Mabel Beardsley: Actress and ‘her brother’s sister’
by Bob Davenport
Mabel Beardsley was born in Brighton on 24 August 1871, the first child of Vincent Beardsley and his wife Ellen, née Pitt. At the time of their marriage in the previous October, Vincent was living on a private income; but while they were on honeymoon the widow of a clergyman made a ‘breach of promise’ claim against him, and to avoid scandal he sold some property he owned in London to buy her off. The result was that the couple were so stretched financially that they were living with Ellen’s parents and her two unmarried sisters. And this was still the situation when Mabel’s brother, Aubrey, was born a year after her.
In 1874 Vincent obtained a clerical job in London, and the family moved to lodgings in Notting Hill. They were to remain in lodgings for the next 20 years.
In 1920, Ellen Beardsley recalled that
Mabel was a very brilliant child and a great reader. She read Dickens and Scott at a very early age. I remember her sitting up at the table beside me reading. Presently I heard a deep sigh. ‘What is the matter, darling?’ I asked. ‘Don’t you like your book?’ ‘No, mother,’ she said, ‘I really do draw the line at Carlyle.’ She was six years old.
Mabel did not only read Dickens: she was also encouraged to recite him, and she and her mother would sometimes dissolve in tears over a particularly sentimental passage – although her party-piece was the skating scene from The Pickwick Papers.
Her mother also recalled that on one occasion
[Mabel] went out to lunch alone at the house of some friends of ours who were very fond of her … Behind her as she sat at table was a portrait of Gladstone. My friends were radicals. ‘Look at the picture behind you, Mabel,’ said Mrs. —. ‘Do you know who it is?’
The little creature looked round for an instant. ‘Those are not my Mother’s politics,’ she said politely and with perfect finality.
Ellen Beardsley was an accomplished pianist, and gave private piano and French lessons to help make ends meet. But, for the good of Aubrey’s delicate health, early in 1882 she gave up her teaching and moved with the children to live in Epsom – again in lodgings – for two years, taking them walking on the Downs every day.
Mabel and Aubrey had learned the piano too, and, back in London, Mabel would play and recite at private parties.
In 1884 Vincent lost his job and struggled to find another, and when Ellen fell ill and had to enter a nursing home the children were sent to live with an unmarried great-aunt, Sarah Pitt, in Brighton. There they took to going by themselves to services at the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Annunciation, almost a mile away from their aunt’s house.
When Ellen’s health recovered, early in 1885 Mabel returned to London while Aubrey stayed on in Brighton to attend Brighton Grammar School, at his great-aunt’s expense.
During the school holidays Aubrey returned to the family (now living in Pimlico), and he and Mabel began to put on plays, puppet shows and sketches in their lodgings, with their parents and perhaps a few family friends as the audience.
The Beardsleys now attended St Barnabas, Pimlico, one of the ‘highest’ Anglo-Catholic churches in London.
Details of Mabel’s subsequent schooling are unclear – in an interview in 1896 she said, “I educated myself principally, and then went to the high school’ – but she won the fifth place in all England in the Higher Cambridge Local Examination, on the strength of which she was offered a scholarship at Newnham College, Cambridge. She declined this, however, and in September 1900 she started work as a teacher as the Polytechnic School for Girls, in Langham Place.
One of her fellow teachers there, Netta Syrett, recalled Mabel as ‘rather a big girl, with a good, erect figure. She held herself well, but she could scarcely be called pretty. Her hair was red, the kind of red usually described as “ginger,” and she had a nice pink-and-white, slightly freckled complexion.’ Syrett also noted ‘the charming courtesy of her manner. It was extended to every one, including the not too refined girls in her class, though one of them … made a remark to me about her that I have never forgotten. “Miss Beardsley is awfully nice to us,” she said. “But you like to teach us, and she doesn’t!”’
Mabel also lectured – ‘principally upon art’, she said – at a Girls’ Guild mission in Whitechapel, where she found that ‘The girls were perfectly charming – as fine and sweet as you could wish to have them. I was very fond of them. They had received no impressions and they were wonderfully receptive.’ She took them to the National Gallery once ‘on a little pleasure trip and it was very pleasant’.
At weekends she joined Aubrey in his artistic exploration of London. Her mother thought it was Mabel’s red hair that gained them entry to Edward Burne-Jones’s studio when, in July 1891, they turned up there with a portfolio of Aubrey’s drawings for inspection, wrongly believing the artist held an open house on Sundays.
