What do Robert Browning, Anna Maria Hall, Geraldine Jewsbury, John Ruskin, and Anna Swanwick, have in common? Quite a bit, actually. But in the Folger’s collection, they were the five “recipients” of Helena Faucit’s essays that formed the volume On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters.
Helena Faucit (Lady Martin, later in life—her husband Theodore Martin was knighted as reward for his biography of Prince Albert, and both were confidants of Queen Victoria) began her London theatrical career in 1836, at the age of 22.
She began her career at Covent Garden, often opposite William Macready, and followed him to the Haymarket theater when he moved there in 1839. Initially she was cast in tragic or romantic roles, but they soon discovered that Faucit had a gift for the comedic, and particularly for roles that ran the full gamut of emotions. Faucit came into her own in the 1840s playing outside of London: she won both popular and critical acclaim in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, and even Paris.
In addition to Shakespearean roles (Lady Macbeth, Juliet, and Rosalind were particular favorites of both Faucit and her audiences), Faucit won great acclaim for her titular roles in English productions of Antigone and Iphigenia at Aulis. One of her final performances was for the opening of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1879. She played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (at a spry age 65, playing opposite an equally aged 58 year old Barry Sullivan as Benedict).
We hold several promptbooks for Faucit’s productions, including Prompt Rom. 9 which contains the wonderful note “Wait for Miss Faucits change of dress”:
This production also cut the whole of Act 1 Scene 3 (between Juliet and her mother), and at least part of Act 1 Scene 4 (although despite the strike through in the text, “in” is written in the margins next to Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, so presumably they found a way to leave that part in).
But what has this to do with Browning, Jewsbury, et al? Faucit and her husband were part of the overlapping circles that these eminent literary and social activists occupied. Geraldine Jewsbury, in particular, was a great friend of Faucit’s, and it was at Jewsbury’s insistence that the actress wrote down her thoughts about the various Shakespearean characters that she played. The first of these essays, on Ophelia, was written in the form of a letter to Jewsbury and was published in the January 1881 (vol. 129) issue of Blackwood’s Magazine. More essays followed in the magazine, each written as a letter to a friend, and in 1885 they were compiled into a single volume. The initial six essays (Ophelia, Portia, Desdemona, Juliet, Imogen, Rosalind, and Beatrice) gained a seventh sister in an essay on Hermione, which was added in the 1891 edition of the volume.
The publication was certainly something of a success, going through six editions between 1885 and 1904.
Part theatrical memoir, part acting methodology, these essays are a fascinating look into the interpretations of one of the 19th century’s leading actresses. Despite their “gushing style” (as the DNB entry on Faucit characterizes them), the essays show Faucit’s critical approach to her source material. Intent on finding the person behind the words, Faucit digs into the psyche of each of the characters. It is perhaps telling that the subtitle of the essays published in Blackwood’s is “by one who has personated them.” To play these characters was to inhabit them for Faucit and one trait they all shared was intelligence: over and over again in the essays, Faucit emphasizes the complex intellectual and emotional lives of the women she portrayed. No passive tools of fate and providence, Faucit scraped together every bit of agency that her characters were granted and shoved it to the fore.
All together, the essays paint as much of a picture of Faucit as they do of the characters she describes: independent, but happily partnered; passionate about her craft and her friends; someone who lived through the societal and moral transitions of Britain under the reign of Victoria.
My favorite image of Faucit is one from her biography, published by her husband just two years after her death. It is the final image in the book, and I like to think that was an intentional placement. No Victorian ingénue here, but a mature, sophisticated woman ready to take on the world:
A thoroughly modern Helena.