With pinned back chestnut hair and piercing blue-grey eyes, few could resist the intensity of the gaze - nor the personality to match - of Miss Elizabeth Robins. Actress, writer, suffragist and feminist, in her time a darling of the London literati, a friend of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw and Henry James, she was known in this country as the 'High Priestess of Ibsen'.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky during a thunderstorm amidst the savage bloodletting of the American Civil War, her father moved the family to Staten Island, New York. A self made businessman and follower of the Utopian socialist policies of Robert Owen, he instilled in Elizabeth the spirit of inquiry and social and scientific scepticism.
From the age of 10, 'Bessie' Robins was largely raised in Zanesville, Ohio by her grandmother Jane, a devout and forthright woman who became her 'touchstone' and strong formative influence. Her father Charles moved around frequently for work and her mother Hannah was often considered mentally unstable, spending the majority of her latter years in an asylum. This was blamed on family marriage to cousins, a hereditary weakness which the family was all too aware of. In fact, all of the Robins children avoided having children of their own as a result. Given a book of Shakespeare by Jane and inspired by seeing Hamlet aged 14, she yearned to start a career on the American stage, despite family reservations and her father initially having had a scientific career in mind for her.
As a last attempt at distraction from this lure, Charles made the somewhat dramatic, but characteristic move of taking the 17 year old Elizabeth along with him during the summer to his job at a gold mining camp in the Colorado mountains - to be tutored by him and to learn more of nature. Although these skills were to come in useful later, she was not dissuaded from the theatre and a little later realised that her father did not truly have the money to send her to college anyway. Boldly, on 24th August 1881 she left for New York at the age of 19 with little of her own money and few contacts. A striking and perhaps crucial exception to this was her mother's cousin, Lloyd Tevis. The wealthy President of the Wells Fargo bank, her mother arranged a $500 loan from Tevis, who would also prove a future saving grace in an era when members of companies would have to fund such things as costume entirely themselves. Payment for acting and elocution lessons as well as direct loans to her theatrical troupe later resulted from his promise to be her 'good genie and good friend'.
However, money was only one part of the equation. She met her 'first useful dramatic friend' James O'Neill, by chance, as they lived at the same boarding house. After a fruitless tour around agencies, she seized her chance to join his touring troupe. Her three line debut came on Boxing Day 1881 in the play The Two Orphans, set in Ancien Régime France. Determination and hard graft did the rest. Almost bywords for Robins - or 'Clare Raimond' as she branded herself for the character roles O'Neill cast her in. With O'Neill's company breaking up in early 1883, she joined H.M. Pitt's, choosing this moment of independence to revert to her own name - but, on the advice of her family the more seriously theatrical 'Elizabeth' rather than 'Bessie' was chosen. As the 1880s gained pace, her increasingly large roles soon began to gain attention. One typically favourable notice in the Dramatic Times of June 12th 1882 for her role as 'Rose' in Forgiven remarked that she was 'attractive in appearance, remarkably intelligent and does her work with an artistic discrimination and a natural force that promise much for the future'. Pitt was no doubt pleased, as he had given her the role as a result of a loan arrangement with Tevis. Maintaining such traits in the theatrical life of the time was no easy feat - arduous travel, little sleep, preparation for dress and role, before even reaching the 10 performances a week, usually with no understudy and a written or unspoken contract not to let the company down due to illness.
In August 1883 her choice of career became more secure after she moved to the long established Boston Museum Theatre Company. Pitt had run into financial trouble and been unable to pay his players - Boston Manager R. M. Field had his eye on the talent and Tevis had negotiated a strong three year contract for Elizabeth - $25 per week, rising to $50 by the third year. This was to involve an estimated 200 smaller and larger roles in Shakespeare and modern melodrama. Her debut in front of the refined Boston audience as the heroine Adrienne in A Celebrated Case was a challenge and a considerable shift in gear. Of the many admirers who she was surprised to find now pursued her, a fellow Boston Museum actor, George Parks, had done so with such alacrity, that finally, despite initial personal and family reservations, he succeeded in convincing her to marry in January 1885 - at a secret ceremony in Salem with just one witness. But of course the news quickly got out. As a direct result, Field informed her by letter of her early release from her Boston Museum contract at the end of that season.
