At the moment, I’m researching Mrs. Patrick Campbell (born Beatrice Tanner; familiarly called Stella). Mrs. Campbell is most famous for her “Pinerotic” roles in the 1890s, such as The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith; for her Hedda Gabler; and as the original Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
I, however, am interested in her Shakespearean roles. In the late 1880s and until about 1893, she had several successes in roles like Rosalind; then, at the other end of the decade, she played the trio of tragic roles that most interest me. These were, in order, Juliet (1895), Ophelia (1897) and Lady Macbeth (1898).
With the Bodleian Library doing various interminable and obscure things in the way of moving book depositories, I wasn’t able to get my hands on Mrs. Pat’s autobiography for weeks, and ended up reading everything but; finally, I caved, and bought it myself, on Ebay.
I originally conceived my doctoral project as a study of Shakespearean actresses’ autobiographies (and later, as a study of writings by actresses on the women of the Late Plays), and even though my textual focus has shifted (both in and out), I feel as if, until now, my research has been hobbled by not having My Life and Some Letters in front of me.
I may say that Mrs Pat’s name-dropping makes Madge Kendal and Constance Benson look positively restrained. I enjoy old theatrical memoirs very much for their own sake (and am looking forward to reading Irene Vanbrugh’s, on Simon’s recommendation), but this one balances incredibly useful, challenging/problematic insights (v. wholesome and good for thesis) with delicious and irresistible snobbery. Bless her, it seems she had no friends without titles. She makes me want to be called Frances something, COUNTESS of MADEUPPLACE. And then write gushy, borderline-homoerotic letters to actresses. An impulse which society cruelly demands I subdue.
Campbell is much more open about her life than Langtry (although omitting the affair with Johnston Forbes-Robertson) and – unlike Ellen Terry – absolutely fascinating in her detailed discussion of her children. I’ve just got to the bit where her son, Beo, dies in the First World War. For the first time reading one of these memoirs, I found myself welling up.
I’m also interested in Campbell’s apparently disastrous second marriage, which goes from huge affection (her son, particularly, seems to have held him in high esteem) to breakdown in a very few pages. Reading about the suicide of Elizabeth Robins’s first husband, who put on a suit of armour, then jumped into the Charles River; and about the complicated life of William Hunter Kendal has interested me in theatrical husbands.
Mrs Patrick Campbell’s second husband was George Cornwallis-West. Major Cornwallis-West (who had been rumoured to be Edward VII’s lovechild) first married the stunning Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston and twenty years his senior; he remarried to Stella Campbell just five days after their divorce. The marriage broke down in 1921; Cornwallis-West also seems to have been plagued by financial troubles for most of his life. In 1940, the year of Stella’s death, he remarried for a third time, to a Mrs. Georgette Hirsch. In 1951, while suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he took his own life.
Never a dull moment, with this lot, but what sad & eventful stories.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.