In December 1891 their great-aunt died, leaving them each a bequest of £500 (equivalent to about £57,000 today) payable when they reached the age of 21. (Ellen also received £500, and Vincent 19 guineas.) When Aubrey was commissioned to illustrate Le Morte D’Arthur, Mabel offered the support of her recently received legacy in urging him to give up his clerical job with the Guardian Fire and Life Assurance Company and devote himself to his art, which he did; and as he increasingly moved in artistic and bohemian circles, she entered this world too.
In the summer of 1893 Aubrey’s earnings and the bequests from Sarah Pitt made it possible for the Beardsleys for the first time to take on a lease on a house – again in Pimlico – and on Thursday afternoons Ellen and her children began to entertain. Though Ellen was the nominal host, Netta Syrett remembered Mabel there ‘in a dress that vaguely recalled a lady of the Italian Renaissance, seated in a carved, high-backed chair, from which she rose to receive each newcomer with graceful if slightly mannered courtesy’. Vincent, by this time, was never seen: it was rumoured that he was separated from his wife, that he worked in the City, that he was a drunkard forced to live out of sight in the basement, or that he was dead.
In 1894 Mabel gave up her job at the Polytechnic School. Syrett asked her about her plans:
‘What are you going to do when you leave?’ I asked.
Go on the stage, and become a society beauty, dear,’ she calmly and quite seriously replied. Privately, I wondered how she would achieve the latter ambition. But she did … A few years later, when she had become slim and willowy in figure, when, with a very little touching up, hair that had been a trifle too pale a red was warm and glowing enough to justify admiration for her ‘Titian colouring,’ she was really beautiful.
In her last term at the school Mabel would sometimes relieve Syrett of the disliked chore of standing in for the often absent headmistress at morning prayers:
Mabel used to say, ‘Let me take prayers, dear. It gives me an opportunity to practise my stage walk and diction!’ It was difficult to keep a grave face while she proceeded to do so, moving majestically up the long room between the rows of standing girls, to the platform, where in a clear, histrionic voice she read the lesson for the day.
Her mother did not approve of Mabel’s choice of career. Ellen later admitted, ‘She was very self-possessed and unself-conscious. But I do not think she would ever have made a really great actress. She had not the temperament, or the health. Aubrey used to encourage her, but I used to tell her the truth about herself. She would cry and did not like it. But I had to tell her.’
However, the Beardsleys were friendly with Max Beerbohm and his mother, and through them Mabel went to see Max’s half-brother the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree for advice on a stage career. He offered her a walk-on part in Once Upon a Time, an adaptation of a German play, which ran for 25 performances in March–April 1894. She then joined a touring production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance by a company run by Harry Morrell, a former secretary of Tree’s, through whom she had met him. It opened at the Assembly Rooms in Malvern on 3 September 1894, and when it arrived in Yarmouth later that month the London theatrical paper The Era commented, ‘Miss Mabel Beardsley makes an attractive Lady Stutfield.’
On 3 January 1895 Aubrey and Mabel were at the premiere of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband at the Haymarket Theatre. Aubrey had by now published his illustrations to Wilde’s Salomé and appeared in the first volume of The Yellow Book, which had made him notorious, and the fashion correspondent of The Lady noted ‘with special pleasure and a good deal of curiosity Miss Beardsley, the sister of the distinguished artist of The Yellow Book, resplendent in a pale mauve gown trimmed with bunches of pink heliotrope’. In April Mabel stood in for an indisposed Julia Neilson as Mrs Marchmont in two performances of An Ideal Husband, now at the Criterion.
In the following month, on 13 May, she was received into the Roman Catholic Church
In February 1896 the Morning Post praised Mabel as the ‘young lady whose presence, features, and mien give promise of a most charming actress’ in Dearest Mamma at a matinee in aid of St Anne’s, Soho, at the Royalty Theatre: ‘She had hardly thought out all the details of her part, and her want of experience was manifest at more than one point of the performance; but with sound guidance and devotion to her art, she might aspire to rise very high in her profession.’ But her career never really did take off. She received respectable reviews, but no one seems to have been thrilled by her, and the longest run she ever enjoyed was 59 performances in The Queen’s Proctor with Arthur Bourchier’s company at the Royalty Theatre in London in June–July 1896. Even then it was her costume rather than her performance that The Era commented on, noting that ‘A tailor-made costume of red serge admirably sets off the blonde [sic] beauty of Miss Mabel Beardsley, who later in the play wears an evening dress of yellow mirror moiré, with bodice of white satin, veiled with silver net, and sleeves of yellow tulle.’
