Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Helen Taylor Becomes Miss Trevor, Actress

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Helen Taylor Becomes Miss Trevor, Actress

Article excerpt

Helen Taylor was born in Shoreditch, London on 27 July 1831, the third child and only daughter of Harriet and John Taylor, a wholesale druggist. her mother was a member of William Fox's unitarian political and social reforming circle, where she had met and fallen in love with the economic philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1830. Mill and Harriet Taylor shared an interest in feminism and reform politics and Harriet left her husband for Mill, though the relationship remained discreet. John Taylor sanctioned an arrangement where Helen and her mother lived alone in walton, Surrey, with Mill a regular visitor. Harriet and Mill withdrew socially and thus, to avoid the constant interest of acquaintances in their living arrangements, often journeyed in europe. Relations with Helen's biological father remained good and Helen's adolescent diary records happy visits from her father and paternal grandmother. (2) When John Taylor was dying, in 1849, Helen and her mother nursed him and Harriet's letters to Mill during this time show genuine affection for her husband. (3) In 1851, two years after her husband's death, and twenty years after first meeting, Harriet and Mill married.

This article will examine Helen Taylor's life as a novice actress between 1856 and 1858 when she was in her mid-twenties. Christopher Kent's 1977 article takes up this same topic, but does not emphasize in detail how Helen Taylor's early life led her to follow an acting career nor the historical circumstances which opened up more acting opportunities for women and non-theatre-connected actors in the 1850s. The authors of the current article also differ from Kent in their assessment of her actions in not returning to the theatre after her mother's death. Helen Taylor became more than Mill's secretary, as claimed by Kent, taking on an important role in focusing her step-father to finish the essay On the Subjection of Women and his involvement in the parliamentary support of women's suffrage. This study also proposes that Helen Taylor's work in the theatre was a preparation for her later performance in public work, not only as an advocate of woman suffrage, but also in terms of her work for the London School Board, her part in founding the Social Democratic Federation in 1881, her advocacy of land reform in Ireland, and her attempt to become a candidate for parliament in 1885 before women had achieved the vote. (4) The authors will emphasise Helen Taylor's comments on her experiences as an actress as an example of a young lady with a sheltered, privileged upbringing learning about the world and the lives lived by people who were a pay packet away from hunger and homelessness, a world she strove so hard to change in later life.

Helen had a privileged intellectual development as the constant companion of her feminist mother, who wrote a number of influential essays. The most well-known of these is The Enfranchisement of Women, published in 1851. In this work Harriet called for equality for women in employment opportunity, education and the law. She argued that women's subordination was not innate but rather a result of society's expectations of what it was to be born male or female. She believed, therefore, in what many have taken to be a more modern theory, that gender is socially constructed. Harriet worked closely with Mill in his political writings and he based his Subjugation of Women on his wife's earlier work. Harriet has been credited with radicalising Mill with her socialist feminism (Robson and Robson). (5)

Helen may have been raised in an intellectual environment but it appears to have been fairly isolated. Her diaries, held in the Mill Taylor Collection of the London School of Economics and at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, show that her only close friend was one of her brothers, Algernon, to whom she remained devoted. Her elder brother, Herbert, seems to have been estranged from his mother and siblings quite early on. …

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