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Chapter 1

WILL you listen to an old woman’s story, dear people who remember me in my prime, and you others to whom I am only a name, but a name connected with so much that is mirthful and gay? Who does not laugh happily at the whimsicalities of “Pinafore” and “Patience,” of “Iolanthe” and “Ruddigore,” of “The Yeomen of the Guard” and “The Gondoliers”? Pure fun with no sting in it, leaving no bad taste in the mouth. What a bright spirit conceived that fun, what a master of humorous melody set it to music, what jolly, talented folk interpreted it and first made it visible and audible to the enraptured London of their day!

And I was one of that bright band – I, now a little old woman of nearly seventy-seven. I danced and sang and coquetted with the best, and all the people loved me. They do so still, as I dare to think, when I revisit my old haunts and am received with open arms and acclamations. They are all gone now, my fellow-actors and companions, I only am left to speak from personal knowledge of that brilliant episode. For twenty years without a break I played in Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful operas – longer than any of my fellow-artists – and now I sit down to write about it all, the only woman of our company who has attempted the task.

So, now, will you listen to the story of my long life, chequered with joy and sorrow and hope and despair like all lives, but perhaps with brighter patches than most. All that was best in that London of last century I have tasted: I have seen my ambitions realized and my wildest hopes fulfilled; I have known great sorrow also. Now I look back on it all through a mist of memories, an old woman resting from the labours of a lifetime, in a quiet nook where the velvet Downs meet the ever-youthful sea. But there’s life and fun in me yet, and it does not take much to stir my old blood and bring back the days when I was the idol of the town, when cries of “dear Jessie” resounded from the gallery, and foolish youths – and oldsters too – laid poems and garlands and offerings of all sorts at my feet.

I am a thorough-going Cockney, born within sound of the Bow Bells, at Camden Town on January 10, 1853. What a long while ago, and what a different Camden Town! They christened me at St. Pancras Church, and I believe I was always an obstreperous young person, with a passion for getting on in life, and no gift for being seen and not heard. My dear father and mother gave me the happiest childhood to remember and look back on, they were my truest friends and jolliest companions. My mother used to sing me to sleep with quaint rhymes and folk-songs, crooned in a sweet, natural, untrained voice, something individual and characteristic of her bright and witty self:

“Where have you been all the day, my boy Billy,
Where have you been all the day ?”
“Courting of a lady gay,
Though she be but a young thing, just left her mammy,”

I can hear her yet, through a mist of years, as once I heard her through a mist of dreams.

My father, bearded like the patriarchs of old, was a sound musician and a maker of pianos for the trade, especially for Broadwood, so that I grew up in a musical atmosphere, and I and my brothers and sisters soon learnt to play and sing, and to take our parts in a home orchestra comprising violins and a cornet as well as piano. My mother had a great love for the theatre, and used to march us children off to hear and see plays as well as operas, though I at least was so young that often I fell asleep with my head on her shoulder. Nevertheless she considered it part of our education, and we early became familiar with the operas, oratorios and other music popular at that time. My father used to hum airs to us and offer pennies to the one who could place them. “What air is this? From what opera? Who wrote it?” And it was oftenest the perky little Jessie who answered correctly, and amassed pennies by the dozen, her first professional fees.

I loved acting too, and used to organize dramatic performances in our kitchen, with Father and Mother as the amused audience, and my brothers and sisters under my energetic stage management. Our costumes were improvised from night-gowns and Mother’s dresses and anything that came handy, and to this day my fingers bear the scars of wounds contracted during the manufacture of most realistic daggers. I was all for realism and the unities, and any lapse from the ideal grievously hurt my artistic soul. I remember a boy who used to act with us, a hunchback he was, and very conceited, proud as a peacock of his cloak with a red satin lining. In the play he had to be killed in a duel, but after being dead for fully ten minutes he discovered that the red satin lining was not showing, and carefully turned back a corner of his cloak. My disgust and fury were beyond bounds; never had my artistic sensibilities been so affronted.

When I was six years old we went to live in Liverpool, and it was there that I first appeared in public. The piano was my instrument then, and when I was eight years old I played a Beethoven Sonata at a concert in Hope Hall – auspicious name! I was so small that they had to lift me on to the piano stool, but my performance was received with great favour, and was rapturously encored. Then came a clash of wills with my music master, Mr. Isouard Praeger. He wished me to play as encore a piece that he could accompany on the violin, but I insisted that I must play “Lily of Killarney,” and play it alone. Picture to yourself the small creature arguing behind the scenes with a large and angry music master, while the audience vociferously cheered in front! I stuck to my guns. I would play alone or not at all, and I had my way, wilful little devil that I was. The dominant spirit and egoism of the artist shown thus early!

