She was born in Northamptonshire, the daughter of Justinian and Martha Bracegirdle, and Anne’s birth year has been argued as about 1663 or 1673. Her parents fell on hard times and placed young Anne with the actors Thomas and Mary Betterton in London, where she received her early stage training and may have spoken prologues and epilogues as a girl. She was not listed as a player in the United Company in the Lord Chamberlain’s accounts until 12 January 1688, and the following month at Drury Lane Theatre she is known to have acted Atelina in “The Injured Lovers”, a new play by the actor Mountfort. She was cited as Mrs Bracegirdle, not because she was married, which she was not, but because she had reached or was near her majority. Her first recorded breeches part was Semernia in “The Widow Ranter” on 20 November 1689, and by early 1690 she may have acted Statira in “The Rival Queens”, a part that became one of her favourites with audiences. Most of her acting at this time was at Drury Lane, though the United Company also performed at the Dorset Garden playhouse.
Few other performers of her day attracted so much attention, and most of the scribbling had less to do with her acting than with her bewitching beauty and apparent virtue. The actor Colley Cibber remembered that Anne in 1690 was ‘blooming to her Maturity; her Reputation as an actress gradually rising with that of her Person; never any Woman was in such general Favour of her Spectators, which, to the last Scene of her Dramatick Life, she maintain’d by not being unguarded in her private Character.’ In 1692 she and her mother were at the centre of a fumbled abduction attempt by an unwanted suitor that ended with the murder of her friend and fellow actor William Mountfort. The trial was the talk of the town, and long after the event the pundits and satirists gave Anne little peace.
The notoriety did not harm her theatrical career, of course, and by 1695, when Betterton broke away from Drury Lane and the tyrannical management of Christopher Rich, he made Anne and the actress Elizabeth Barry his co-leaders of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre. His new troupe opened their venture with Congreve’s “Love for Love” on 30 April 1695 with Anne acting Angelica, a part the love-struck author wrote especially for her, and the work was a great success. Congreve went on creating other parts for her, the most famous and indicative of her brilliant talent in comedy being Millamant in “The Way of The World”. Then Nicholas Rowe, another dazzled playwright, began writing tragic roles for her. Anne’s salary by 1707 was a minimum of £120 annually, equal to Betterton’s. Then, with a fine sense of timing, the ‘Celebrated Virgin’ as Gildon called her in 1702, quit the stage at the height of her career and lived out her singular life quietly and untheatrically.
Anthony Aston, who in 1748 provided us with candid sketches of the players of his day, said Anne was ‘of a lovely Height, with dark-brown Hair and Eye-brows, black sparkling Eyes, and a fresh blushy Complexion; and, whenever she exerted herself, had an involuntary Flushing in her Breast, Neck and Face, having continually a chearful Aspect, and a fine Set of even white Teeth.’ He thought her best at genteel comedy and in breeches parts, in which she could display her shapely legs. She lived to see David Garrick take the stage, recognizing and welcoming his genius. Anne Bracegirdle died on 12 September 1748 at the age of 85 and was buried, at her request, at Westminster Abbey. If there is an error in the Abbey registers, evidence of Anne’s probable appearances as a child would suggest that she was born in 1673 instead of 1663. (The Index of Sitters in “Pictures in the Garrick Club” contains a typographical error and on p. 536 gives her death date as 1718.) (BDA; Lucyle Hook, ‘Anne Bracegirdle’s First Appearance,’ in “Theatre Notebook”, 1959.) [EAL]