent her “unfeminine” ways. This satisfied the authorities – until it was discovered that she was not penitent, merely very drunk.
Other exploits added to Mary’s fame. She took on a bet to ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man, flaunting a banner and blowing a trumpet just to draw more attention to herself. Her horse was called Marocco and was the most famous performing animal in London, shod in silver. It was claimed that Marocco could dance, play dice and count money. His most famous trick was the climb the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and dance on the roof. However as he was a horse rather than a woman, he was not indicted for “evil living.”
An interesting aspect of Mary’s character was that her house was beautifully kept, she liked fine clothes and she had several maids to take care of her home and her wardrobe. The picutre on the left shows her in female dress and hints at her vanity. She doted on her pet parrots and mastiffs. She claimed to have no interest in sex at all other than a way of making money out of others.
The English Civil War brought with it new opportunities and Mary became a highwaywoman. As an ardent Royalist she took pleasure in robbing prominent parliamentarians, the most famous of whom was Thomas Fairfax, whom she relieved of two hundred and fifty crowns and also shot in the arm during the encounter. But such exploits could not continue indefinitely and Moll was captured, sent to Newgate and condemned to death. She bought her freedom with two thousand pounds, a vast sum of money in those days. However, she was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital for insanity, possibly another way that the authorities saw of controlling her unruliness. She was eventually released in 1644 after being “cured” and died in 1659. It’s possible that she as an inspiration for the novel Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe.
Whilst I can't approve of the way that Mary earned a living I do admire her determination to be her own
person and the way in which she refused to conform to society's rules for women. These days we aren't as restricted by gender stereotyping as the ladies (and gentlemen for that matter) of the 17th century but I wonder how we feel about the heroines of our historical novels? Does it feel odd and anachronistic to read about a "roaring girl" or a Regency heroine who behaves like a man would have done, drinking, smoking and fighting? Or is it fun to see a heroine breaking society's rules? Do you have any favourite unconventional heroines?