Sunday, 27 July 2014

FIGHT YOUR OWN WAY: The life of Victorian actress Julia Neilson.
Guest post from Alice Violett:
As part of my research into public perceptions and personal experiences of only children born between c. 1850 and 1950, I have been reading many autobiographies, including those of actresses Julia Neilson (1868-1957) and Nancy Price (1880-1970).
Julia Neilson was born in London. When she was a young child, her parents separated.  Brought up by her mother in straitened circumstances, her upbringing was characterised by both caution and strength:

“You must fight your own way in the world, Julia,” was a remark frequently made to me by my mother when I was still but a little girl.
There was no talk of the theatre in those days.  It was cautiously decided that I should become a governess – mother’s courage on her own account evidently falling short when it came to the disposal of a daughter’s future.

Julia did not think being an only child had affected her too unduly: Lacking brothers and sisters, I suppose my childhood’s days must have been lonely ones; but solitude does  not seem to have afflicted me with a shortage of spirits, since one of my earliest recollections is of receiving a sound smacking across my grandmother’s knee, for staying out late to play in the gardens of Torrington Square.
She was also in frequent trouble for chronic untidiness of the pockets.

Despite her mother’s caution, Julia was allowed to make decisions for herself.  At boarding-school in Germany (by this time her mother had more money, and wished to tame her wild daughter a little), she struck up a friendship with two Russian girls. They told me of the beauties of the Greek Catholic Church, which, of course, was then the national religion of Russia.  So I wrote to my mother telling her that I had been converted, and wished to join the Greek Catholic Church.  My mother at once replied, saying that it was a serious step to take, but that if I had really made up my mind, I was quite at liberty to become a Greek Catholic.  How wise of her.  There being no opposition of any kind, the charm of the idea faded away, and I came to the conclusion that I would remain a member of my own church.
She was also allowed to join a profession previously untested by any other member of her family. I was to head a kind of mild family stampede towards the theatre ...  We were to become a ‘theatrical family’ – which I am sure would very much have astonished handsome Great-Grandmother Davis, if she had lived to hear about it.  I can just remember Great-Grandmother Davis: a stately old lady with lace lappets descending on her bosom.  I used to be taken to see her and my two cousins, who played the piano so beautifully that out of mortification and envy I retired to sit under the table.

For more quotes from Julia Neilson’s autobiography see Alice Violett’s blog at

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