Sisters Ann of Swansea and Sarah Siddon
Ann Hatton and her older sister Sarah, were the daughters of Roger Kemble and Sarah Ward, who led a troupe of travelling actors. Sarah was born in Brecon in July 1755, Ann, otherwise known as Ann of Swansea, in Worcester in April 1764. There were ten other siblings.
All, except Ann, were early performers on stage with their parents.Considered by her family to be unsuitable to be on stage, owing to a disability (she had a slight limp), Ann was more or less excluded from the family. Later in life she often said she received little love from her parents, and that her education was neglected.
In contrast Sarah was well educated, adored by her parents, and performed her first major Shakespearean role, as Ariel, at the age of nine.
Yet both fell in love with men whom their mother and father thought unsuitable. Ann, at the early age of sixteen, married a man called Curtis who was actually already married, and was later convicted and jailed for bigamy. She was considered to have brought disrepute on the family and was cast out by them; their only concern was their determination to validate their respectability within the theatrical world.
Sarah was dealt with in a different way. Initially sent away to work as a lady’s maid because she began a relationship with William Siddons, (one of the members of her father’s troupe), she was soon forgiven by her parents, who gave their blessing for her to marry William. Sarah was then allowed to continue her acting career. She was so outstanding that she was noticed by David Garrick, actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer, who took her to London to appear on the stage at Drury Lane, although her first role at Drury lane wasn’t a total success.
Rejected and isolated Ann became increasingly depressed and suicidal, actually attempting suicide in Westminster Abbey. She lurched from one catastrophe to another. After her failed marriage she attempted to earn her own money by working for a Dr James Graham, a sex therapist, who ran a business called the Temple of Health and Hymen, in Pall Mall. Her family was enraged to discover he advertised the lectures Ann gave as “given by Mrs Curtis, Mrs Siddons’ younger sister”.
In 1783, Ann produced her first volume of poems, (Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects). Again she gained her family’s wrath; she published the collection under the name of “Ann Curtis, sister of Mrs Siddons”.
The Kemble family was determined to disassociate themselves from Ann, so Sarah, joined with one of their brothers, granted Ann a yearly allowance, but only with a condition that Ann lived at least a hundred and fifty miles away from London.
The annual payment meant that Ann’s reputation and station in society became more acceptable, and in 1792 she married William Hatton.
They emigrated to America, and it was here that she wrote her opera libretto Tammany (otherwise known as The Indian Chief), which was given its première on Broadway. This was the first known libretto written by a woman.
Following the triumph of her libretto, Ann and William returned to Britain, and by 1799, had settled in Swansea in South Wales, where they ran a bathing-house and lodgings near the coast until William’s death in 1806. She then moved to Kidwelly. One of her poems, Swansea Bay, describes her emotions as she left Swansea. Eventually, she returned to Swansea in 1809 where she settled down to write her poetry and Romantic novels. These encapsulated themes of social and moral parody,(sometimes with gothic leitmotifs). She used the pseudonyms of “Ann of Swansea” and Ann of Kidwelly.
Many of her books were set in Wales; Cambrian Pictures, published by my publishers, Honno, is one of them.
Sarah and her husband William, took up the life of a travelling thespian, playing many parts all over the country. She cleverly chose roles that made her more popular, that protected her image and preserved her reputation as a wife and mother of five children, as well as an actress. This helped her to avoid any rumourmongering and scandal that usually plagued actresses at the time. She ultimately became Britain’s most renowned and highly paid actress in the 1780s, much sought after by equally famous painters, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, to sit to have her portrait painted. She even gave private readings for the king and queen at Windsor Castle and Buckingham House. Reputed to have a striking stage presence she became most famous for her role as Lady Macbeth; a role she was reported as played to perfection, and she was also called the Queen of Tragedy.
But, after thirty years the marriage between Sarah and William became strained and they separated.
She retired from the stage in June of 1812, playing Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. So enthralled by her performance were the audience that they continued clapping when she finally left the stage and the play ended there.
She died in 1831 and was buried in St. Mary’s, Paddington. Her funeral was attended by thousands, and a statue of her was later created by Francis Legatt Chantrey and erected in Westminster Abbey (ironically, as I said, earlier, the place where her sister, Ann attempted suicide after her first marriage to the bigamist, Curtis, and when she was both ostracized by her family, and desperately poor). .
Ann died and was buried in 1838 in a churchyard in High Street, Swansea. She left most of her belongings to her servant Mary Johns, executor of her will, as a “very small remuneration for her affectionate, honest and undeviating conduct” for almost 16 years.
At no time in my research for this post, did I discover that the two sisters ever met again.
It occurred to me that, sometimes, it is only through fate and coincidence that estranged families are forced into contact. And so it is for the two sisters, Angie and Mandy (later known as Lisa) in my next book, Sisters. Due to be published by Honno on the 26th January 2023, I’m thrilled that it’s now available to be pre-booked.