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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter
SEVEN years had now gone by since that eventful day when D’Oyly Carte’s telegram had cut short my holiday in Liverpool, and opened for me a new way of life. Seven years of hard work and ceaseless effort; and I think I may add, of attainment. I had won for myself a secure place in the affections of the public, my relations with the management and with my fellow-actors were intimate and happy.
My salary was rising: it was still modest according to the standards of to-day, but I began at last to taste the pleasures that money brings. No longer need I cook and wash and make and mend; I moved into a commodious flat in Chancery Lane, and had a maid to wait on me and keep the home fires burning.
She didn’t always do that, as I discovered one night when I was taken ill in the theatre, and had to go home early. The flat was empty, there was no one to receive and wait on me, and I found that my maid was herself a performer, she sang and danced on the stage of the Holborn Music Hall, but generally managed to get home before I did. What is more, I found that she had made a practice of wearing my silk stockings to dance in.
However, these little accidents will happen, and on the whole my menage ran smoothly, though one night I nearly lost my little home and all my possessions. An excited messenger arrived at the theatre – the house I lived in was on fire! The piece – it was “The Gondoliers” I think, was only half over, and I of course was in stage costume; but forgetting all other considerations, I rushed away just as I was to protect my own property or witness its destruction. Fortunately things were not as bad as that, the fire was extinguished – thanks to Captain Shaw – and my rooms suffered very little damage. How the play got on without me I dare not think; and of course Carte was furious, and made it a rule that never again were letters or messages to be brought to me or to any other actor during the performance.
As my professional status improved I made friends in high places and had many social engagements. I have told you of my first meeting with the Prince of Wales, and it was the first of many. His Royal Highness was genuinely interested in the theatre; and often came behind the scenes to see us all, and express the pleasure our performances gave him. Once he brought with him the Duke of Clarence and Prince George, our present King; two nice boys, a little shy; but evidently much interested in all they saw and heard.
To me the Prince of Wales was always particularly kind and friendly; I think my lively tongue and natural, unrestrained ways, which however I knew well how to keep within the necessary bounds, amused and pleased him. Certainly he treated me with great kindness, and it was to him I owed many an engagement to sing privately in the most exalted company.
He and the Duke of Edinburgh used to go a great deal to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s; they were all very fond of music, but also of poker, and used to play, I fancy, for pretty high stakes. I don’t play poker myself, but the Prince liked me to chat with him in the intervals of the game, and he always declared that I brought him luck.
“Come and be our Mascot, Jessie,” Sullivan would say; and I used to sit there and watch them until the morning hours were well advanced. Often I sang; and one of Sullivan’s letters refers to an occasion I well remember.
I must explain why Sullivan counselled secrecy. Not because he thought other members of the Company might be jealous – oh, dear no – but because the party was to be on Sunday! Mid-Victorian days, you understand; strict conventions; and the Heir Apparent’s Sabbath-breaking had to be kept dark. It seems rather funny now, but then it was a serious matter. In these circumstances the duet “I once was a very abandoned person,” sung by Barrington and me and accompanied by Sir Arthur Sullivan, had distinctly the right flavour, and Sullivan himself had grievously fallen from grace since the days, when as a young student returning from Leipsic, he was able to assure Sir George Smart that he had never attended a concert on Sunday!
I remember once sitting beside the Prince at some reception, and when I was not looking he tied some of the ribbons that decorated my dress to the chair-rail. Of course when I tried to rise, I couldn’t; and he laughed as I fumbled with the knots.
“Why have you tied me up like this, sir?” I demanded.
“Because it’s quite time you were tied up to somebody,” was the reply.
A good many people have thought that at different times in my career, and have tried hard to make me think likewise. But once bitten, twice shy; I clung to my freedom. Nevertheless, it was during the run of “The Mikado” that I met the man who, though not until many years later, induced me to change my mind.
It was at the Health Exhibition in Olympia, at a tea-party that someone gave in a kind of roof-garden over one of the exhibits. Mr. Lewis Ransome was there, and we were introduced. He had just returned from America, and as I also knew America, that was our first point of contact. He was a pleasant, handsome man, who had travelled much and could talk well.
“My sister and I were at ‘Mikado’ the other night,” he told me, “and when we were talking it over afterwards I said I liked the little one with the big sash best. So next day when she saw a photograph of you in a shop window she went in and bought it. She gave it to me and I have it now.”
That was me with my big obi. I was always trying by hook or by crook to get myself noticed. In so many of my parts I was only one of a group; and I was sick of having girls hanging round my waist and crowding up to me. “Iolanthe” had been a delightful exception, and I wanted more of the limelight.
There was nothing much to single me out from the Three Little Maids from School, so I persuaded the wardrobe mistress to give me a big obi, twice as big as any of the others. She did – I wonder she dared, or that the eagle eyes of the Triumvirate passed it – and I made the most of my big, big bow, turning my back to the audience whenever I got a chance, and waggling it. The gallery was delighted, but I nearly got the sack for that prank! However, I did get noticed, which was what I wanted. Gilbert himself says:
“You must stir it and stump it
At any rate Mr. Ransome’s attention was attracted, and my long friendship with him afterwards changed the whole course of my life.
Another little incident of that time occurs to me, concerning a man still well known in London society, but whose name must obviously not be mentioned.
One evening – a Saturday evening it was – a packet was brought to me which contained a magnificent diamond bracelet. With it was a note: would I meet the sender next day at the Burlington Hotel in Burlington Gardens, have lunch with him there and talk over some business? If I wore the bracelet that night on the stage he would expect me.