Although Elizabeth had through half a decade of hard work gradually become quite successful, if with very little choice over roles, she suffered multiple personal and public blows as the '90s approached. In 1885, suffering from continuing fears and 'delusions' of violence towards her children, her mother had been placed into 'the living grave' of an asylum where her own Doctor later committed suicide - Elizabeth felt ongoing guilt about her inability to support her mother personally. In September of that same year, she learned at curtain down one evening that her Grandmother and in some ways the family glue Jane had died. Further, although they were not very close, in November, her sister Una also died from malaria. After leaving the Boston Museum Company she had to rejoin O'Neill's - she saw success in the prominent female role of Mercedes in his very successful productions of the Count of Monte Cristo, including in her hometown of Zanesville where she and production were given rave reviews. But as expected, she found the repetition of the role oppressive and only stayed for the autumn of 1886 - a decision hastened by the drastic setback of a boiler flood ruining all of the expensive and especially fitted theatrical gowns she had had made over the summer for the following season.
While there was passion and fondness in her relationship with George, they were often apart due to the nature of the work. He had not matched her consistent success in acting, but certainly had with his insistence on marriage and his level of emotional dependency on her, which she would and could not reciprocate. He, as more of a traditionalist than most in the theatre set of the time, wished for nothing more than to have Elizabeth cease acting and be provided for by a level of success that ever eluded him. In 1886, further struggling with illness which had forced him to stand down from a role, subsequent financial distress, and a general susceptibility to serious depression, George weighed himself down with his theatrical chain mail and committed suicide by jumping into the Charles River. He left a stark and what can only have been emotionally traumatising note, stating amongst expressions of love, doubt and regret - that 'I will not stand in your light any longer.' His body remained undiscovered for almost two weeks - when it was found, the tragic case made front page news. Six pages of her diary for the period prior to discovery were torn out, with only the phrase 'usual shuddering dream' remaining as stark testament to that time. George's family blamed Elizabeth for the tragedy and at times she certainly also blamed herself. In addition, allusions and inferences from Elizabeth and several other sources suggest the possibility of an aborted pregnancy around this time, although this is never stated explicitly enough to be completely certain.
Elizabeth in an early role as 'Rose' in James Albery's play 'Forgiven', 1883, during her brief time with Pitt's company. Bernard Shaw cheekily suggested Elizabeth use this cigarette portrait photo of pre-'New Woman' Elizabeth as the frontispiece to a future memoir. Decades later, she did, in 'Both Sides of the Curtain'. Resolution enhanced by Henfield Museum, 2020
Despite this dark time, Elizabeth was nothing if not indomitable and had now built up considerable experience. Before George's death she had attempted to assist their financial situation by boldly going to meet and then gaining a contract to join the foremost American Shakespearean company of Lawrence Barrett and Edwin Booth, both former Boston company men. The latter had long since resigned himself to being equally known as the brother of the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. She had seen Booth perform in her first year in New York, describing his Iago as 'a perfect piece of unrestrained art', so it was a welcome move. They travelled 30,000 miles across the breadth of America from the east coast to the 'wild' west by train, the company as a whole staging 258 performances in 72 venues and ending on the Merchant of Venice in San Francisco. Needing to cut the size of the troupe, Elizabeth's contract was ended, after which she visited her benefactor and mother's cousin Lloyd Tevis, who was for once unable to negotiate her a contract extension. From this largely positive experience she would in 1890 write her first published article: Across America with Junius Brutus Booth.
Having so completed her contracted tour (which she could not have known would be her last in America) and travelled back to the east coast via Panama, a sorely needed opportunity arose to forge paths afresh. Elizabeth accepted an invitation from her friend the widow Sara Bull and left for Europe in September 1888. To begin, she spent a week sightseeing in London, followed by her one and only visit to Norway, to Lysøen Island - the Island of Light. This was the former home of Sara's husband, the Norwegian composer and proponent of the Romantic movement, Ole Bull. She described the trip there as 'like a dream floating into fairy harbors & seeing shores that fade with day.' and noted that it certainly provided at least a beginning of the needed escape from recent experiences past. Ole's brother Edvard provided a strong welcome, but his 'quiet old wife' in Elizabeth's words, was in fact her first true connection to Ibsen, In her youth, she had worked with him at the Norwegian Theatre at Bergen - founded by Ole Bull. It is not however certain whether any special weight was given to this in their conversations of the time. This experience was both Elizabeth's introduction and her one and only visit to the captivating home country of the playwright she would soon come to be defined by.
