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Anna Trench. Derek Parker

Caught in the Act

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I waited until my wife was looking the other way, nipped quickly in and bought it. Admittedly, it weighed six pounds, its heavy leather binding was rather battered and, as the label said, it ‘lacks part of brass lock’; but it was irresistible, even at £50 – once clearly irresistible, too, to His Majesty King Edward VII, a collection of dukes and duchesses, and ‘the whole of the leading members of the theatrical profession’, all of whom had been ‘pleased to subscribe, in advance of publication’.

The latter group provides the clue, of course. The Stage in the Year 1900 is ‘a de luxe souvenir, being a collection of photogravure plates portraying the leading players and playwrights of the day and a history of the stage during the Victorian era’. I’m perfectly aware that such a book is only likely to appeal to someone besotted with the theatre and the fusty glamour of stages on which the curtain has long since fallen for ever. It’s just that I simply can’t help being one of them.

I’m also aware that it’s one of those books which surely defines the word ‘obscure’. But what pleasure we can get from obscure books – in this case meeting from the thick matt pages the stern gazes of Sir Squire Bancroft and Mr Beerbohm Tree, the keen glance of the wonderfully handsome Lewis Waller and the mournful stare of the great comedian Charles Hawtrey. The ladies, too, send their greetings in stately, melting gazes‒‒ Miss Julia Neilson (‘a celebrated Princess Pannonia in The Princess and the Butterfly’), Miss Ellen Terry (‘her name is known wherever the English language is spoken’) and Mrs Langtry, in an alarming hat, ‘whose beauty and personal charm have fascinated playgoers both in England and America’. No prizes for guessing where King Edward left his bookmark.

The pleasure of obscure books lies partly in the belief that almost no one else possesses or wants to possess them – at least, that is how it seems; otherwise, surely, they would not have lurked so long in the murky corners of second-hand bookshops. It was, of all places, in a second-hand bookshop in Australia’s Blue Mountains that I picked up a book published in London in 1810: The Lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes, Esq., and the Countess of Strathmore by Jesse Foot, Esq., Surgeon. It was clearly worth a look, if only for the villainous frontispiece portrait of Bowes, and it turned out to

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I waited until my wife was looking the other way, nipped quickly in and bought it. Admittedly, it weighed six pounds, its heavy leather binding was rather battered and, as the label said, it ‘lacks part of brass lock’; but it was irresistible, even at £50 – once clearly irresistible, too, to His Majesty King Edward VII, a collection of dukes and duchesses, and ‘the whole of the leading members of the theatrical profession’, all of whom had been ‘pleased to subscribe, in advance of publication’.

