THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF ELLEN TERRY, Volumes 2 and 3 by Katharine Cockin, Reviewed by Carol Simpson Stern

By Katharine Cockin
Volume 2 (2011) vii +199 pp., Volume 3 (2012) vii + 389 pp.
Reviewed by Carol Simpson Stern on 2013-09-22.

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Ellen Terry is still very much with us. As a gifted and wildly popular nineteenth-century actress who lived long enough--from 1847 to 1928-- to witness and participate in the central artistic movements of her times, she would be thrilled to see how her reputation continues to flourish in the twenty-first century. Chief among its curators is Katharine Cockin, who has set out to edit and bring to print over three thousand of her letters. This is no small feat. In Michael Holroyd's marvelous book, A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families (2008), he makes it clear that after Terry's written archive --containing more than 20,000 items--was presented to the National Trust in 1939, it remained "haphazardly inaccessible for over fifty years" (Holroyd 582). More than sixty years later, its condition must still have been daunting. But from it--along with various other sources--come these letters. Well worth reading in their own right, they may also prod other scholars to produce more studies on this remarkable actress, whose life would benefit from a fresh examination. To date Cockin has produced four of a projected eight volumes of Terry's letters, including one reviewed elsewhere on this site and the two reviewed here. She has also written two books on the theatrical career of Terry's daughter: Edith Craig (l869-1947): Dramatic Lives and Women and Theatre in the Age of Suffrage: The Pioneer Players 1911-1925; she has edited a collection of essays, Ellen Terry, Spheres of Influence (2011); and she has written a host of other critical articles. Though these books are chiefly meant for academics and theater specialists, they are eminently readable.

Ellen Terry was a star of Victorian theater and a woman of power and ability whose career has come to interest not only theater scholars but also specialists in feminist, gay, and lesbian studies. For more than sixty years, she reigned supreme in her art. Edited and accompanied by Cockin's footnotes, her letters take us back stage as well as on stage, showing how theater operated in the Victorian era: how plays were promoted and how patronage helped to support productions and develop audiences. Terry's letters also look outside the playhouse. Reflecting a society in flux, they capture the social world of mid-to-late Victorians, the arts and crafts movements, the aestheticism of Pater and Wilde, and the practitioners of early twentieth-century modernism with its literary and theatrical experimentation.

The story of Ellen Terry's life has been told many times. She herself wrote The Story of My Life (1908). Later, after her death, a revised version--Ellen Terry's Memoirs (1932) including additional biographical chapters-- was co-edited by her daughter, Edith Craig, and Christopher St John. In the ensuing years, her most important biographers have included her son, Edward Gordon Craig, Marguerite Steen, Tom Prideaux, Roger Manvell, Nina Auerbach, Joy Melville, and Michael Holroyd. Her theatrical world has been explored in the many books on the actor/manager Henry Irving, including most recently Richard Foulkes's Henry Irving: A Re-Evaluation of the Pre-Eminent Victorian Actor-Manager (2008). Also, a feminist context for Terry's work has been furnished by Penny Farfan's Women, Modernism and Performance (2004) and Tracy C. Davis's Actresses as Working Women (1991). Nonetheless, this new collection of Terry's letters presents at least part of the original source material on which all these accounts rest.

Volume 1 includes two illustrations of Terry, one showing her in costume as Lady Macbeth. Volume 2 has one illustration and Volume 3 has none. All three show Terry's face, her theatrical poses, and the luxuriousness of her costume. It is a shame that there are not more, but Cockin notes that we have neither reliable photographs nor films of Terry's performances (just a few recordings of her spoken words made late in her life), making her letters particularly valuable. Radiating the charm of Terry's prose, they show how she could manage language and turn letter-writing itself into a performance. Many were dashed off in haste or transcribed from her dictation, but Cockin reproduces them all so as to let us see approximately how they were laid out on the handwritten pages. Since Terry lacked formal education, which embarrassed her throughout her life, the record of her letters--while often altered, sometimes dictated, and telling in their omissions -- vividly portrays her. No wonder Virginia Woolf called them "some of the best letters in the language" (qtd. xv).

Cockin reports that some of the owners of Terry's letters have denied her permission to print them, and more important, that there are key gaps in the letters to "significant male intimates and to others in certain periods of her life" (xvii). As a result of these gaps, we learn little new about her relationship with Henry Irving or with her husbands and lovers. One may hope that Cockin may acquire or unearth some new and more important letters before she completes her project. However, it is very clear that during her life, Terry controlled her image and her children, and that after her death, her daughter Edith--together with her partner Christabel Marshall (known as Christopher Marie St John) -- aggressively guarded her reputation. All custodians of her life story have selectively sanitized it.

