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Shakespeare & Beyond

Two Shakespearean actors, a book, and a biographer corrected

Ellen Terry as Beatrice
Ellen Terry as Beatrice

Ellen Terry was a popular Shakespearean actress on the stage and, at the end of her life, in films as well. Throughout the final few decades of the 19th century, she was the leading lady at actor-manager Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London, and was romantically involved with Irving during that time as well.

This little volume about Henry Irving, was signed by both Irving and Terry, and was likely given by one to the other (based on the inscriptions, it’s a little unclear exactly who gave the book to whom). 

Henry Irving : a short account of his public life, published in 1883, gives an overview of Irving’s career and accomplishments. It also includes brief biographical sketches of some of Irving’s collaborators, including Terry, who is highlighted as a talented actress.

However, the biographer may have gotten several of his facts wrong. Terry made annotations throughout the book in her distinctive rounded handwriting, and several of them correct mis-stated facts in the short biography! She also comments on the provenances of several images in the volume and makes a note about her birthday on the same page as Irving’s signature.

That note about her birthday, February 27, is a nod to one of the roles that made her famous: Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, who explains her merry nature during a conversation with the Prince:

PRINCE: Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you, for out o’ question you were born in a merry hour.
BEATRICE: No, sure, my lord, my mother cried, but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.

Later in the book, Terry’s annotations are less gentle. Her biographer was apparently careless in his research, providing readers with an incorrect birth year and a mistaken anecdote. On page 197, Terry commented “No – 1848” on a statement about her birthday, crossed out an entire anecdote about her experiences as a child actor. Several pages later, she comments bluntly, “This is not a fact. E.T.” on an anecdote about her collaboration with Irving.

This book does not seem to have been the only place Terry attempted to correct misunderstandings about her biography – in an interview with Terry, published in 1888 in honor of her 40th birthday, she made sure to emphasize her birth date and her early acting experiences, the same topics she corrected in the book below.


Hello, I may be able to help with the inscription question — can you provide full bibliographic information, including author if any, please? I can just make out that it has a US copyright, and in 1888 Irving and the Lyceum company, including Terry, were on their third tour of the States. The book was no doubt a quickly produced biography meant to capitalise on this. Thanks.

Kristan Tetens — August 27, 2017