The “Liverpool Daily Courier,” in describing this concert, said: “Miss Jessie Bond, daughter of Mr. John Bond of Norton Street, showed remarkable knowledge of notation, time, and style.” Another critic, writing in the “Tomahawk,” said: “Miss Jessie Bond performed with a spirit and taste, the like of which I never heard equalled in one so young. Her solo was re-demanded in a style which must have frightened the little creature.” (Not at all, my dear man, I enjoyed it.) “She is a regular Arabella Goddard in miniature.”

Comparison with Arabella Goddard was indeed a compliment in those days. She was the most admired pianist of her time, whom not to have heard was to be an outsider in artistic society. She it was who first made Beethoven’s later pianoforte music well known and popular in England.

My father was not well off, and as soon as we children could help ourselves and him we had to do so. For me, music teaching was the obvious way, but I hated it. I have never been any good as a teacher, and the necessity of having to do what I did badly made me desperately impatient and discontented. Routine and monotony were repulsive to me; and, then as always, I hated domesticity.

One day my mother took me to see an old servant who had married, and recently had her first baby. Well do I remember the little tidy, frugal house and the woman with her infant, and I observed it all with the supercilious arrogance of fifteen.

“Oh, mother,” I said, as we were walking home, “never, never let me have a little house, and a little perambulator, and a little baby, and an iron on the kitchen mantelpiece!”

I don’t know why that flat-iron on the mantelpiece seemed to me the last outrage on human dignity, but so it was.

Before I was seventeen I became engaged to a quite ordinary good young man, more because he kept on asking me and romance was beginning to stir in my breast than because of any inclination towards him personally. He was called William and was quite a nice lad, and my parents had no objection to our engagement so long as we were prepared to wait until I was at least eighteen years of age. So that for me the little house and the perambulator, and perhaps even the iron on the mantelpiece, seemed imminent at one time. But here my good fairy took the matter in hand, my voice began to develop and my parents had it carefully trained, and a prospect of release both from teaching and from domesticity seemed to be opening up.

About this time an advertisement appeared in the daily papers, asking for young singers to join a Choral Society recently formed in Liverpool, and my mother thought it would be a good opportunity for me to learn concerted singing and gain experience. The idea should have appealed to me, but somehow it didn’t. I don’t know what mysterious reluctance held me back, what instinct urged me to avoid the most unhappy experience of my life. All unwillingly I sallied forth with my mother to interview the Director, but when she got near the place she found she had forgotten the number of the house and, though I remembered it quite well, I did not tell her. My obstruction availed me nothing, however, for she consulted the newspaper again, and next day we went to the address indicated.

Never shall I forget my first sight of the Director, Herr F. A. Schotlaender. A tall, massive man, with a look of power and intellect, he stood with his elbow on some piece of furniture and his head resting on his hand. His eyes seemed to pierce me, I was attracted and repelled at the same time, and deeply disturbed. I am sure I did not fall in love at first sight, what I felt was dread and a foreshadowing of evil; but it was also enlightenment, a glimpse of another and wider world than I had known, and a different standard to judge men by.

As we went home after that most disturbing interview I thought of my humdrum fiancé, poor, raw, young William, and decided that I never could marry him now. Pale shadows cannot stand before the robust strength of reality, and even those few minutes in the company of Schotlaender had revealed to me the existence of a type of man never before encountered. I wrote to William and broke off the engagement; when he called I locked myself into my bedroom and refused to see him. Entreaties were useless, I hardened my heart against him and sent back all his presents. My parents were indignant and thought I was behaving disgracefully, as perhaps I was, but a glimpse of a bigger world had been vouchsafed to me, and there was no contenting myself with outworn beliefs.

That was the end of poor William as a factor in my life, though I met him again long afterwards. He consoled himself in due course, married and had two children and was prosperous in his worldly affairs; then his wife died and he came to London and proposed to me again, after all those years! I can say with pride, but I think without vanity – for truth and devotion to one’s unworthy self makes one feel very humble – that many men have loved me, not lightly or with fickleness, but faithfully and long.

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