One such custodian was Stephen Coleridge, who published some of her correspondence in The Heart of Ellen Terry (1928), and --after her death-- twenty-six of the letters she wrote to G.B. Shaw. Though Coleridge furnished explanatory notes and lightly edited the letters, he left out material that he thought would be sensitive or compromising to living subjects. Cockin's meticulous examination of the archives reveals that he "excised significant material" (1: xvii). Much of Terry's correspondence with G.B. Shaw, which ran from l892 to 1922, is contained in Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw, ed. Christopher St John (London: Constable 1931), a book which angered Terry's son so much that he wrote his own version of his mother's life in Ellen Terry and Her Secret Self (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd, [n.d. but Cockin dates it to late 1931]). In her footnotes on Terry's letters to Shaw, Cockin more fully explains their relationship. She also restores prose that have been excised from the letters earlier, including triple underlinings, long dashes, and other features that more clearly reveal the emphasis Terry gave to her words.

Volume l opens with a letter by Ellen Alice Watts (as Ellen signs herself) to an artist friend. In this letter, which Cockin dates to 1865, Ellen describes her visit to the Olympia Theatre and complains of a cough and the London fog, thereby broaching three themes --the theater, her health, and the weather--that pepper her correspondence. About a year before, this child star of a theatrical family--she had made her debut at 9--had married G.F. Watts, the eminent Victorian painter for whom she had modeled. Later portrayed by John Singer Sargent, she mingled with the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and withdrew from the stage for six years (1868-74) while living with Edward Godwin, the multi-talented architect of the arts and crafts movement. By him she had two illegitimate children, Edith Craig and Edward Gordon Craig, both of whom went on to rich theatrical careers of their own. (Though Cockin's chronology lists Terry's "elopement" with Godwin in 1868, her divorce from Watts did not become final until 1877.) When financial need drew her back to the stage in 1874, after a six-year interval, she achieved immediate success and stardom. Later on, her offspring and their descendants became a theatrical dynasty --including her grand-nephew John Gielgud-- who all left their mark on British, American, and continental theater.

Besides Shaw, the correspondents featured in these volumes include Stephen Coleridge, her admirer and later financial advisor and solicitor, as well as Charles Reade, Charles Dodgson, Bram Stoker, and other illustrious theatrical and literary contemporaries such as Nina Boucicault, the first actress who played Peter Pan. Earlier published collections of correspondence between Terry and Coleridge had been considerably censored, with the names of many prominent figures deleted and much negative commentary that might have offended friends or the public also omitted. Cockin claims to offer for the first time her correspondence with Coleridge "in full."

Starting in 1878, Volume I covers the opening years of her career at the Lyceum, playing Henry Irving's leading lady in roles such as Ophelia, Desdemona, Beatrice, and Juliet, and starring in two of the Lyceum Company international tours to the United States and Canada. The letters and the annotations tell how Terry "glided" across the stage, projected her voice, donned her costumes, and sometimes had to learn her parts by having others read them to her, a method she found very taxing. She often regrets that she did not have more formal training in acting.

Her letters reveal both her inner and her outer life. While she knew she was considered the embodiment of Victorian womanhood, she also knew she was the subject of much scandal. The letters reflect the brutal pressures of her performance schedule, which gave her little time for correspondence: writing almost daily in the late morning or at any opportunity afforded before starting the long hours of rehearsal and performance, she formed a lifetime habit of jotting quick letters or notes to a circle of friends and fans. Her letters also reflect what she felt at crucial moments of her life, as when she was terrified by the prospect of playing Lady Macbeth or devastated by news of the death of Edward Godwin in October 1886. She writes too about her children. Though we have no letters from the years in which they were born (1869-73), as Cockin understandably regrets, Terry does record such things as her son's expulsion from school. Besides being written about, her son Edward (variously called Teddy or Ted or Ned) and her daughter Edith (Edy) gradually took their place among her other correspondents, who also included her long-time housekeeper, Mrs. Rumball (affectionately named 'Boo'), and other less well-known friends or patrons.

In spite of the range of material collected here, Cockin's scholarship has been faulted. Reviewing Volume 1 elsewhere on this site, Martin Meisel has noted lapses in transcription, inadequacy in many of the footnotes, the annoying habit of repeatedly identifying the same family members, some factual errors, and the lack of an index. Though Cockin has responded to Meisel's complaints, many of them are warranted and may be justly made of the subsequent volumes. She offers very few notes, and in her effort to reproduce the layout of Terry's handwriting, she breaks up the text of her letters, leaving large blank spaces on the printed page. Most annoyingly, she provides no index. She ought to provide one for each volume until her project is finished and then--as she has planned all along-- a single comprehensive index for all the volumes.

