The picture on the left here is from the front cover of a book I was sent for review: A Chronicle of Small Beer: the life and times of a Victorian actress by Winifred Dolan, edited by Andy Moreton, foreword by Katherine Newey, which was published this month by the Society for Theatre Research. It was surprisingly enthralling, giving the most fascinating glimpses not only into theatre history but also into women's lives, careers and expectations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Even if you know something about British theatre in the late 1800s you almost certainly would not have heard of Winifred Dolan. Born into a middle-class Roman Catholic family in Leeds, Winifred developed a powerful desire to go on the stage at the age of about six, and, rather amazingly, when she rather tentatively expressed this as a young adult, her family did not stand in her way. But, though she managed to get trained and to get some small parts in the West End, she never became a star -- she was, in fact, what was known as a jobbing actor, useful for understudying and a reliable member of touring companies. The only reason we now know about her life is that, aged over 80 and living in a convent in the south of England, she decided to write her memoirs -- not for publication, but just for her own pleasure -- and by chance these turned up at a London auction.
Winifred's meetings with the great Henry Irving and with her idol, Ellen Terry, who became a friend and supporter, her long working relationship with the producer George Alexander, her friendships with Teddy (Edward Gordon) Craig, Oscar Wilde, and many others are, of course, valuable as theatre history. But it's the story of her struggles to establish herself as an actress, the extraordinarily long hours she had to work, the drudgery of touring, even in a special Pullman hired for the cast, and the challenges of living on a pathetically small salary that make this story so fascinating. Winifred is keenly conscious of being a woman in a man's world, and she meets with a great deal of chauvinism along the way even though, during her so-called resting periods she works as a secretary, a front-of-house manager, a script reader and even a director, sometimes simultaneously. One chapter is devoted to her attempts to write a successful play which, rather worryingly, generally fail because the person to whom she has submitted it manages to die before he has a chance to put it on.
No-one could fail to love Winifred, who writes with great wit and charm, and shows herself to have had real strength and spirit. This is delightfully illustrated by her response when a harassed stage manager, having failed to train any understudies, found himself stuck with no-one to replace a leading actress who had sprained her ankle. All the ladies to whom he appealed to save him from getting the sack by reading the part on stage that night refused --' "never done such a thing, would die of fright" etc' -- but Winifred, bless her, got up and said: "Send out for a dozen oysters and a bottle of stout, shut me up in the star room, keep the cleaners off the stairs and I'll play the part tonight". And so she did, word perfect in a three act play.
Winifred abandoned the theatre at the age of 36 and spent the rest of her working life on a steady salary from the Women's Unionist Association. Why she decided to write her theatre memoirs in her 80s we will never know, but we should be really glad she did.