THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Lilian Adelaide Neilson (1848-1880)
‘One of the greatest actresses of her time’
Adelaide Neilson was a star – ‘one of the brightest stars that ever shone in England’s theatrical firmament’. She was adored and idolised both here and across the Atlantic. Her beauty and expressive power, particularly in tragic roles like Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, brought her fame and fortune. But her life was tinged with tragedy, and cut short when she was only 32. Her story began in Leeds, but over the years there were many different versions in circulation– the details of her life as mysterious and dramatic as the parts she played.
She was born Elizabeth Ann Brown on 3 March 1848 at 35 St Peter’s Square, Leeds, the site now of the Leeds Playhouse – a nice theatrical coincidence (marked by a blue plaque). Her mother was an unmarried actress from Leeds, Ann Brown, but her father remains a mystery. In one of the many stories told about her, she found hidden letters revealing he was a Spanish nobleman; in another she was born in Spain and educated in Paris; in another she came from gypsy stock. Her dark, romantic beauty made all this credible. Later she was to claim her father was a Pierre Lizon, a ‘gentleman’, and she was to use that name alongside several others before she settled on her stage name of Adelaide Neilson.
When she was two, her mother married a workman called Samuel Bland, and they moved to Guiseley where Lizzie Bland, as she was then known, went to school: a clever girl, a great reader, delighting in dramatic recitations. Her stepfather however was a drinker and the family struggled. The story goes that at 13 Lizzie was sent to work in the local mill, then as a nursemaid, all against her will. There were dark hints that her stepfather abused her. For whatever reason, she ran away, walking and begging her way to London in the hope of a career on the stage. The theatre was in her blood.
She had a painful struggle to survive and had to take whatever work she could, as barmaid or worse, but she managed to study the great acting roles in the hope of being ‘discovered’. When she was 16, in 1864, it all happened. A wealthy young man, Philip Henry Lee, the Oxford-educated son of a clergyman, fell in love with this beautiful young girl and supported her in her aspirations. They married in November that year – a shock to his family, but she charmed them and won them over. Meanwhile, perhaps through Lee’s contacts, the theatrical manager John Ryder recognised the power of her remarkable looks and dramatic potential: she got the lead in a production of the popular play ‘The Hunchback’ in Margate where she was a great critical success.
Her London debut was as Juliet, a role she was to reprise many times, and she made a deep impression on her audience. Her success led to a string of other leading roles, in Shakespeare, in plays based on Sir Walter Scott’s work, in contemporary drama. She travelled around the country, performing to great acclaim – she could hold her audience breathless and spellbound. As her reputation grew so did her salary, and she did not forget her Guiseley family – she visited and helped to make their life more comfortable.
In 1871 she made the first of four tours to the USA where she was feted and celebrated as a great British actress, appearing often in the Shakespearean roles she had made her own. She was in great demand, her talents and beauty much admired: pictures of her sold in their thousands. It was an exhausting life, which may have affected her health. It certainly had an impact on her marriage, and in 1877, in the USA, she divorced her husband, Philip Lee, in an undefended suit. There were no children, though there were rumours of a baby who had died.
In 1880 she was on a visit to Paris with her old friend and admirer, Admiral Carr Glyn, when she suddenly collapsed and died, without warning. She was only 32. Again there were conflicting stories: she had died in a café after drinking suspect cold milk; she had been riding with friends in the Bois de Boulogne when she collapsed. (In fact it was an internal haemorrhage.) The theatrical world was shocked and horrified, and thousands flocked to her funeral at Brompton cemetery.
Stories about her multiplied after her death, in personal memoirs and press reports. There was even a libel case. Whatever the truth, she overcame hardship to become a great and serious actress. Her simple gravestone reads ‘Adelaide Neilson / Gifted and Beautiful / Resting’.