Friday, October 5th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: The Letters of Edmund Kean to Charlotte Cox

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A Theatrical Dressing Room. TCS 61In a post to this blog on August 31st we highlighted a letter from Diana to Duff Cooper written on 25 November 1925 in which she describes her experiences visiting Harvard and the Harvard Theatre Collection. In that letter she wrote that “the best things that I struck were original love letters from Edmund Kean to Mrs. Cox,” which are now TS 1173.24F. These letters from the great English actor Edmund Kean (1787-1833) were written to Mrs. Charlotte Cox between 1820 and 1824 when their affair ended in mutual recrimination. Charlotte returned to her husband briefly and on 9 April 1824 Mr. Cox took out a writ against Kean for criminal conversation with his wife. The case was heard on 17 January 1825 and the court found for the plaintiff and awarded him damages of £800. Evidence in the case was a bundle of Kean’s letters to Mrs. Cox which she had left behind in her bedroom and it is these letters which are now in the Harvard Theatre Collection and which caught the attention of Diana Cooper and which she described as “most beginning ‘my dear, dear little bitch’. It read so gracefully on the old paper in pale ink.” In fact not one of the letters begins in this way. They begin with an astonishing variety, including: “Dearest of Women, My Darling Love, My dearest Love, My beloved Girl, My darling little Love, My little Darling Love, My dear Madam, My dear dear Love, My dear Love, My dear dear little Love, My dear little Love, My dearest dearest Love, My dearest Charlotte, My beloved Charlotte, My dear dear little Girl, You impudent lieing little bitch, My dearest dearest little Love, and Dear Love.”

This was clearly a turbulent and torrid affair and the letters were delivered to Mrs. Cox under a pseudonym, often written in evident haste and delivered by hand; they make riveting reading even now. In one Kean wrote: “I desired you to write me, every day – why did you not ?! Charlotte, Charlotte – I doubt you” and in another “What the devil is the matter with you, you little bitch, if you do not be quiet I will kick your rump if I do not see you!” A third letter is addressed to “Little Breeches” and to be delivered immediately by hand: “My darling love/Little impudent bitch, Come immediately & apologise for your impudence yesterday. …”

British publishers had a glorious time publishing reports of the case, fabricating additional letters supposedly written between the two, commissioning caricatures and fanning public interest. “Little Breeches” was Kean’s pet name for Mrs. Cox and here is a caricature by Charles Williams that was published on 21 January 1825, just four days after the case was heard in court, illustrating how she might have gotten her nickname. In the course of the case it was revealed that Mr. Cox had often taken his wife to Kean’s dressing room at Drury Lane and had allowed her to remain there while Kean changed his clothing in full view of them both. Mrs. Cox is wearing Kean’s breeches from his most famous role as Shakespeare Richard III. Mr. Cox, wearing his chain of office as an Alderman of the City of London, looks on in amusement.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to William Stoneman, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library, for contributing this post.]

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