On her return to London, she had telegraphed home to accept a role in New York with a reliable but autocratic actor manager she would certainly not have got along with. But the combination of her striking looks, personality and theatrical intensity quickly won many admirers and stalwart friends for 'Lise' as she would soon become known to friends. Amongst these was the budding Ibsenite Oscar Wilde, then the toast of London, if not yet quite at the peak of his fame. Despite her rather equivocal initial diary description of him as ‘smoothshaven, rather fat face, rather weak; the frequent smile showed long, crowded teeth, a rather interesting presence in spite of certain objectionable points.', in her words many years later, 'he was then at the height of his powers and fame and I utterly unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I could do nothing for him; he could and did do everything in his power for me.' With encouragement from Wilde and with all too vague promises of a role from theatre manager Herbert Beerborm Tree (to whom Wilde had introduced her), she made the decision to cancel her return steamer and stay in London. Wilde was to remain a friend and enthusiastic attendee of her later productions until his downfall. With her decade of experience, much further effort and initially through the web of social introductions, she managed to find initial steady work before then building a reputation as a leading lady of the London stage through the 1890s. This at a time when actor managers still dominated, many of whom, like Henry Irving as she discovered to her disappointment, often viewed female parts simply as a visual means of showing dramatic pathos.
And what of her literal theatrical voice, central to the appeal of an actress? Elizabeth in fact made several radio broadcasts for the BBC in the 1920s, but unfortunately, typically for the time, recordings were not made. Tree provides a clue, as Elizabeth noted him as saying to her "How American you are, in spite of your voice!". The elocution lessons she had taken had no doubt reduced signs of any American accent she may once have had. Her having some degree of the trained Transatlantic accent of the late 19th and early 20th century might perhaps be a fair guess.
As her situation stabilised somewhat, Elizabeth was drawn to the challenging nature of Henrik Ibsen's plays and their radical challenge to societal expectations and gender roles. But she, initially with actress Marion Lea and later the help of her close supporters such as the theatre critic and early Ibsen promoter William Archer, had first to engage in a delicate and frustrating game of diplomacy over the thorny issues of rights, translations and professional pride. Powerful men such as early Ibsenite Edmund Gosse and up and coming publisher William Heinemann were successfully charmed and placated and the path ahead was free. She was now able to organise, manage and produce entire productions independently.
One of her many theatrical and personal admirers was (George) Bernard Shaw - although she rebuffed his amorous advances, the strength of his efforts and her fieriness in resisting them have frequently arisen in recent accounts due to his tongue in cheek later description of her having fended him off in her flat with a gun - but by her own account a prop gun, waved at him theatrically!
After her earlier tragic experience with George Parks and as someone who delighted in never revealing her true self to those who seemed determined to want to discover it, Archer, her stalwart sounding board throughout her time in London, was the one man of her many male admirers that she allowed herself to become truly intimate with throughout the 1890s.
With the morality of the 'New Woman' being strongly debated among not only avid theatre goers but the wider society of the day, Elizabeth's passion in these roles, drawing strongly upon her own experiences, entranced many. These included the 21 year old Bertrand Russell, who revelling in the rebellious mood of the times, stated that Ibsen's plays 'excited me in a very high degree'. Within a few weeks in the summer of 1893, he had read the plays and gone on to see Robins play Helda Wangel in The Master Builder, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm and the title role in Hedda Gabler. For Russell, Elizabeth's parts were 'embodiments of his own fantasies of being released from the confines and restrictions of his past by a woman unfettered by conformity to tradition.'
As the 1890s progressed, Elizabeth found the time to supplement her often unsteady theatrical income by becoming a successful novelist, at first under her old pseudonym of C. E. Raimond (until outed by the papers). Novels such as The Open Question drew strongly upon her own experiences both growing up in America and more recently in England. A criticism friends and she herself often levelled was a lack of focus on any single project at one time - nonetheless, her output on all was impressive.
