Dr Katharine Cockin is Reader
in English at the University
of Hull and Principal
Investigator of the AHRC
Ellen Terry and Edith Craig
She teaches a wide variety
of MA and undergraduate
modules, including Literature
and Law, Contemporary
Literature, modern drama
and literature of the First
World War. Her forthcoming
publication, The Collected
Letters of Ellen Terry:
Volume One, will be published
by Pickering and Chatto in
Ellen Terry, the enigmatic performer who achieved worldwide fame in the late 19th-century, has inspired some of the world’s most distinguished artists, writers and biographers. In 1889, John Singer Sargent painted ’Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth’ (1889), while in 1923 and 1935 Virginia Woolf wrote the play Freshwater about Terry. Terry’s life has been documented by distinguished literature academic Professor Nina Auerbach in the 1987 text Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time, and by renowned biographer Sir Michael Holroyd, in A Strange Eventful History (2008), a group biography of Terry, Henry Irving and their families. These and other works of art inspired by or devoted to Terry are invariably innovative and experimental, responding perhaps to the exceptional and often contradictory facets of this remarkable woman who also achieved great things in her private life, maintaining a family and pursuing her desires in and out of marriage.
The details of Ellen Terry’s life are now becoming more accessible. The first conference to be held on Ellen Terry and her daughter, Edith Craig (at the University of Hull on 6 June), included Holroyd, who spoke of Terry’s intimate and controlling relationship with her son, and Auerbach, whose lecture focussed on Terry’s ’Lost Lives’. The conference was also the occasion for the launch of a new AHRC-funded online resource, describing one of the largest archives of its kind in the UK. It represents the culmination of over 20 years of my work in cataloguing the papers of Terry and Craig (over 20,000 items), which are owned by the National Trust. With few resources, the project began as a card index of Edith Craig’s papers and, eventually, with funding from the University of Hull and Society for Theatre Research, it grew into a database. But it was not until the award of £85,720 by the AHRC in 2006 that the project could be completed, with the help of Julian Halliwell at SimplicityWeb.co.uk, as an online database with its own website www.elleterryarchive.hull.ac.uk While this resource was originally intended for researchers (in theatre studies, gender studies, literary studies and history of art), its brief summaries of the content of the papers provide a glimpse of the activities of Terry, Craig and their circle and make it useful and accessible to lecturers and teachers in various contexts.
Dame Ellen Terry © National Trust
Ellen Terry is one of the most famous of English performers, known especially for her work opposite Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in the roles of Ophelia, Beatrice, Portia and Lady Macbeth. As the glittering Queen she is portrayed by John Singer Sargent holding the crown aloft. The costume she is wearing is currently receiving careful restoration work by the National Trust. Remarkably, its outer layer is crocheted and decorated with beetle wings. Sargent’s image provides a useful visual reference point in the classroom. It captures the imagination and conveys the power of the character in Shakespeare’s tragedy. The creation of the costume itself would, no doubt, fascinate younger students exploring technology, textiles and performance, especially how to interpret a character through costume and to consider the effects under specific forms of lighting. There was a great deal of debate at the recent conference at the University of Hull about Terry’s presentation in stage costume in photographs and the extent to which make-up and textiles operate metonymically and in relationship to the metaphorical dimension of the actor’s movement and gesture in time and space. Terry’s own published lectures on Shakespeare offer an actor’s insight into various aspects of his plays at a time when the actor’s status was only recently established. In this context, students might be set the question: How did the female performer in the 19th-century engage with the performance of Shakespeare? Terry’s lectures on Shakespeare’s women were appropriated by the women’s suffrage movement in Britain and abroad. The use of theatre practitioners to assist in the skills of public speaking as well as performing plays was central to the British women’s suffrage movement. On stage, the female body provided an opportunity to challenge the prevailing separate spheres ideology which relegated the middle-class woman in this period to the private and domestic sphere and attempted to ban her from the public world of politics and work.
As an exceptional woman of the period, Terry is useful to provoke debate in any seminar on female subjectivity in the 19th-century.
