“Wonderful women! Have you ever thought how much we all, and women especially, owe to Shakespeare for his vindication of women in these fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines?” Dame Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry (1847-1928) appeared on stage for seventy years. During that time she married twice, managed a theater, toured the United States, taught and lectured, corresponded with George Bernard Shaw, was painted by John Singer Sargent, and wrote a very interesting memoir.

Most of the letters written to me I destroyed long ago, but the feeling of sweetness and light with which some of them filled me can never be destroyed. The task of reading and answering letters has been a heavy one all my life, but it would be ungrateful to complain of it. To some people expression is life itself. Half my letters begin: “I cannot help writing to tell you,” and I believe that this is the simple truth

Here’s a letter she wrote to her daughter about appearing as Lady Macbeth:

I wish you could see my dresses. They are superb, especially the first one: green beetles on it, and such a cloak! The photographs give no idea of it at all, for it is in color that it is so splendid. The dark red hair is fine. The whole thing is Rossetti rich stained-glass effects, I play some of it well, but, of course, I don’t do what I want to do yet. Meanwhile I shall not budge an inch in the reading of it, for that I know is right. Oh, it’s fun, but it’s precious hard work for I by no means make her a ‘gentle, lovable woman’ as some of ’em say. That’s all pickles. She was nothing of the sort, although she was not a fiend, and did love her husband. I have to what is vulgarly called ‘sweat at it,’ each night.

This is the painting Sargent created of Ellen Terry, as Lady Macbeth, that hangs in the Tate Gallery:

John Singer Sargent attended the premiere of Macbeth on December 28, 1888 and was inspired. Oscar Wilde, seeing the play sometime later had this to say,

“Lady Macbeth seems to be an economical housekeeper and evidently patronizes local industries for her husband’s clothes and servant’s liveries, but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium.”

Now I wanted to get back to this “fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines” business. As I’ve mentioned before my friend has written a book (actually he’s written several) and in it, he has crafted a marvelous character, a woman of a certain age who once was a nanny to royalty, was too fond of her tipple, and was fired. Battling her demons she shipped out to Kabul with a church group to aid British soldiers, there she wrote a letter that was stolen instead of delivered, causing an international incident — and how she copes with that you’ll just have to read about…

Which leads me to something I love to talk about, and I hope you do too, who is your favorite female character in a novel?

Care to comment?

 

9 comments

    • “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E.L. Konigsburg, that was my favorite book as a child. It’s about 12 year-old Claudia and her little brother, Jamie, they run away from home to live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, eluding security while living by Claudia’s wits — and solving a mystery involving a misattributed Michelangelo. I think I’ll re-read it! That, and all the Mary Poppins books, and Jo from “Little Woman” — which I find myself completely absorbed by and reinterpreting every few years.

      • Jo is actually the first one I thought of but I thought a lot of others would choose her! I like the sound of “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E.L. Konigsburg extremely and shall have to chase it up. Night, night from the Isle of Wight.

  1. I have always liked Dorothea Brooke in MIDDLEMARCH because she is so unworldly, gives away her share of the family jewels to her sister Celia, puts up with a terrible marriage to a dusty old scholar, but gets to be with a handsome man called Will at the end.

    • I have to read “Middlemarch” now, you’ve already got me rereading everything of Lillian Hellman’s I can get my hands on, but strictly speaking she’s her own heroine, and those books of hers are memoirs, not novels. A character I really loved in a contemporary novel was named Katey (I can’t remember her last name right now), she is the narrative voice of Amor Towles “Rules of Civility” — it’s about coming of age in Manhattan during the late 1930s. Very good stuff. Oh, and confession time, Patrick Dennis’s “Auntie Mame.” Nothing like a comedic heroine.

  2. George Kaplan

    I adore Singer Sargent’s work, just look at Lady Macbeth’s gown and hair, exquisite, simply exquisite.
    It’s ironical that it took years for women to finally get to play Shakespeare’s legendary female roles. Where would we be without the great actresses? Oh, I am not going to use the word “actor” for “actress” as it indicates there is something lesser about being a woman whether those who attack the word actress agree or not, it is the opposite of feminist. Yes, some will argue that we don’t use a female term for doctor but that’s an asinine argument. To argue that every word should be unisex is, I would argue, rejecting difference when in truth “difference” is good, difference is a strength. The male – and in some cases female or non-binary – cretins who think less of women aren’t about to change their idiot, antediluvian views if the word “actress” became beyond the pale and its goofy to think otherwise. Of course, I will at times call an a female actor, an “actor” as it can be used interchangeably and because I refuse to be anything other than mercurial! No one will get to the promised land by treating *all* specifically “gendered” terms as radioactive and well-intentioned self-righteousness won’t change that. These are “interesting” times but even as we make the world a better place for those who are not heterosexual or fortunate enough to be born the sex or in a stable gender identity they are comfortable with it ‘s important that we not demonize anyone who happens to be born, say, common or garden white or black, or female or male; after all very few people are just one thing, being a cis (stupid pigeon hole term) white heterosexual male doesn’t automatically mean you are a completely emotional or physically or psychologically or socially stable person, it doesn’t mean you are some kind of macho, stodgy-minded, racist, misogynist creature or simply uninteresting – and any one of any sexuality or background who says it does is a moron. Humans are humans, terrible inequities exist but being straight or gay or trans – or sex-fluid or black or white or Asian or what have you doesn’t make you bad or enlightened or fascinating or good or anything else and stating otherwise won’t defeat bigots or abusers of any stripe. Um, rant ends. Perhaps I should put a smiley emoji here? Okay, here ya go… 😊 :)!
    Oh, one of my favorite female characters is Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing…oh, and Lilith from Cheers!

      • In that vein I will reveal that when I was younger I adored heroines in books that I had first been exposed to in films of the 1940s! Clio Dulaine of Edna Ferber’s “Saratoga Trunk,” Charlotte Vale of Olive Higgins Prouty’s “Now, Voyager,” and Lucy Muir of R. A. Dick’s (real name, Josephine Leslie) “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

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