The latter group provides the clue, of course. The Stage in the Year 1900 is ‘a de luxe souvenir, being a collection of photogravure plates portraying the leading players and playwrights of the day and a history of the stage during the Victorian era’. I’m perfectly aware that such a book is only likely to appeal to someone besotted with the theatre and the fusty glamour of stages on which the curtain has long since fallen for ever. It’s just that I simply can’t help being one of them. I’m also aware that it’s one of those books which surely defines the word ‘obscure’. But what pleasure we can get from obscure books – in this case meeting from the thick matt pages the stern gazes of Sir Squire Bancroft and Mr Beerbohm Tree, the keen glance of the wonderfully handsome Lewis Waller and the mournful stare of the great comedian Charles Hawtrey. The ladies, too, send their greetings in stately, melting gazes‒‒ Miss Julia Neilson (‘a celebrated Princess Pannonia in The Princess and the Butterfly’), Miss Ellen Terry (‘her name is known wherever the English language is spoken’) and Mrs Langtry, in an alarming hat, ‘whose beauty and personal charm have fascinated playgoers both in England and America’. No prizes for guessing where King Edward left his bookmark. The pleasure of obscure books lies partly in the belief that almost no one else possesses or wants to possess them – at least, that is how it seems; otherwise, surely, they would not have lurked so long in the murky corners of second-hand bookshops. It was, of all places, in a second-hand bookshop in Australia’s Blue Mountains that I picked up a book published in London in 1810: The Lives of Andrew Robinson Bowes, Esq., and the Countess of Strathmore by Jesse Foot, Esq., Surgeon. It was clearly worth a look, if only for the villainous frontispiece portrait of Bowes, and it turned out to be obscure not only in itself (does anyone else have a copy?) but also in the story it told of the wooing and abduction of the richest heiress in early nineteenth-century Britain, the Countess of Strathmore (the present Queen’s great-great-great-grandmother). She was handsome and intelligent but fell prey to a seducer of the first order. Stoney Bowes married her for her fortune; was furious when she declined to sign it over; beat her up and made off with her to the north where he imprisoned her; and when rescue threatened carried her on horseback over frozen fields and icy ditches before their capture and her escape. She saw her husband brought to trial (Horace Walpole among the fascinated onlookers) and Bowes came to a Bad End, with a minor part in literary history as the inspiration for Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon – the author heard the story from the Countess’s grandson, thirty years after the events. Almost a century and a half later, Foot’s obscure book prompted me to research the story further and write my own account of it. The most obscure book can sometimes earn its place. Probably more obscure even than Foot’s volume, and I suspect even less likely to be on any other shelf except perhaps that of the British Library, is Representative Actors, a collection of criticisms, anecdotes, personal descriptions, etc., etc., referring to many Celebrated British Actors from the Sixteenth to the Present Century; with Notes, memoirs, and a short account of English acting, published in 1850 by one William Clark Russell. I have no idea who he was, but he was clearly as besotted by actors and acting as I, and his book is crammed with irresistibly fascinating facts and anecdotes. What would one give to have seen Ned Kynaston? When Pepys saw him perform twice in the same week, once in a male and once in a female role, he pronounced him the prettiest woman and the handsomest man in the whole house. Colley Cibber, the manager and playwright, remarked that Kynaston ‘was so beautiful a youth that the ladies of quality prided themselves in taking him with them in their coaches to Hyde Park in his theatrical habit, after the play’. Kynaston appeared in petticoats even after Nell Gwyn and other women had taken to the stage – it was he who held up the start of a performance attended by Charles II who, when he enquired the reason for the delay, was told that ‘the queen was not shaved yet’. A century later, Peg Woffington was a beautiful actress one of whose greatest successes was en travestie as Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple. She was not celebrated for sexual reticence. When, after one performance as Wildair, she remarked, ‘In my conscience, I believe half the men in the audience take me for one of their own sex,’ another actress replied, ‘It may be so; but in my conscience, the other half can convince them to the contrary.’ Poverty then as now stalked the profession, and most actors bore the inevitable with an often witty shrug of the shoulders. When Ned Shuter (who created the roles of Mr Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer and Sir Anthony Absolute in The Rivals) was rebuked by a friend with, ‘Aren’t you ashamed to appear in the street with twenty holes in your stockings? – why don’t you get them mended?’ the fine comic actor replied, ‘No, my friend. I am above it; better have twenty holes than one darn . . . a hole is the accident of the day, but a darn is premeditated poverty.’ The writers whom WCR quotes do their best to describe the quality of their subjects’ acting but, then as now, that was notoriously difficult to convey. The best most people could do was in the line of one of Sam Rogers’s dinner guests, who asked about the great Garrick. Rogers replied: ‘“Well, sir, off the stage he was a mean sneaking little fellow. But on the stage” – throwing up his hands and eyes – “oh, my great God!” ’ Mrs Clive, who often appeared with Garrick, ‘was one night seen standing at the wing, weeping and scolding alternately at his acting. Angry at last at finding herself so affected, she turned on her heel, crying, “D‒‒‒‒ him, he could act a grid-iron!”’ George III and Prinny were both avid theatre-goers, though the latter ‘could not bear the harrowing of the heart that Kean’s Othello gave him’. His father once took Queen Charlotte to Covent Garden to see John Henderson in a melodrama, The Mysterious Husband. In the last act, the hero dies, and Henderson was clearly too good: ‘Charlotte,’ exclaimed His Majesty, ‘don’t look – it’s too much to bear!’ WCR pays some attention to back-stage matters, quite properly, and celebrates one or two scene-painters and prompters. He quotes George Colman on the legendary Johnstone, who worked at Drury Lane. Johnstone was much occupied at Christmas-time ensuring that the Lane’s pantomime was more spectacular than Covent Garden’s. One year a friend got him into the dress rehearsal at the Garden, where among the attractions of the Christmas foolery a real elephant was introduced. In due time the unwieldy brute came clumping down the stage, making a prodigious figure in a procession. The friend jogged Johnson’s elbow, whispering: ‘This is a bitter bad job for Drury.  Why, the elephant’s alive! – he’ll carry all before him. What d’ye think on’t, eh?’ ‘Think on’t!’ said Johnstone, in a tone of the utmost contempt; ‘I should be very sorry if I couldn’t make a much better elephant than that at any time.’ I could go on – but I mustn’t. All things – all actors – must come to an end. A Mr Norris died on stage in 1776.  Twelve years later his wife, known as Mrs Barry, was appearing in Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent in the town in which he had died. In the last act, her character, Calista, had to lay her hand upon a skull. When she did so, she was immediately struck by an intense feeling of horror, and had to be carried to her lodging. Next day, she made enquiries – and yes, dear reader, the skull was her husband’s. She died within six weeks. I still haunt second-hand booksellers and charity shops, ever open to the temptations of the unfinished memoirs of Arthur Quiller-Couch, de Lauze’s Dancing and Deportment (1623), Ronald Firbank’s Odette d’Antrevernes, the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811), A Prognostication, of right good effect, contayninge playne, briefe, pleafant, chofen rules to iudge the wether for euer by Leonard Digges (1555, but alas a nineteenth-century reprint)   Obscure? – yes, but how helpful: ‘Sunne beames fpottid, grene, pale or blacke fignifie rayne’) . . .

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Derek Parker 2016


About the contributor

Derek Parker lives in Sydney with his wife and two wirehaired terriers. His account of the adventures of Mary Eleanor Bowes, The Trampled Wife (2006), is readily available from good bookshops.

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