Working on a Miss Terry (Part 1)

[Ed. Note: Here’s how to approach 1989. The following was written in 1990 after I returned from England, but it’s a great place to start. Part 2 goes up next Friday. Cheers, MM]

Last year, in one of those borderline-obsessive bursts of energy some writers know well, I fell in love with a story, sequestered myself from friends and family, wrote my first screenplay, The Wandering Moon, and took the finished first draft to England.

It was a crazy year.

If you look at the subconscious side of it, here’s how it all really began.

In 1980 I was an art aide at the college I attended, and collected clippings from art magazines left to me by the department head. In an article on nineteenth-century photography, I saw one of the loveliest photos I’d ever seen. It was the portrait of a young woman, her hand raised to show her wedding ring. So surprising was the beauty of the picture that I clipped it at once without noting the caption. I attached it to a copy of Dylan Thomas’ poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art” and stuck it on my wall. Along with my other junk, it followed me around for seven years.

Then, in 1988, while at the Ridgedale library, I came across the same haunting photo on the cover of Roger Manvell’s biography of the English stage actress Ellen Terry. I knew nothing of her at the time, so I checked out the book and read it—hoping to get a clue to the mystery of the sad wedding photo.

What I discovered was a story that has completely captured my imagination these past two years.


Ellen Terry, heir to the English theater tradition from Burbage and Siddons to Kean and Macready, was born in a boarding house adjacent a theater in Coventry in 1847. As a baby she slept in the greenroom dresser drawers of provincial theaters and, when she was old enough to talk, was coached in Shakespeare by her insouciant Irish father. She made her stage debut in The Winter’s Tale at nine years old.

From that moment on, the remaining 72 years of her life would be devoted to the theater, and her greatest triumph playing opposite Henry Irving at London’s Lyceum through the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

But it wasn’t the life of some “Grand Dame” of the English theater or a sweeping epic of Victorian culture that drew my imagination in deeper. That wouldn’t have been enough to goad me into writing a screenplay.

The real stimulus came when I read that on the night of Oct. 10, 1868, Ellen Terry “faked” her own suicide to run off and live with the architect Edward Godwin in the Hertfordshire countryside. Three years before, she’d been married to the portrait painter G.F. Watts, who was then nearly three times her age.

I was fascinated by the events surrounding her disappearance and, as Ellen Terry relates in her own memoirs, the discovery of her double: “A body was found in the river—the dead body of a young woman very fair and slight and tall. Everyone thought it was my body…”


Victorian society was conspicuously run by men. The arena of public affairs was “no place for a woman,” and the theater—that hazy zone between public and private life—was slowly becoming acceptable ground where both sexes could meet. When G.F. Watts met Ellen Terry in 1862, she was a little-known actress eclipsed by the greater fame of her sister Kate. Watts, encouraged by his friend the playwright Tom Taylor to woo the older sister, painted a double portrait of Kate and Nelly, but fell in love with Nelly. Hoping to remove her from the “dubious society of the theater,” he married her on Feb. 20, 1864, when she was still only 16 years old.

Nelly was vivacious, independent, and unaccustomed to the life Watts had been leading for the previous 13 years: as artist-in-residence to a wealthy and bohemian London couple, Henry and Sarah Princep. When Nelly married Watts, she came to live under the same roof as the Princeps. It was an awkward arrangement from the start.

Watts was then 47 years old, but looked closer to 60. Chiefly a portrait painter, he prized himself as an allegorist with sweeping large canvases titled Love and Death and Time Unveiling Truth. Light fare like that.

He had lived alone for years, had a weak physical constitution, then was taken in by the Princeps, who nurtured his talent and showcased him to family and friends as their resident genius. Apart from a brief honeymoon on the Isle of Wight (where the photograph I’d first seen was taken, in Alfred Tennyson’s bathroom of all places), Nelly spent most of her time modelling for Watts’ paintings. But her untamed nature proved too much of a match for the patience of Watts and his patrons and, after less than a year, the marriage was annulled and Nelly was sent home to live with her family.

Two years prior to her marriage to Watts, Nelly had met the architect Edward William Godwin in Bristol while performing with her sister at the Theatre Royal. Godwin was then a married man of 29, successful in business, and an active contributor to a local theatrical society. After Nelly was separated from Watts, she wasn’t to see Godwin again until 1866, when he was then a widower and she a married woman “without the benefit of a husband.” By 1868 they had fallen in love, and on the night of October 10, after performing at the Queen’s Theatre in Long Acre, London, she disappeared with him into the countryside.

I knew that night was the beginning of my film.

I read everything I could on the subject and mused over the details of “the suicide.” Before she had left for the theater that night, Nelly had placed the handwritten words “Found Drowned” in the corner of a carte-de-visite photo of Watts she kept in her room. When this was discovered by her parents, they had reason to fear the worst.

Then another book gave me a clue. “Found Drowned” was the title of a painting Watts completed in 1851 after he had returned to England from a trip to Italy. I conjectured that Nelly must have seen that painting in the studio while modelling for Watts and, on the night of her elopement with Godwin, gave her husband a parting shot.


Before I wrote a word, I did a lot of reading. I gave myself an ultimatum: all through 1988 I would research the project, take my notes, write query letters to historians and museum curators, wallow in “what if…” but, by 1989, sticking to a schedule, I would write a first draft. I avoided trying to answer questions like, “What if someone else has produced a film about this?” “How can I write about a time and place I’d never lived in?” or, “Why should I bother to write something that in all likelihood will never be produced?” I decided that those questions I could not immediately answer, I’d leave for later. Indecisiveness I’d leave for others.

There was a damn good story to tell. The more I read, the stronger I felt about that.

The Metaphysical Society of London met for the first time on Nov. 10, 1868, at the home of architect James Knowles in Clapham. Attending were the astronomer Reverend Charles Pritchard and the poet Alfred Tennyson.

Now, Tennyson had known Nelly from the days of her marriage to Watts, especially from walks they took together on the Downs above Freshwater Bay, where Tennyson lived with his family, not far from where Nelly and Watts had stayed with Julia Margaret Cameron, photographer and sister to Sarah Princep.

I took advantage of the coincidence of the Society’s meeting exactly one month after Nelly’s disappearance to contrast Nelly’s individualism against the best metaphor for Victorian society I could find: a men’s club. I now had a framing narrative for the film, the Metaphysical Society, with the story of the events leading up to Nelly’s “drowning” told to the other gentlemen by Tennyson. Three-quarters of my first draft was written in the context of Tennyson’s story.

No sooner was I relishing this angle when another presented itself.

The rabbit hole only went deeper.

~ by completelyinthedark on July 14, 2017.

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