- The Invisible Woman Disappears: Ellen Ternan’s Last Performance at the Haymarket
Ellen Ternan’s last professional stage appearance occurred at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1859. Recent biographers place the performance in August, and some, more precisely, on 10 August.1 The latter detail follows from observations made in the 1950s by Ada Nisbet:
[Ellen] was billed to appear at the Haymarket on August 4, 1859, as Mrs. Gatherwood [sic] in Out of Sight Out of Mind, but on August 11 Maria Ternan is listed in the part. This is the last recorded appearance that I have been able to find […](78 endnote 17)
and by Malcolm Morley:
On August 4th she was billed as Mrs. Gatherwool in Out of Sight, out of Mind, a comedy by Charles Mathews […] On August 10th Ellen played at the Haymarket for the last time. The following evening her part of Mrs. Gatherwool was taken over by Maria. Ellen Ternan never acted again on the professional stage.(117)
Neither of these authors provided details of the source of their information, but it seems to have come from theater playbills. The present essay supplements it with material gathered from contemporary newspapers. The findings cast doubt on the customarily believed date of Ellen’s last performance. [End Page 159]
The main features of Ellen Ternan’s theatrical career and her early interactions with Dickens are well documented2 and are rehearsed here in outline only. In August 1857, Ellen, her widowed mother and older sister Maria, all professional actresses, were recruited by Dickens to supplement his otherwise amateur company performing for charity in Manchester. Dickens re-encountered Ellen and her family during their short theatrical engagement in Doncaster the following month. Later that year, Ellen became a reasonably established but junior member of John Baldwin Buckstone’s Haymarket company, a situation perhaps subsidized by Dickens. When Dickens separated from his wife in May 1858, Ellen’s name featured in rumors about the cause of the separation. In April 1859, Maria Ternan joined her sister at the Haymarket, transferring there after a relatively successful spell as a member of the company of the Royal Strand Theatre. After Ellen’s departure from the Haymarket later that year, Maria remained a member of its company until she herself left in 1860. Very little is known of Ellen’s movements in the years immediately following her retirement from the stage, during which, as Claire Tomalin remarks of her “Invisible Woman,” she “disappears from view.” (135)
Newspaper Advertisements and Reviews
The farce Out of Sight Out of Mind, a vehicle for the comedian Charles Mathews junior, ran at the Haymarket between Thursday 4 August and Friday 16 September 1859.3 In it, Mathews played Gatherwool, a man whose absentmindedness gives rise to comic misunderstandings. Members of the Haymarket company provided support as Gatherwool’s wife, her would-be seducer, a friend and an impudent maid.
The production was trailed in the press from 31 July, only Mathews among its cast being mentioned.4 On the morning of the day it opened, some newspaper advertisements additionally listed the names of the four supporting actors. They included “Miss E. Ternan.”5 On the following morning, press notices of the first-night performance appeared. In most, Mathews alone received attention, but the reviewer of the Morning Advertiser [End Page 160] also named the other cast-members:
Mrs. Fitzwilliam, as a housemaid, was sufficiently confident; and Miss M. Ternan ladylike as the wife. Mr. Rogers was a boisterous friend, and Mr. Villiers a lady-killing captain […]6
On Saturday 6 August the Standard also reviewed the first-night performance:
A new farce […] was produced at the Haymarket, on Thursday night […] Mr. Charles Mathews was supported by Mr. Rogers, Mr. E. Villiers, Miss M. Ternan, and Mrs. E. Fitzwilliam. The two ladies were especially excellent.7
And on the same day, the weekly Critic commented on the production “brought out at the Haymarket on Thursday”:
Mr. Rogers and Mr. Villiers, as a friend and as a lover of the wife; and Miss M. Ternan and Mrs. Fitzwilliam, as the wife and a saucy housemaid, did all that was necessary to...