Taking Hedda over the Atlantic, the play was premiered at New York's 5th Avenue Theatre in 1898. However, by 1900 the golden era of popularity and challenge of Ibsen's plays was past and Elizabeth expressed disappointment in his final play When We Dead Awaken. She instead looked for catharsis in the new century, embarking on a dangerous adventure in search of her equally idealistic younger brother Raymond. Twelve years older, she had been something of a surrogate mother to him in earlier years in America while her mother was absent, but they had not seen each other since her original move to London twelve years before. As it turned out, Raymond had ended up on one of the last American frontiers in the town of Nome, Alaska. Later famous for the Iditarod dog sled race, it had sprung up almost overnight as a result of the fevered arrival of masses of men seeking their fortunes as part of the Klondike gold rush. He had stepped somewhat inadvertently into a role of community leadership for the new town, sold to him by an associate of a religious movement who had been somewhat economical with the truth of the situation.
Raymond was involved in both ministering to and dealing with the sometimes violent and deadly disputes in the wild town, which had not yet seen much sign of the formal structures of authority. It was of some concern to the sceptic Elizabeth that reports indicated that Raymond was suddenly and seriously considering dedicating his life to religion, given his former intentions to work as a lawyer. Although she found her brother and also saw for what was to be the last time her other brother Saxton, in so doing she contracted Typhoid, a condition which was to hamper her health for the rest of her life. But, as planned, her dramatic experiences offered a rich seam of writing material for her bestseller The Magnetic North in addition to other works and articles. Book sale proceeds would allow her to purchase the Florida estate of Chinsegut in 1904 - this had originally been a dream she and he had had decades before. Raymond would go on to live there with his wife Margaret, and Elizabeth would continue to travel back to America from time to time to visit her brother there.
Retiring as an actress at the age of 40 in 1902, she in 1909 found a quiet refuge in Sussex, restoring the house at Backsettown and becoming a Henfield resident as the struggle for women's suffrage was reaching its peak and her own thoughts on feminism were culminating. Although rural Henfield was a quiet retreat for her, Elizabeth by her presence alone nonetheless brought the village to centre stage. A few years previously, she was enticed into the movement and had written the play Votes for Women (subsequently expanded into the book The Convert) which had opened to great success in 1906. Joining the long running National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) run by Milicent Fawcett, she became a frequent spokesperson in The Times and other papers and magazines for the Suffragist cause and subsequently the newly evolving more militant Suffragettes (initially a press term of derision) led by the Pankhursts' Womens' Social and Political Union (WSPU).
As well as friends from her society life, leaders of the movement visited Henfield over the next few years - on the 29th May 1909, Christabel Pankhurst, Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (editors of the WSPU newspaper Votes for Women) and Mabel Tuke (WSPU Secretary) are all shown in the guest book meeting on the same day as the writer H.G. Wells. Although Wells professed to support female suffrage, the meeting that day may not have been entirely convivial. In her biography, Octavia Wilberforce, who lived at Backsettown at the time, detailed that '...he had invited himself, that he had stayed up till past midnight arguing with Elizabeth Robins, who disapproved of his affair with the daughter of one of her friends.' Elizabeth later described Wells' views on women as 'sex-obsessed' and 'antediluvian'!
Although still supporting the cause, she left the committee of the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union in 1912 as she felt the continuing militancy was now hindering more than helping. As the frequent advocate in print for the movement (and more rarely in voice, as she disliked public speaking), this had put her in the difficult position of having to criticise her more moderate friends, both in the movement and without. The final straw came when her close friends the Pethick Lawrences were asked by Emmeline and Christabel to leave the committee - Emmeline was of the view that Elizabeth's view on the matter was not of weight as she'd not regularly attended committee meetings! The house was nonetheless set up after the Cat & Mouse Act of 1913 as a refuge for suffragettes recovering from hunger strike and was rumoured to also offer refuge to those wanted by the law! Elizabeth gamely filled in her 1911 Census return for the address with: 'The occupier of this house will be ready to give the desired information, the moment the government recognizes women as responsible citizens.'
In 1909 Elizabeth met the young Octavia Wilberforce, Great-Granddaughter of William. Elizabeth supported her goal of becoming one of the second generation of female doctors, for which Octavia's father was to disinherit her. The two became lifelong friends, with Octavia coming to live in Henfield with Elizabeth. The First World War was to provide her with much experience of treating casualties and she achieved her goal in 1920. With the driving support of the new Doctor Wilberforce, Backsettown was to be formally set up as a women's shelter in 1927, remaining so for many decades afterwards. It was insisted upon that there be no mention of illness and frequent provision of fresh produce, some grown in the Backsettown gardens and others no doubt sourced from Henfield's many commercial market gardens of the time.
