The 1900s, the suffragettes and the Shakespeare lectures at Smallhythe Place

Ellen Terry's annotated lectures of Shakespeare's 'Triumphant Women'

Ellen Terry’s daughter Edith Craig (1869-1947) was an actress, producer and designer, a suffragette and a socialist. She was an active member of the Actresses’ Franchise League and was later director of the feminist Pioneer Players.

Although supportive of her daughter and of her theatrical activism Ellen was not impressed by the militant suffragettes and perhaps found the subject disagreeable. In a letter to a friend dated 1909 she wrote:

 

" Edy I believe comes to her cottage on Tues next. God knows I will be pleased to see her, although doubtless she will discourse now upon no subject but Woman's Suffrage - Pardon the blot but women's suffrage agitates me always and make me sling the ink about."
- Ellen Terry

 

However, it does seem that she held conflicting views on this subject. Whilst on tour in Australia in 1914 she told a reporter, “Of course you all know I’m a suffragette, and so is my daughter Edy Craig”. She clarified her views by telling a Melbourne paper –

" I’m an ardent suffragette but I don’t believe in their militancy…It antagonises people and women never do any good that way. The suffragettes are a magnificent lot of women, but I think, perhaps, their ardour carries them away at times."
- Ellen Terry

 

In her late fifties Ellen Terry found that there were few acting parts available to her, she had begun to struggle with a failing memory and the process of learning a leading role had become almost impossible for her. Her outgoings soon began to outweigh her diminishing income and she spiralled into a financial crisis. Taking the political climate into consideration, and with Edy's encouragement she devised a series of lectures based on her experience of playing Shakespeare's women with which she could tour and earn a reasonable income.

 

The lectures, or discourses as she prederred to call them, included the title 'The Triumphant Women' in which she celebrates Shakespeare's "vindication of women in his fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines". Ellen had played the majority of Shakespeare's heroines during her career and had studied each one in depth. Her heavily annotated scripts survive at Smallhythe Place and bear witness to this. She may have had trouble learning new parts but the language of Shakespeare's female protagonists was ingrained, "I have learned a great deal of Shakespeare by heart".

 

She toured her lectures in England, Australia, New Zealand, and America offering the finest passages from Shakespeare’s plays, along with her own thoughts on the characters and upon a woman’s role in modern society.

" Nothing is more extraordinary in one generation than the idea that it is totally different from any other which has preceded it. Such prejudice exists even among the clever women of the present day, who appear quite unconscious that the burning questions they are discussing now are as old as the hills. There was a regular ‘movement’, a women’s movement, in the fifteenth century. We find that some people poked fun at this movement very much as to-day they poke fun at the suffragettes. "
- Ellen Terry

Apart from these lectures Ellen did not make public speeches on the subject of the vote. She did, however, support the suffrage fairs and productions with which Edy was becoming increasingly involved. She made public appearances or took cameo roles such as in the ‘Pageant of Great Women’. In the 1909 production she played Nance Oldfield and described the pageant as “The finest practical piece of propaganda”.