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 with strange life priorities. 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.
But it was her youthful, jovial roles that brought her fame, particularly in America where, in the 1870s, she became a popular Rosalind, Beatrice and set a high standard for Juliet that was to enchant audiences for years. The respected American drama critic William Winter famously described Neilson’s Juliet as ‘fascinating and irresistible’.
Neilson’s charm and talent gave rise to speculation and gossip about her private life. Her dark eyes and seemingly foreign beauty were attributed by her audiences to a secret Spanish nobleman who fathered her with an English governess and brought her up in the finest of European schools. Somewhat less glamorously, but truthfully, she was born an illegitimate daughter of an actress and ran away from an abusive home at 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 divorce from, a philandering American husband. Her subsequent offstage affair with a fellow actor did not do anything 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.
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 tragedy. 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.