In November she went to Canada and the USA with Bourchier’s company, and in December an interview with her appeared in the New York Times, under the main heading ‘Her Brother’s Sister’. The paper found her ‘an interesting young woman, with a complexion of peaches and cream, a delightful English voice and manner of emphasizing her words, and a reputation, she finds, for being her brother’s sister … She is not an outdoor English girl, does not “bike” or care for out-of-door sports. She is devotedly fond of music.’
After talking about her career, Mabel spoke of her brother:
There is not a year’s difference between us, and we are very proud and fond of each other. I don’t know as there is anything about me for him to be proud of, but he is very fond of me and I am very proud of him … He is very ill in the south of England now, and my mother is there taking care of him … He was very, very ill before I left, and I took care of him. He had very bad hemorrhages of the lungs.
When Bourchier returned to the UK in January 1897, she stayed in the USA with another company before returning to England at the end of May and travelling directly on to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, where Aubrey was attempting to recover his health. Arriving on 4 June, she was amazed by an apparent improvement in his condition. After a week – during which they took communion together, as Aubrey too had become a Catholic during her absence – she returned to London and at the end of the month advertised herself as ‘disengaged’.
In July she was working at the Matinee Theatre and the Criterion, then in August she spent another week with Aubrey, now in Dieppe, and in October was again ‘disengaged’, before finding work at the Royalty in late November: in A New Leaf she ‘gave a boldly drawn sketch of a lady of easy virtue, with several redeeming points in her curious composition’.
On 3 March 1898 she opened in The Nettle at the Garrick Theatre, but on the 6th Aubrey – now with his mother in Menton – suffered a major haemorrhage and had clearly not long to live. Ellen telegraphed Mabel to urge her to come at once, which she did. After frequent further severe haemorrhages, during which two nurses were in attendance and Ellen and Mabel spent much time kneeling by his bedside, Aubrey died in the early hours of 16 March.
He was buried in Menton, after which Ellen and Mabel returned to London, where in May there was a memorial service at Farm Street church. Mabel then briefly collapsed. ‘A pile of rich red hair had been the most remarkable feature of this strange beauty,’ wrote Beardsley’s biographer Malcolm Easton: ‘from now on it would be her extreme pallor.’ Later in May probate was granted on Aubrey’s will, which left his sister all his property, valued at £836 17s 10d net (equivalent to about £98,000 today).
On his deathbed, Aubrey had written to the louche publisher Leonard Smithers urging him to destroy all his drawings and the prints made from them for an illustrated edition of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, about a sex strike by the women of classical Athens; he had come to consider his work obscene. Mabel was upset when she learned that Smithers had instead sold the drawings to a collector, and tried unsuccessfully to buy them back so that she might destroy them herself. She had not seen the drawings at this stage, but later she became blasé about the images and acquired her own set of the prints; and when the young actress Faith Stone was recovering from influenza Mabel loaned them to her, saying, ‘Are you, dear child, well enough to enjoy a book? I have brought something of my brother’s for you. Being just pictures, they will not tire you, as the printed word might.’
She and Aubrey had been discussing plans for a Catholic quarterly review shortly before his death, and she had already begun to try her hand at journalism, as one of the contributors to a discussion on ‘Is Bohemianism Extinct?’ in The Idler in April 1898. (‘The Bohemians of London are, as a rule, more remarkable for freedom of manner and costume than for the wild untameable spirit of genius which is usually supposed to justify eccentric behaviour and aloofness from Society. Bohemianism (so-called) will not become extinct in England for lack of professors; it is too useful an apology, too picturesque a pose.’) In June 1898 the subject was ‘Should Women Smoke?’ (‘Who will dare to attack a practice recommended to the greater approval of the country by its Chancellor of the Exchequer? Tobacco set far above tea by a fatherly legislation, which would place it within the reach of all; does that declaration contain a subtle appeal to the sex which holds tea in especial honour and favour?’) In January 1900 it was ‘Flirtation: Is It a Legitimate Amusement?’ (‘As in all games, the amusement is in proportion to the degree and interest with which it is played. It is not within the capability of everyone, but then neither is croquet – and to some it is hardly more amusing.’) She also wrote for the Saturday Review and The Rambler on occasions – the critic and poet Arthur Symons thought ‘A New Watteau’, her article on her friend the artist Charles Conder, which appeared in The Rambler in August 1901, had a ‘peculiar fantastic quality’.