That of course I did not do; and as soon as possible, – Sunday intervening – I took it to the jeweller whose name was on the case, asking him to return it to the buyer, and the receipt for it I have still. It was valued at five hundred pounds. Shortly afterwards the man who sent it to me went bankrupt – and a nice exposure it would have been for me if my name had been brought up in the bankruptcy proceedings! I heard afterwards that he had made a bet that he would break through my rule of never accepting presents or invitations from strangers; but he lost that, though he was not called upon to pay for the bracelet!
We all enjoyed acting in “Mikado,” and, as it ran so long that we knew our parts upside down and inside out, we used to divert ourselves by little private jokes and antics, unobserved by the audience.
Grossmith and Barrington loved to tease me, and often wrought me up to such a pitch of desperation that I threatened to complain to Carte – but never did! They would slap and pinch me in the scene where the Mikado condemns us all to death, until I wriggled about in a state of torment which pleased the house immensely, though Temple (the Mikado) declared that it was not art. No doubt he was right, but it was certainly human nature. Temple could speak with authority, he was a very finished actor. I remember Gilbert, who was never lavish with praise, saying of him, “He is an artist, that fellow.”
Another of their tricks was to put hot pennies down my back under my loose kimono, which I would shake down and out with all possible celerity, needless to say. That trick must have cost them a good deal of foresight and careful preparation! Talking of pennies, Barrington amused himself one day by borrowing four shillings from me to pay the cabman – though I was certain he had it in his pocket – and insisting on paying me back in small sums while we were on the stage, and in such a way that I could not avoid taking it. For weeks he kept me in a state of exasperation by giving me halfpennies, farthings, halfpenny or penny stamps, all together or separately, and insisting on a record being kept in chalk on the green-room door. I’m sure I was cheated out of most of that four shillings, though he declared he had paid it over and over again. Ah, well, those were jolly times!
By then I was earning fifteen pounds a week, not counting my fees for the private singing engagements, which, as I said before, were offered to me pretty frequently. It was a very pleasant time in my life. I was financially at ease, and success was still a novelty and sweet on the tongue.
The Prince of Wales continued his kind interest in my career, and many times I met him and was distinguished by his special notice. On one occasion at Sir Arthur Sullivan’s there was a very brilliant party, and at supper a table was reserved for the royal guests. I was sitting down with the more ordinary people when the Prince saw me and sent for me to sit by him at his own table, a great honour for a young and comparatively unknown girl, as I was then. The only other guests at that table were the Duke of Edinburgh and the Grand Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein – very exalted companions for little Jessie Bond!
The Prince nearly always wanted me to sing at such functions, and usually he chose an extract from one of the operas, but though he knew them so well he was sometimes a little at sea about details, as once when he asked me for a number that was really a duet. I protested that I couldn’t sing it alone; at which he suggested that he might join me, an offer that I refused without ceremony.
If I were writing about some one else I could better give an account of the next few years; much less eventful outwardly, but in which my inner life matured and developed. Safe from want, and sure of success, I could pause mentally and look back over the past, could reckon up my gains and losses, and find out where I stood.
Let me say now, though I have not hinted at it before, that it was not entirely with a light and willing heart that I went on the stage. Mid-Victorian conventions apart – and they were then very strong and cogent – I had worked so hard at serious music, I had loved it so much and been so successful, that it was not without a pang that I gave it all up to sing little songs and choruses that were, after all, child’s play to me.
My record, for a girl of twenty, was quite remarkable, I can say so now without vanity. Singing – real singing – was my life. I loved it, I was proud of my position, and knew that it was rare indeed for a girl of my age to interpret serious music as I could do. It had meant great and prolonged effort; more than that, it meant experiences of the mind, of the spirit, that few so young had been called upon to undergo. I was not only a butterfly, a laughing coquette; Gilbert, who knew me so well, recognized that when he wrote for me the part of Iolanthe.
One hides one’s real feelings, and smiles at the world in order that it may smile in return, but often my heart ached when I thought of those days when I lived in an atmosphere of music of the highest order, and could express my inmost self in it, as in no other way is possible. Do not think I was unhappy, far from it, success is sweet however it comes, but sometimes when I thought things over I felt how far I had fallen from that first austere ideal, and wished that fame and success could have come in a higher sphere.
Perhaps they never would; perhaps physically, mentally, and in countless ways I was unfitted, and had done better to choose the easier path; and at the time there are so many conflicting reasons and influences that one hardly knows when or why one’s course has been chosen.
I had to study hard for my stage successes too, nothing came very easily. I had to learn the use of my speaking voice, I who never in all my life had a lesson in elocution; I had to dance, I with my stiff ankle, who had never had and never did have a lesson in dancing. All that took some study and some determination, and a great deal of “bluff,” for I never confessed to ignorance or deficiencies, but set to work to learn and attain by my own unaided efforts.
But now when success was mine I had time quietly to consider what it was made of, and desire for other and higher forms of it reawakened in my mind. All these years the necessity of earning a living had held me down – there is no stronger fetter. One thing leads to another, increased salary and higher status means more expense; there never seemed a chance to break away. Then, as soon as one opera was fairly set going we had to begin rehearsing the next: and it was always “We must have you in it, Jessie,” and “We can’t do without you,” from Gilbert, or Sullivan, or D’Oyly Carte; so that I was never able to escape, though many chances offered.
This letter from Charles Wyndham refers to one of those chances:
A year or two later Wyndham again approached me, offering me the part of Polly Eccles in “Caste.” He saw in me the makings of a good comedy and character actress, and a part like that would have gratified my ambition and urged me to fresh efforts. But I didn’t do it; the chains that bound me were too strong; perhaps it was cowardice, I hardly know now, but I refused. This letter from Wyndham refers to my refusal:
Nor was Wyndham the only one who about this time dangled the attractions of the legitimate stage before my eyes. A note from Brandon Thomas refers to yet another of my refusals to desert the Savoy Opera:
18 November, 2008