Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.
Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.
The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).
Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.
Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.
But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.
Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.
Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.
There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.
But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.
I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).
In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!
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.