In August 1898 she appeared with the Old Stagers at the Theatre Royal in Canterbury, and in December she ‘cleverly expressed the mental anguish’ of seduced then cast-off Grace in A Settlement in Full at St Leonard’s Pier Pavilion. She was also on tour in the new year, at venues including Kilburn, Bury St Edmunds and Colchester.
Later in 1899 she was engaged for the largest part she had so far undertaken: the Duchess of Strood in a touring production of A. W. Pinero’s The Gay Lord Quex. The Duchess, a former lover of the eponymous reformed Don Juan, insists on a potentially compromising farewell meeting with him before he marries someone else. On the strength of the press reports, when the London production opened in April 1899 the Bishop of Wakefield, Dr George Eden, condemned it as ‘the most immoral play that ever disgraced the stage of this country’ – which had an excellent effect on the box office.
When the touring production (rehearsed by Pinero himself) arrived at the Theatre Royal, York, in August the Yorkshire Gazette found that ‘Miss Mabel Beardsley deserves special mention … her fine stage personality and graceful and dignified bearing lending themselves in marked degree to her role.’ But in September she had to leave the tour when she became ill.
In November she appeared as the star-struck Lady Fitzroy in The Modern Craze at St George’s Hall, London. The Morning Post thought that she at times fell into ‘the cleverest possible imitations of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’, while the Pall Mall Gazette believed she gave a ‘delightfully natural imitation of Miss Ellen Terry’.
In early 1900 she was back with The Gay Lord Quex. When, in March, the production arrived in Hull the local Daily Mail found the play ‘not artistic … not beautiful … not wholesome’. The reviewer was particularly shocked by a scene in which ‘Lord Quex, much against his ideas of good sense, consents to say farewell to his old “flame” the Duchess in her boudoir (into which Mr Pinero very unnecessarily introduces a bed)’, especially when ‘the Duchess is made to retire to the back part of her boudoir, stand before her mirror, and – with the help of her maid – produce a representation of a particularly daring corset advertisement!’ It conceded, however, that ‘Miss Mabel Beardsley’s beautiful shoulders figure most effectively in the boudoir scene’, and thought ‘her impersonation of the Duchess of Strood is marked by power; what weaknesses there are are those of the character rather than of the interpreter.’
In April–May 1901 she enjoyed her second-longest London run – over twice the length of the third – with 55 performances in The Lion Hunters at Terry’s Theatre. Then, in a letter postmarked 5 September 1901, Max Beerbohm, recently arrived in Dieppe, wrote to his friend Reggie Turner, ’Miss Beardsley has also arrived, fresh from a provincial tour. She trails about, all day, in evening dress – low neck, no sleeves, and a train as long as the Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, which she carries over her arm. She creates a great sensation.’ Later that month she again advertised herself as ‘disengaged’, and in October she stepped in for an actress with an ill brother in an amateur production of The School for Scandal in Tunbridge Wells.
Her 35 performances in 4 productions in 1902 included a one-off performance of The Finding of Nancy by her former colleague Netta Syrett at the St James’s Theatre. The role had been intended for another actress, but the theatre’s manager objected that she could not play such an unpleasant woman. ‘Mabel Beardsley would probably be very glad to do so,’ replied Syrett, refusing to rewrite the part. ‘Very well, get Mabel Beardsley!’ was the manager’s reply.
In 1903 she was touring in South Africa in A Woman of No Importance and The Marriage of Kitty. Then, back in London, on 30 September that year she married George Edward Wright, an Old Etonian, six years her junior, who acted under the name of George Bealby; they had met in The Lion Hunters in 1901. Her father was a witness at what was one of the first weddings to be held in the new Westminster Cathedral. The marriage seems soon to have faded away, though George remained good friends with Mabel’s mother.
Thereafter Mabel appeared very little on the stage, at least in London: 4 performances in 1904; none in 1905; 23 in 1906, including a run of 21 in The Whirlwind at the Criterion; none in 1907–9; 1 in 1910; and none in later years. But she began to create a theatre of her own, hosting weekly lunch parties at which her guests might be of the distinction of J. M. Barrie, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Mrs Patrick Campbell, and the Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott (who met his wife, the sculptor Kathleen Bruce, at one of these lunches in December 1906), as well as old friends like Max Beerbohm.