Helping students question conventional theatre history
In the teaching of political theatre and the interdisciplinary aesthetic engagement with politics, Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig (1869–1947) also makes a promising subject for study. Unfortunately, 10 years after I published her biography (Cassell, 1998), she is still a prime candidate for the practice of recovery of women hidden in history. It is probably in lesbian history that she has retained the most secure position. Craig was one of the most influential theatre directors of her day. She has been claimed as the inspiration for Miss LaTrobe, a character in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941) who directs a village play aboutthe history of England. In the interwar period, Craig was a national figure in the promotion of amateur theatre in Britain. In 1919, she was a central figure in the British Drama League (BDL), formed to promote theatre throughout Britain and create a lasting peace. In an exercise on searching online newspapers, students may be invited to find the accounts in The Times newspaper of the setting up of the BDL. In the 1920s, Craig worked outside the capital, in the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, and as Art Director of the Leeds Art Theatre. Most significant and overlooked is her work in the Pioneer Players theatre society, which produced many politically motivated plays supportive of women’s suffrage, socialism and vegetarianism.
Edith Craig © National Trust
After 1915, the Pioneer Players became London’s Art Theatre, producing plays in translation by major authors such as Herman Heijermans, Torahiko Kori, Salvatore de Giacomo, Jose Echegeray, Nikolai Evreinov, Paul Claudel and Anton Chekhov. Anyone teaching 20th-century theatre and seeking to question the conventional theatre history of this period, which sees art theatre as exclusively taking place abroad, should make use of these productions, reviews of which are available in national newspapers.
The Pioneer Players also produced plays by George Bernard Shaw and Susan Glaspell, notably Trifles, one of the most canonical of feminist and American plays. As a lesbian, feminist and socialist, active in the British women’s suffrage movement and theatre, Craig has a fascinating place in 20th-century history. George Bernard Shaw noted that Edward Gordon Craig had become world famous by virtue of producing very few plays while his sister (Edith) was virtually unknown but had produced everything. In a level 6 Autobiography module I set the students an independent study exercise supported by VLE, to explore online biographical resources and produce a comparative analysis of entries for the same subject. This raised awareness of the authorship of reference material and deters students from regarding the Internet as a sea of anonymously authored data. In a seminar at MA level I have introduced an intertextual study of Between the Acts and Freshwater. The familiarity of Woolf’s writings to MA students and the unfamiliarity of her play, Freshwater, and the contextual information concerning Craig have produced some lively discussions and reinvigorated the students’ approach to Woolf. The discovery of her life may be used in an exercise on using the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as a biographical online resource or in the teaching of modernism. In seminars on biographical study skills, students may examine Terry’s birth, marriage and death certificates online at www.familyrecords.gov.uk/frc/extra/terry2.htm
Pedagogy and epistolary writing
Writing letters was the principal means of communication in Terry’s day, and she, more than most, was addicted to the practice. If she were alive today she would no doubt be queen of the Twitterati. More than 2,000 of her letters survive, providing a fascinating insight into the daily life of the actor, her struggles with her health and the maintenance of her life bringing up two children – often as a lone parent. In these respects, I have used Terry as a case study in a seminar on the module convened by Professor Valerie Sanders, ’Family Matters’, on the MA in Victorian Studies at the University of Hull. Ellen Terry is striking as a Victorian figure categorised as a ’fallen woman’, having eloped with Edward Godwin, the famous architect and father of her two children outside marriage. She is also ahead of her time in her final marriage in 1907, when she was 60 years old, to the American actor, James Carew, 29 years her junior. Terry’s life story provides some unusual examples of familial interaction in the 19th-century as well as the gendered nature of letter writing. Although the examination of letters as primary texts may be unfamiliar to literary students, they will have encountered them in the epistolary novel. In Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), the servant girl’s letters become the object of her master’s lust. While the popular model letter-writing manuals in the 18th-century demonstrated the seriousness with which the letter, as a representation of its author, was taken, it also revealed the assumption that epistolary conventions might be taught as well as learned. What can letters tell us about their correspondent and addressee? The MA students who explored Ellen Terry’s life in the ’Family Matters’ module were intrigued by the detective work involved in dating letters and dealing with difficult handwriting, and it has enriched their understanding of the published material, the extracts from Terry’s autobiography, biographies and her published correspondence with George Bernard Shaw.