Fortunately, however, the flaws in Cockin's scholarship do not sap the vitality of the letters themselves. In the letters of Volume 2 (1889-1893) and Volume 3 (1894-1898) Ellen Terry writes at the top of her career, working hard and playing Henry Irving's leading lady while also anxiously monitoring her children as they grow up and become increasingly independent. At the same time, she is buying property in London as well as Tower Cottage in Winchelsea, a house which--at one point--looked as if it might become her permanent home with Irving. She constantly struggles to balance the claims of work and motherhood, offering support and advice to Edy and Teddy, but she also frets over money and her increasingly ill health, fears her mortality, and is plagued by poor eyesight. Often she tells her son how much she has suffered from bouts of melancholy and the onset of old age. Knowing full well that to her public she looks young, optimistic, kind-hearted, and endlessly admiring of Irving, she is also well aware of his shortcomings, and of her own as an actress. She repeatedly mentions her nervous fits, particularly while rehearsing Lady Macbeth, and is constantly telling herself that she must project her voice and articulate her words.

Yet she is not afraid to speak up for herself. In the first letter of Volume 2, for instance, she admits that she could not portray the evil of Lady Macbeth even if she had wished to do so, but then defends her way of playing the part. Later on, she frankly objects to a number of the roles she has been given and regrets that Irving will not grant her more commanding and comedic ones. Also, she is always exacting about her costumes--how they look, move, and fit--and keeps the same dresser throughout most of her career.

Were she and Irving lovers? We still don't know. Though Volumes 2 and 3 show their relationship changing, the letters do not tell us if it ever became wholly intimate. Yet Ellen periodically frets over the scandal raised by her travels with Irving, which they sometimes tried to suppress by staying in separate hotels; Terry is especially wary of prying reporters when Edy becomes 17 and starts travelling with her. Toward Irving himself she was by turns indulgent and critical. On one hand, when reporting that he turned up at her household after midnight following one of his productions, she seems little troubled by whatever rumors might ensue. On the other hand, while she always admired his acting, she sometimes sounds impatient and annoyed with him. "Poor dear old Henry," she writes, "is working like fifty men, & a horse or two thrown in -- he's well and beautiful -- just -- but at times looks frightfully exhausted..." and then complains about tiring rehearsals. "Henry," she adds, "says he 'frightens himself' when he is rehearsing Lear on the Rocks at Cornwall" (2:139). She is often hurt by his offstage behavior in daily life, where he is more mortal than god.

Throughout Volume 2 she writes often about Ted's career and his work now that he is playing at the Lyceum. Irving, she reports, recognizes Ted's "natural talent" (63) but complains that he is incapable of hard work. Regularly advising Ted on his acting, she tells him not to expect much of an audience but be content to give them "all -- and more"(104). She also asks him to share with her all the press reviews of his work. Though she often expresses her distrust of the press, she admits that reviewers are usually right in the end.

Besides overseeing Ted's acting career, she frets about his philandering. Displeased by his marriage in 1893 to May Gibson, whom she really does not like very much, she is often driven to despair by his infidelities. Nonetheless, Ted is very much her favorite child, and much to the consternation of Stephen Coleridge, she assumes a major role in financially supporting May Gibson and a number of his illegitimate children. At her most irritated, Terry "smarts" from the pain Ted's decisions cause her and writes angry letters, venting her irritation to May. In a footnote, Cockin reveals that Terry's two children between them took more than ten thousand pounds from Terry over a few years.

Terry's letters also provide a rich sense of what her life as a working woman was like and how she handled or delegated the handling of her money. When she and Irving are traveling and giving readings, she reports in detail on her considerable earnings, but even after getting a benefit cheque for £435, she confides she is "penniless." At one point, she plans to lend Irving £350 to help underwrite his production costs. Though Coleridge often warns her against spending too much and lending large sums to Irving and her family members, he usually fails to persuade her and eventually she turns to others for financial advice.

Among the more poignant of her letters are those she writes to her son about his father, Godwin, whom she calls a "peerless" architect and who--as the father of her children-- lives forever in their mother's heart. She asks Ted to provide her with sketches of the Northampton Town Hall, an architectural wonder designed by his father when he was a young man. Regretting that she has told Ted so little about his father, she longs to talk with him at length about this remarkable genius with a vision long before his time. Prescient about her own son's artistic talents and his gifts as a designer, she clearly thought they sprang from his father's genes.

