Showing posts from December, 2007

Invisible Woman - The Life of Ellen Ternan

She is the shadowy figure in Dickens’s life, the woman who shared the last thirteen years before his early death. His biographers tried to erase her, their letters to each other were burned, but still the story of Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan could not be obliterated from history. Ellen Lawless Ternan was born on March 3, 1839 in Rochester, England, coincidentally a city that had much meaning for Charles Dickens. She was born into a theatrical family of long standing. Her mother, father and grandmother had all been actors; her mother, Fanny Ternan, had even appeared on the London stage, with the great actor William Charles Macready (another good friend of Dickens). When Ellen was around six, her father Thomas Ternan had a breakdown and was committed to an asylum where he died two years later. From the time they were small children, Ellen and her two older sisters Fanny and Maria had appeared on stage. The life of an actress in Victorian England was difficult. Not only were actresse

Pyrates in Petticoats - The Notorious Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Who doesn’t love a tale about pirates, swashbuckling tales of adventure on the high seas, where men were men, and women were the naughty figureheads on the ships. Well, among the most notorious pirates of the 18th Century were two women. If you take the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland, you’ll see them featured on the wall, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Some might call them feminists who chose piracy as a way of rebelling against a male-dominated world. Others might see them as tomboys who just never grew up. Whatever their reasons, Anne Bonny and Mary Read became two of history’s most notorious pirates, male or female. Their story has come down to us shrouded in the mists of legend and myth. The few facts that we know about Anne Bonny are that she was probably born in County Cork in about 1690 to a lawyer named Wiliam Cormac and his maid, Mary Brennan. Cormac was married and the resulting scandal (apparently Mrs. Cormac was not of a forgiving nature) led him to flee Ireland w

Wallis Simpson: The woman who might have been Queen

On December 11, 1936, Edward VIII of Great Britain made his now famous abdication speech, saying he could no longer continue to fulfill his duties “without the woman I love.” From then on, the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson passed into the history books as the love story of the century. In the seventy one years, tons of books have been written about the couple, including their own memoirs. Even today she provokes a strong reaction when you talk about her. What is it about this story and this couple that has kept us fascinated for so many decades? This was the biggest scandal ever to hit the royal family of England. Bigger than the Prince and Princess of Wale’s divorce. This was bigger than “Squidgy-gate,” or even the infamous “I want to be your tampon,” recording between Prince Charles and the former Camilla Parker-Bowles. Heck it was even bigger than Princess Margaret and her ill-fated love for Group Captain Peter Townsend, her love affair with the gardener, and her

Marie du Plessis, the real Lady of the Camellias

The sight of Greta Garbo as Marguerite Gautier expiring in the arms of the handsome Robert Taylor at the end of the movie Camille is a powerful and romantic image that stays with the viewer after the movie has ended. But that was not how the life of the real Marguerite Gautier ended. On February 5, 1847, Marie Duplessis, once Queen of the demi-monde in Paris, died in agony from tuberculosis at the age of tender age of 23 alone apart from the doctors and her servants. She wrote no books or poetry, left no paintings, was remarkable chiefly for her beauty and her fame as a courtesan. Within weeks of her death, all her belongings, including her pet parrot, were auctioned to pay off her massive debts. Fashionable Paris turned out for the auction, most not to bid but merely to stare. Dickens was among the crowds, later writing: "One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d'Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness." A myth was beginning to take

Caroline Norton - Reluctant Heroine

One of the great things about this blog is finding out about interesting women in history that one has never heard of before. One of these women is Caroline Norton. I first read about Caroline in the companion volume to a exhibition at the New York Public Library, and was intrigued. I came upon her story again in another book that I was reading recently. I was struck by her story simply because Caroline Norton was a reluctant heroine. If her life hadn't been struck by adversity, she would probably have led the life of a contented Victorian maiden. While many of the women that have been featured on this blog defied the social mores of their times, Caroline found herself taking on the established laws that treated women as little better than livestock. She was born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan on March 22, 1808. Her father Thomas Sheridan was an actor, soldier and government official. He was also the son of the great Richard Brinsley Sheridan who in his lifetime had been a play