Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Ellen Terry, the Ghost-Writer and the Laughing Statue: The Victorian Actress, Letters and Life-Writing

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Ellen Terry, the Ghost-Writer and the Laughing Statue: The Victorian Actress, Letters and Life-Writing

Article excerpt

For Ellen Terry (1847-1928), distinguished performer, exceptional woman prolific correspondent, the letter was a site where self-doubt could be exorcized. She wrote to her friend, Bertha Bramley, 'Not being able to do my work makes me anxious and fearful -- suppose my voice never comes back!' (1) Her voice remains, irrepressibly, literary, even at such times: 'I've been hoarse for the best part of a month, & this morning the remnant of my voice flew away'. (2) Terry's biographers have faced a dilemma. At a time when she was unable to perform or even to speak, she managed to continue to write. letters. Roger Manvell muses on this with proprietorial desire:

How many hundreds or even thousands of these letters now survive it is difficult to assess, but there are many in private hands as well as in public collections. Most of them are the small change of daily arrangements -- visiting her friends, sending them theatre seats, giving instructions to her dressmaker, giving help or offering advice, settling her domestic affairs. All are characterised by her immediate spontaneity of expression. (3)

Biographers have routinely used letters as primary sources, presumed to be revelatory in their spontaneous expression to a known, intended readership. Interpretative coherence is often sought in the entire body of letters of a subject, or even in the collation of both sides of a correspondence. For Terry, letter-writing was a lifetime habit. Autobiographical forms including the letter have been regarded as especially liberating for the actress in the Victorian period. Gail Marshall has argued that, like Galatea, the statue from Ovid's Metamorphoses with whom Pygmalion falls in love, the actress was denied the creative power of the sculptor but the 'Galatea aesthetic' is disturbed when actresses, such as Ellen Terry, write their life story: 'Terry's autobiographical writings, along with her annotations, and letters, all forms of self-writing, retrospectively disrupt her spectacular appeal, and dispute Galatea's form and function on the Victorian stage'. (4) The private letter and the published autobiography, as modes of life-writing, lend themselves to different self-representations given their different intended readership. Critics have tended to associate women's letters with privacy, authenticity and transparency, creating a simple opposition between public and private, whereby an unrestrained private epistolary self is repressed in the public, published domain. Archival evidence demonstrates that Terry's relationship to letter-writing, to autobiography, and to the aesthetic generally, was contradictory and involved a complex negotiation, even exploitation, of the 'Galatea aesthetic'.

Unpublished letters in the Ellen Terry archive show that, while Terry was an uninhibited correspondent, she engaged a ghost-writer for published autobiographical writings and public lectures. The ghost-writer was Christopher St John, the adopted name of Christabel Marshall the female partner of Terry's daughter, Edith Craig. Both St John and Craig co-edited Ellen Terry's Memoirs (1933), drawing on a selection of Terry's letters. Although their representation of Terry has been questioned, I will argue in this article that unpublished correspondence provides a new perspective on Terry as performer, author and employer. Indeed, Terry's relationship with her ghostwriter provides a further challenge to the role of the statuesque and disempowered actress.

Ellen Terry regarded performance in the theatre both as a job and as a craft. The conflicting positions of famous performer and working mother were negotiated by her in private correspondence to friends, where she was able to acknowledge the difficulties of managing illness and learning lines. When she wrote to Bertha Bramley that acting was her 'work', she felt no need for apology or justification. Although her field of work was beginning to be understood in professional terms, the rising status of the actor and actress experienced different rates of acceleration. …

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