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Adelaide Neilson: star of the Victorian stage

Dr. Anjna Chouhan, Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the SBT, tells us about Adelaide Neilson, a talented Victorian Shakespearean actor, whose life was marked by tragedy.

Anjna Chouhan
Adelaide Neilson Binding
Adelaide Neilson : A souvenir by Laura C. Holloway (1885)

Born Elizabeth Anne Brown, and eventually taking her step-father’s rather telling surname, Bland, the actress Lillian Adelaide Neilson was an indisputable star. Replete with the usual trappings of a sensational celebrity, Neilson had beauty, brains, exotic mystery, and left the world in a sudden mist of tragedy befitting the ill-fated heroines of her repertoire.   

A notable beauty, Neilson rose to fame for her depiction of Juliet, which was especially well received in North America. In England, she took on roles no other actress would consider: notably Imogen and Isabella, from Cymbeline and Measure for Measure respectively. Not only are these characters challenging to interpret within their equally troubling plays, but they were considered unsettling figures who challenged the neat, romanticised idea of girl- (not woman-) hood presented by Juliet and Rosalind, for instance. Isabella, in particular, was a character so bewildering that the play had to be re-written and adapted so as to gloss over its unsavoury sexual and religious concerns, and foreground the virtue and beauty of the young heroine. In any case, Neilson only performed Isabella in England, and never (in full) in New York, for fear of moral outrage.  

Adelaide Neilson as Juliet
Adelaide Neilson as Juliet

Although invariably male critics rarely focused on, or went into detail about, her delivery and performance, they were rapturous about her beauty and elegance. The American drama critic, William Winter, wrote:

Her face just sufficiently unsymmetrical to be brimful of character [,...] the carriage of her body [...] like that of a pretty child in the unconscious fascination of infancy [...] and above all of these [...] was a voice of perfect music.

The music of her voice, the movement of her body, the childlike qualities of her beauty all paint a picture of a somewhat fetishised performer. In fact, it was Neilson’s more youthful, jovial roles that brought her fame, particularly in America where, in the 1870s, she became a popular Rosalind, a bright Beatrice, and set a high standard for Juliet that was to enchant audiences for years.   

Adelaide Neilson as Juliet page 16
Adelaide Neilson as Juliet

Neilson’s charm and talent gave rise to speculation and gossip about her private life. It was rumoured that she would spend years studying and crafting a single role before choosing to perform it, although this is unlikely to be true. Her dark eyes and seemingly foreign beauty were attributed to a secret Spanish nobleman who fathered her with an English governess and brought her up in the finest of European schools. This was a rumour rather shamelessly encouraged by Neilson herself, as she identified her father as one Pierre Lizon, from whom she took her stage name ‘Neilson’.  Somewhat less glamorously, but truthfully, she was born an illegitimate daughter of an actress in Leeds and ran away from an abusive home at around age 15 to join the ballet. 

Gossip was exacerbated by her luxurious tastes in clothes and jewellery, much of which was gifted to her by wealthy admirers, and by her tempestuous marriage to, and eventual divorce from Philip Henry Lee, to whom she had been married since the age of 16. Her subsequent off-stage affair with a fellow actor did nothing to ease the scandal. Neilson’s violent and sudden death in Paris at age 32 of a ruptured Fallopian tube only added to the enigma of her short life. Stories swirled about the rumour mill concerning everything from the identity of the man with her when she died to gossip about a possible dead child, the short-lived fruit of her ill-fated marriage.  

Adelaide Neilson as Cymbeline
Adelaide Neilson as Cymbeline

After her death, the name of Adelaide Neilson was associated with tragic talent: she was an extraordinary beauty with a wonderful voice and charm, but her life was one of heartbreak and grief. After her death, William Winter claimed that on the stage ‘she satisfied for all kinds of persons the sense of the ideal’. As an actress, Neilson certainly was considered ideal in tone, delivery and beauty. To have satisfied, as Winter put it, so many different kinds of audiences, both in England and America, is to have earned Neilson a place among the great Victorian Shakespearians. 

Adelaide Neilson street dress page 8
A portrait of Adelaide Neilson

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