Many of Aubrey’s old friends found her warmer and more approachable than her brother had been. ‘Mabel must have known the worst of human nature and thought the best of every individual. Nothing startled her, nothing astonished her. She made allowances for all her friends. She credited them with beautiful natures,’ wrote their friend André Raffalovich in 1928. ‘Being Aubrey’s sister’, wrote the painter William Rothenstein, ‘little that is hidden to most young girls was unknown to Mabel, & there was nothing that cd not be discussed.’
In May 1910 Mabel attended an artists’ ball at the Grafton Galleries dressed as an Elizabethan page, and her friend Oswald Birley painted her in that role:
In 1912 Mabel was diagnosed with cancer, and by October that year she was confined to a Hampstead nursing home. Just before Christmas W. B. Yeats, who had known her and her brother in the 1890s, learned of her situation, and on 5 January 1913 he made his first visit to her sickbed. After it he wrote to his friend Lady Gregory:
She had all her great lady airs and asked after my work and my health as if they were the most important things in the world to her. ‘A palmist told me,’ she said, ‘that when I was forty-two my life would take a turn for the better and now I shall spend my forty-second year in heaven,’ and then emphatically ‘O yes I shall go to heaven. Papists do.’ … Then she began telling telling improper stories and inciting us (there were two men besides myself) to do the like. At moments she shook with laughter.
The old Beardsley circle that regrouped round Mabel’s bedside, exchanging stories and jokes and memories of outrageous behaviour in years gone by, appealed to Yeats. In a later letter to Lady Gregory he wrote, ‘How her life, her speech would horrify the pious Dublin people & yet how loose & dark they seem in contrast.’
Between 5 January and 18 February 1913 Yeats made four visits to Hampstead, and celebrated Mabel’s ‘strange charm’ and ‘pathetic gaiety’ in ‘Upon a Dying Lady’, a sequence of seven poems, of which the first is this:
With the old kindness, the old distinguished grace,
She lies, her lovely piteous head amid dull red hair
Propped upon pillows, rouge on the pallor of her face.
She would not have us sad because she is lying there,
And when she meets our gaze her eyes are laughter-lit,
Her speech a wicked tale that we may vie with her,
Matching our broken-hearted wit against her wit,
Thinking of saints and of Petronius Arbiter.
In July 1914 Mabel wrote to Robert Ross, commiserating with him for his problems as the literary executor of Oscar Wilde. In a postscript, she added, ‘I still go on, merely I believe to spite the doctors who gave me up long ago.’
Towards the end she was moved to the Holland Park home of her mother-in-law, where she continued to be watched over by her friends. Aged 44, she eventually died on 8 May 1916. She was buried in the Roman Catholic section of St Pancras Cemetery on 10 May.
• Ellen Agnus Beardsley, ‘Aubrey Beardsley’, in R. A. Walker (ed.), A Beardsley Miscellany (London: Bodley Head, 1949)
• Max Beerbohm, Letters to Reggie Turner, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964)
• Daily Mail (Hull), 20 March 1900 (The Gay Lord Quex)
• Malcolm Easton, Aubrey and the Dying Lady: A Beardsley Riddle (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972)
• The Era, 15 September 1894 (A Woman of No Importance), 6 June 1896 (The Queen’s Proctor), 4 December 1897 (A New Leaf), 3 December 1898 (A Settlement in Full)
• Evening Post (Wellington, NZ), 10 June 1899 (‘A Remarkable Drama’)
• Evening Star (Dunedin, NZ), 10 June 1899 (‘Footlight Flashes’)
• R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, vol. 1: The Apprentice Mage 1865–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
• Alexander Michaelson [André Raffalovich], ‘Aubrey Beardsley’s Sister’, New Blackfriars, January 1928
• Morning Post, 11 February 1896 (Dearest Mamma), 3 November 1899 (The Modern Craze)
• New York Times, 27 December 1896 (‘Her Brother’s Sister’)
• Pall Mall Gazette, 3 November 1899 (The Modern Craze)
• David A. Ross, Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (New York: Facts on File, 2009)
• John Russell Stephens, The Censorship of English Drama 1824–1901 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)
• Matthew Sturgis, Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography (London HarperCollins, 1998)
• Arthur Symons, Selected Letters, 1880–1935, ed. Karl Beckson and John M. Munro (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989)
• Netta Syret, The Sheltering Tree (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1939)
• J. P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890–1899: A Calendar of Plays and Players (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976)
——, The London Stage, 1900–1909: A Calendar of Plays and Players (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981)
• W. B. Yeats, ‘Upon a Dying Lady’
• Yorkshire Gazette, 19 August 1899 (The Gay Lord Quex)