Both women funded and supported women's health services locally including the Lady Chichester Hospital and the New Sussex Hospital for Women. Robins became a familiar (if perhaps remote to most) figure in Henfield and was involved with the formation of the Henfield Women's Institute, where she initially served on the committee of what was then a particularly political branch of a much more political organisation than the WI of today. Virginia and Leonard Woolf were to become friends and visitors of the two women during the inter-war period. Never short of stylish elan, an essential during her acting days and later a useful counter to attacks on 'dowdy' suffragettes, the daughter of the owner of the local bicycle shop nonetheless fondly remembered her frequent visits where she would knit clothes for her dolls.
During the inter war years, with Backsettown a busy convalescent home, she was largely based in Brighton at Octavia's surgery. Despite declining health, she continued to write articles for magazines such as Time and Tide as well as working on books, both retrospectives and novels. To her distress, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, the then almost 80 year old Elizabeth - being an American citizen - was compelled to return to an America she no longer felt at home in by a mixture of onerous wartime 'alien' reporting requirements, the thought that she could advocate more effectively for Britain stateside and ultimately firm advice from the US Embassy. However, she afterwards returned as soon as possible. She had spent the war years working on a comprehensive autobiographical work - tragically her trunks were rifled on the Liverpool docks on her return and the manuscript was never recovered, her legacy suffering as a result. Elizabeth spent her final years in Brighton at 24 Montpelier Crescent, looked after by her long time friend Octavia and regaling visitors with stories of her life and the Victorian stage.
~ Postscript ~
In 1960, a plaque in her memory was unveiled at Backsettown by amongst others, her latter life friends Leonard Woolf and Sybil Thorndike. Famous in her time, her legacy has been partly obscured perhaps by her early theatrical retirement, her long life, and a thirty year hold she put on the opening of her extensive archives in New York. However, the last three decades have seen an increased appreciation, with two biographies leading the way and a spotlight shone upon Votes for Women! during the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018. With the Backsettown convalescent home at Henfield finally sold in 1991, the managing Trust subsequently passed the rights to the Robins papers to the charity Independent Age - a cause Elizabeth would doubtless have supported in struggles to stay productive in the face of health issues in her later years. In 1919, she had written in her diary - 'To be a successful old woman - that's the great achievement.'
It is hoped her story will now be better known in her beloved Sussex too. In 2019, as part of the Horsham District Year of Culture, two new community mosaics were unveiled in Cooper's Way, Henfield, highlighting the village's role in women's suffrage. One shows a violet, both symbol of the suffragettes and a tribute to the Misses Allen-Brown, female owners of their own famous violet nursery and suffrage supporters and friends of Robins. The other shows Backsettown, with the waving figure of Elizabeth as suffragette standing in front.
By R. S. Gordon, 2020
Research into Elizabeth always reveals many fascinating sketches of her life and times - it is hoped to release further articles focused on specific aspects in the future.
For a further selection of restored and colourised photos of Elizabeth, see her page in our 'Henfieldians Past' section.
The 2019 mosaic of Elizabeth and Backsettown, a community created project led by Creative Waves and the Henfield Community Partnership. Photo: RSG
Gates, Joanne E., Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1952 Actress, Novelist, Feminist (The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1994)
Hill, Leslie Anne, Theatres and Friendships: the Spheres and Strategies of Elizabeth Robins (University of Exeter Thesis, 2014)
John, Angela V., Elizabeth Robins, Staging a Life. 2nd ed. (Tempus Publishing Limited, Stroud, 2007)
Moessner, Victoria Joan, Gates, Joanne E., eds., The Alaska Klondike Diary of Elizabeth Robins 1900, (Fairbanks, University of Alaska Press, 1999)
Monk, Ray, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921, Volume 1 (London, Vintage, 1996)
Powell, Kerry, Women and Victorian Theatre (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Robins, Elizabeth, Both Sides of the Curtain (London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1940)
Henfield Museum Collection/Archives