Screenshot of the database
Students are usually fascinated by the visual form of Terry’s epistolary writings, her idiosyncratic but systematic encoding of the text by means of multiple underlinings; her invention of names for herself and the invitation to her addressees to rename themselves for the purpose of their correspondence. Thus she becomes Nell, Nellie, Ellen, Ellenor, Ellenest, Old Gandy; Albert Fleming, the friend who sent her daffodils from the Lake District every spring, was Daffy; Pauline Chase, one of the performers of Peter Pan, became Sweet Polenta or Pollikins. Using the online catalogue, students could select ’correspondence’ as a document type, collecting examples of pseudonyms used by correspondents and addressees. What data becomes available from a letter is not as straightforward as it might seem. In literary studies, letters are often used alongside autobiographies, as transparent repositories of data about a subject, informing the contextualisation of the literary text. However, within the field of auto/biography the letter itself becomes a resonant text, the location of words on the page a matter for interpretation and the process of dating and situating it in the broader historical landscape is one which usually grips the students’ imagination and naturally opens up a discussion of historicism and cultural materialism.
A suitably complex subject
In the field of auto/biography, Terry provides a complex subject since, she published her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1908) and, after her death, her daughter and her daughter’s partner revised and edited the text as Ellen Terry’s Memoirs (1933). Various possible questions arise from these texts, including the detective project of textual variants. The way in which Terry deals with the details of her children, born outside marriage in 1869 and 1872, is an intriguing example of storytelling and the magisterial evasion of the ’fallen woman’ role. Philippe Lejeune’s concept of the ’autobiographical pact’ may be introduced into the discussion of Terry’s relationship to the reader of her life story. To what extent does she present the kind of truth on offer as one which is embedded in the theatrical and, at times, even the gothic rather than a straightforward contract of verifiable data? Artistic – or performative – license is somehow understood from the start; it is, after all, ’the story’ of her life. It is the only one she has on offer. It is quite different from the stories which emerge from her archive and from the thousands of letters she wrote.
The Ellen Terry and Edith Craig Database
By Julian Halliwell, SimplicityWeb.co.uk
How it was built
The database – freely available online at
http://ellenterryarchive.hull.ac.uk -– has been designed to present an easy to use, but powerful search interface to the 20,000+ documents described in the catalogue. It was developed over a period of approximately 12 months, beginning with a prototype, a mock-up allowing Dr Cockin to see exactly what the finished website would look like. This is a crucial stage in the design process during which hidden issues and details can be uncovered and worked through iteratively before any programming is carried out. After several rounds of detailed discussion and initial adjustments, feedback was sought from invited colleagues to further improve and simplify the design.
Once the ‘front-end’ was agreed, work could begin to construct the ‘back-end’ database, web and search systems and transfer the originally collected data. A private administration system was also built to allow the data to be maintained, extended and exported to a printed catalogue.
How it works
The main way of interacting with the database is through keyword searching (a convenient pop-up window beside the search box offers search tips and examples). In addition to familiar tools such as ‘Did you mean?’ suggestions and ‘search within’, a number of specially developed features are unobtrusively available to help users find items relevant to their interests:
• Tickboxes allow filters to be applied in any combination to limit results to specific types of document (e.g. letters, images, programmes etc) or those with particular attributes (e.g. handwritten, annotated etc)
• For research or teaching programmes with a narrow historical focus, a precise period may be specified, benefiting from the systematic recording of dates, present and inferred, wherever possible in the catalogue
• Where correspondence is the primary focus, boxes can be ticked to search the names of letter writers and/or recipients only
• A ‘search expansion’ facility operates behind the scenes to match particular search terms and phrases to known alternatives so that relevant results are not missed. For example, a search for ‘James Carew’ will also match documents containing only ‘Jim Carew’
Results are ordered by relevance and present the key information for each matching document according to its type, including dates and the first few lines summarising its content. Each full record is displayed in a concise, print-friendly format and includes details of any literary or other works referenced. A number of suggested searches are included on the website as a starting point. A detailed guide to the collection, further reading and links are also provided.