Kitty Clive (1711-1785), star of the 18th-century London stage, was born Catherine Raftor to ‘politically compromised’ parents in London. Her meteoric rise to famed singer and actor began around 1728 when she auditioned, while still in her teens, for Drury Lane’s veteran manager Colley Cibber. Bowled over, he immediately put her on the payroll at 20 shillings a week. “Never,” effused a co-worker, “any Person of her Age flew to Perfection with such Rapidity… like a Bullet in the Air, there was no distinguishing Track, till it came to its utmost Execution.”

Kitty Clive book

Clive was possessed of an incredible instrument, ‘a protean voice’ that enabled her to excel in wildly different genres, “dazzling audiences equally in exquisite airs and raw ballads”. Despite this, Clive’s acting has received far more critical attention than her singing, which has been largely overlooked, argues Berta Joncus, Senior Lecturer in Music at Goldsmiths, University of London. In this new and meticulously detailed study, Joncus examines the reasons for this and mounts a compelling case for a reassessment of Clive as an actor and musician that “spearheaded the self-production of stars through song.”

Although she performed across multiple genres, masque (“the English-language equivalent of Italian opera”) and ballad opera (John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and the like) were her primary vehicles. Clive’s extraordinary vocal prowess was a key component in her ability to make roles completely her own, thrilling audiences with her acting, comedic skill and utter believability. All the while, the distinctive “grain” of Clive’s voice remained “peculiar to herself” and was recognised as a marker of authenticity by her audiences.

It’s tantalising to speculate about what this genre-hopping voice actually sounded like – some amalgam of Anne Briggs, Maria Callas and Jessye Norman? The historian of 18th-century sound (and earlier, for that matter) faces an uphill battle with sources and must rely, in the absence of recordings, on written and visual material – manuscripts, notes, descriptions, historical context, works of art. Joncus has attempted throughout this study to bring to life the view from the stage, and by extension the playhouse, to which “sound was critical: it fuelled effervescence, and ignited the playgoer’s imagination.”

The playhouse’s messy network of writers, singers, players, publishers, musicians and audiences is made manifest in vivid detail by Joncus’s forensic research and comprehensive analysis, through which Clive emerges as an enormous personality that resists easy definition. Early in her career Clive had a reputation for being straight-laced and prim (“Miss Prudely Crotchet”) but seems to have “married” George Clive in 1733 to disguise the same-sex attractions of both her and her “husband.”

She endured a spectacular fall from favour with audiences for serious song in the 1740s and equally spectacularly reinvented herself as a lowbrow self-parodying caricaturist. Extending her career by another 20-odd years, she retired in 1769 at the age of 58, wealthy enough to support herself and her household.

It is a quite extraordinary story with many applications for the study of celebrity today – the construction of star power, what happens to powerful women as they age and lose attractiveness, how the intricacies of complex networks of obligation, reciprocity and expectation are navigated. More particularly, it is a must for readers with a special interest in English singers and repertoire of the 18th century.

Kitty Clive, or the Fair Songster
By Berta Joncus
Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, HB, 527pp, $96
ISBN 9781783273461

Available online from Booktopia

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