The Life of a Victorian Actress

The novel I am currently working on, and which should be out in autumn, is set in the theatre world of the 1830s to 1850s, and tells the story of my fictional character, Isobel Brite, a shoemaker’s daughter who leaves the restrictions of her ordinary life to join the theatre, where she finds a freedom as an actress that the vast majority of women of the time would never experience.  There will, of course, be many challenges for my heroine to face, and I’m not going to give away any spoilers here!  However, as a little taster of the kinds of themes I explore in my novel, I thought I’d write a bit about what it was like to be a Victorian actress.

Victorian actress
Scene from “The Princess”, The Olympic Theatre 1870

In a time when women were more or less the property of men, actresses, and other female entertainers, had a rather unique place in society.  Following a ‘profession’, the kind of career choice that was barred to most women, gave the actress an autonomy that has more similarities to a woman of the late 20th century than those of her own age.

While this sounds like rather a pleasant position to be in, it was, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword.  To many people who lived within the social mores of the period, the actress was a monstrosity.  They threatened the general beliefs about female capabilities, which were that women were unable to work in any job that required physical, intelligent or creative activity, which were seen as the masculine domain.  Acting demanded all three of these, and in the twisted logic of Victorian values, therefore, these women were not truly women, but a kind of curious inhuman being whose morals were not to be trusted.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the word ‘actress’ was often synonymous with the word ‘prostitute’.   Some of those men who went to see their favourite actress on the stage either viewed her as some kind of mystical goddess, or as a person of easy virtue who they might fraternise with in a slightly more dignified way than a visit to the local whorehouse.

Because of her lifestyle, an actress was not seen, by the outside world at least, as a fit person to be a wife and mother, and so if an actress married, she was often expected to leave the stage behind her completely in order to lead a respectable life.  Astonishingly, this was not always limited to marriages outside of the business.  During my research I have read accounts of actors who expected their actress wife to give up the theatre.  The American actor, George Parks, threw himself into the river and drowned himself when his actress wife refused to give up her career.  This was probably an exceptional case, however.  In one travelling theatre company in the Midlands (where I have my heroine learn her trade), most of the acting company were children of the management, married to other actors in the company.

Victorian actress
Fanny Kemble

While I am sure that there were many actresses who did deserve the reputation they had, I think that, on the whole, the belief that actresses had extremely low morals was an erroneous one.   Many may have had affairs (e.g. Ellen Ternan who had a long-standing affair with Charles Dickens), or co-habited without marriage, but these situations are far (in our 21st century eyes at least) from prostitution.  But I think many did lead quite virtuous lives.  One of the books I have been reading as part of my research is the diaries of Fanny Kemble, a member of one of the best known acting families of the early 19th century.  She is an example of a truly intelligent, sensible and thoughtful woman who also wrote plays (another activity usually confined to men), and there is no hint of any scandalous behaviour!  She did give up the stage when she married, and later campaigned against slavery America where her husband owned plantations.  After her marriage ended (rather inevitably) she returned to the stage.

If you were happy to be single, or marry within the business, and were tough enough to ignore the views of those who might consider you no more than a prostitute, then there was the challenge of earning enough money to be comfortable.  For the provincial actress, touring in a traveling theatre company in the early days of the 19th century, this could be tough, but you had the companionship of your fellow actors as you travelled by foot from theatre to theatre, and the occasional benefit night, where the profits were given to the actor or actress whose benefit night it was, would often help see you through difficult times.  In these companies you would also be expected to muck in with setting up the scenery, making your own costumes and other practical matters, as well as being an all-rounder: singing and dancing would be part of your repertoire.

If you were lucky enough to find work in one of the big London theatres, then your salary could be extremely good for the times, especially if you were the leading actress.  An actress at the Haymarket Theatre, one of the major London theatres in the 1850s, could bring in £20-25 a week.   But for most jobbing actors and actresses the wages were much less than that, and could be as low as £2 – still well above the national average.   For all actors, whether male or female, the career was a precarious one – as it always has been – and once you fell out of favour, it could be a slippery slope to poverty and obscurity.  While there were some theatrical charities that could offer some help, there was no welfare state or national insurance, and no doubt many ended up in the workhouse.

Still, despite all of the above, I think the life of a Victorian actress was often an enjoyable and interesting one, as long as you were not too keen on being a wife and/or mother, and as long as you could shrug off the way the world saw you, and as long as you could stay in work and earn enough money to keep you comfortable in your old age.

Life on the stage for a woman was certainly not for the faint-hearted.  But for many it provided an alternative to the restrictions of ‘normal’ Victorian life, and it provided a vehicle for self-expression that most women were not allowed.