Volume 2 concludes with Henry Irving's revival; a performance by Terry and Irving of Tennyson's play, Becket, for Queen Victoria; Irving's poorly received portrayal of King Lear; and Terry and Irving's vacation in Canada followed by their trip to San Francisco to inaugurate the Lyceum Theatre Company's fourth tour of North America. Among the many notable people Terry meets are Prime Minister Gladstone and the actor Edwin Booth.

As I have already indicated, these two volumes give us more of Terry's correspondence with Shaw than has been published before Though I have not examined these sources myself, Cockin appears to have identified all published versions of these letters along with the originals, and in footnotes to many of them she explains any departures from earlier published versions, particularly the Christopher St. John edition of the Terry/Shaw correspondence.

Terry's correspondence with Shaw began in 1892, when she wrote to him about a young Italian singer, Elvira Gambogi, whom she wished to assist. The first of her letters to him included in Volume 2 immediately sets the tone of their correspondence. Though she says that she had not liked him at first, thinking him "unkind, & exceedingly fit and prim," she now sends "her bestest thanks for your long last splendid letter..." (2:133). In her next letter she finds it amusing that she could have thought him "huffy" and gently teases him about having thought her an "ignoramus"(2:133). Though her ensuing letters to Shaw are flirtatious, sometimes childlike and sometimes coquettish, she can insightfully critique both his plays and the theater. These letters also hint at what she might have written to other men in letters that have been almost entirely destroyed or lost, and that can barely be found in this collection. Shaw first wrote Terry, Cockin believes, in quest of a patron and opportunities to have his plays produced by Henry Irving, but she also finds the relationship and the reasons behind it more complex than Holroyd has suggested.

The letters of Volume 3 show how the experience of meeting each other in 1902 changed the relationship between Terry and Shaw. Far from charming each other, they seem to have initiated a long mutual chill. At one point, when Shaw asks Ellen to press one of his plays on Irving right after panning his work in a review, Terry is dismayed to be pulled apart between the two men. Consequently, Cockin challenges Holroyd's claim that Shaw and Terry simply "played at love" in their letters (qtd. 3: xii). Cockin finds the relationship more complex. "Playful flirting and attentiveness," she writes, "threatened to mutate into pestering obsession and addiction" (3:xvii).

The letters of Volume 3 chart the last days of the Lyceum and various other mostly grim developments. When a fire burns all the scenery in Southwark, Irving re-lives the financial trials of his youth but nonetheless makes time for a fashion writer and gossip columnist named Eliza Aria, whom he marries; Shaw's marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend draws him further away from Terry; an actor friend of Terry's named William Terriss is murdered; while turning fifty, receiving a marriage proposal from Joe Evans, conducting other flirtations, and watching Irving decline from good health, Terry becomes a grandmother, which enrages her. And her children are not much help. Leaving his marriage after four children are born and leaving the stage as well, her son Ted turns towards art and design. Edy meets Christopher St John, who becomes her partner for life. And Terry suffers a series of blows: the deaths of her father and her sister Florence; the drastic financial losses of her elder sister Kate, also an actress, who was thereby forced back onto the stage; and continued bouts of very poor health and serious difficulties with her eyesight.

The letters bristle with fascinating tips on acting, such as how to project the voice, the elocutionary conventions, and the desirability of using a musical lilt and mastering the stage whisper. Advising Edward (Ted) not to lose his voice, she tells him to let simple feeling and the music of the words be all, and to practice opening his eyes and animating his face with increasing speed and intensity so as to suit the idea he wants to express. As for acting with Irving, Terry claims that she can always cure him of ill temper. Of her own acting, she writes, she feels "light" and "airy" on the stage. Knowing the crowds love her, she tells Shaw that she has no gift for "imitation"; she mocks the "silly-fool-asses" who praise her acting for being so "real," calling it "natural" and trying to marry her off to every man she acts with.

The first three volumes of this new edition of Terry's letters are an important contribution to theater scholarship. Closely examining variant versions of the letters, restoring missing punctuation, words, and deleted passages, and offering many new letters, these volumes reveal a woman whose offstage performances on paper won the admiration of many, including Virginia Woolf. Besides vividly demonstrating her talents as a transcriber and annotator, they document the life of Terry as an actress, mistress, wife, mother, celebrity, and patron of the arts. They also capture many aspects of the Victorian age. "The act of letter-writing," Cockin declares, "seems to have been Ellen Terry's means of keeping herself fully embodied and alive between performances" (3: xviii). I look forward to the forthcoming volumes not only to learn about the later years of Terry's life, but also to use the index promised at the conclusion and begin to make even greater use of this potentially powerful work of scholarship.

Carol Simpson Stern is Professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University School of Communications.

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