Jo has started a second career after her TV projects as an author of historical biographies.

Jo’s new book, Sarah Siddons: the First Celebrity Actress, has just been published by Pen & Sword Books. It tells the story of how Sarah Siddons went on to become Britain’s greatest tragic actress after a disastrous London debut at the age of 20 – and her grasping of the importance of controlling her image.

Her first book, The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist, was also published by Pen & Sword Books in April 2021. Lady Mary’s campaign to introduce inoculation to the west as a cure for the smallpox makes her very much a woman for our times. Learn more about Lady Mary and Jo’s book about her here and here.

Film and TV rights are handled by Jane Villiers at Saylescreen.

A book is like a garden carried in a pocket.

Chinese proverb

Sarah Siddons: the First Celebrity Actress

Sarah Siddons grew up as a member of a family troupe of travelling actors, always poor and hungry, resorting to foraging turnips to eat. But before she was 30 she had become a superstar, her fees greater than any actor – male or female – had previously achieved.

Her rise was not easy. Her London debut, aged just 20, was a disaster. But the young actress, already a mother of two, rebuilt her career, returning triumphantly to the capital after years of remorseless touring.

She became Britain’s greatest tragic actress, electrifying audiences with her performances. Adored by theatre audiences, writers, artists and the royal family alike, Sarah grasped the importance of image. She made sure that every leading portrait painter captured her likeness so that engravings could be sold to her adoring public.

In an 18th century world full of vicious satire and gossip, she also battled to manager her reputation. Married young, she took constant pains to portray herself as a respectable and happily married woman, even though her marriage did not live up to this ideal. 

Sarah’s story is not just about rags to riches; this remarkable woman redefined the world of theatre and became the first celebrity actress.

The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist

300 years ago, in April 2021, a smallpox epidemic was raging in England. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu knew that she could save her three year-old daughter using the process of inoculation.

She had witnessed this at first hand in Turkey, while she was living there as the wife of the British ambassador. She also knew that by inoculating she would face opposition from doctors, politicians and clerics. Her courageous action – making her daughter the first person protected in the West – eventually led to the eradication of smallpox and the prevention of millions of deaths.

But Mary was more than a scientific campaigner. She mixed with the greatest politicians, writers, artists and thinkers of her day. She was also an important early feminist, writing powerfully and provocatively about the position of women.

She was best friends with the poet Alexander Pope. They collaborated on a series of poems, which made her into a household name, an ‘It Girl’. But their friendship turned sour and he used his pen to vilify her publicly.

Aristocratic by birth, Mary chose to elope with Edward Wortley Montagu, whom she knew she did not love, so as to avoid being forced into marrying someone her father preferred. In middle age, her marriage stale, she fell for someone young enough to be her son – and, unknown to her, bisexual. She set off on a new life with him abroad. When this relationship failed, she settled in Europe, narrowly escaping the coercive control of an Italian conman.

After twenty-two years abroad, she returned home to London to die. The son-in-law she had dismissed as a young man had meanwhile become Prime Minister.

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