Working on a Miss Terry (Part 2)

[Ed. note: Last of two parts.]

As Ellen Terry relates in her memoirs:

“No one knew where I was. My own father identified the corpse, and [my sisters], at their boarding school, were put into mourning. Then mother went. She kept her head under the shock of the likeness, and bethought her of ‘a strawberry mark upon my left arm.’ (Really it was on my left knee.) That settled it, for there was no such mark to be found upon the poor corpse…”

In 1988 I listened to as much music of the period as I could lay my hands on. Queen Victoria’s favorite composer, next to Felix Mendelssohn, was Arthur Sullivan. I was doing a lot at once, but I think the eye came before the ear on this coincidence.

I had in my library an edition of The History of Punch, the British humor magazine. As I flipped through its pages I stopped at a group photo taken in 1867 of an amateur performance of Tom Taylor’s A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing and Sullivan’s first operetta, Cox and Box, or The Long-Lost Brothers. In the photo I was surprised to find Kate Terry—and Nelly, seated next to Kate and toying with her necklace. She’s flanked by a young Arthur Sullivan and George du Maurier, while her sister laughingly turns to a teasing Mark Lemon. Arthur Lewis, Kate’s fiancé, stands in the back, eyeing Kate.

While on one of my library excursions I came across a recording of Sullivan and Burnand’s Cox and Box and listened to it. The overture is straight out of the Victorian music hall style—with a smattering of Offenbach—rollicking, cheerful, yet with an ominous undertone, like you’d hear in a campy melodrama.

In the story, a devious landlord named Sergeant Bouncer rents the same room to Mr. Cox (working days as a hatter) and Mr. Box (who, as a printer, works nights). Neither lodger knows of the other’s existence, so Bouncer gets double rent for his room. When asked about strange proceedings involving misplaced matches, gridirons, and furniture, Bouncer launches into his “Rataplan”—a nonsensical military march—just to change the subject.

Finally the lodgers discover one another and Mr. Box relates to Mr. Cox his faked suicide by drowning to avoid marrying the girl who—unbeknownst to him—Mr. Cox is engaged to marry. It gets even more complicated. Before all the characters go into a “Rataplan finale,” Box interrupts with an insight: “You’ll excuse the apparent insanity of the remark, but the more I gaze on your features, the more I’m convinced you’re my long lost brother!”

Cox: “The very same observation I was going to make to you!”

Box: “Tell me, in mercy, tell me…have you such a thing as a strawberry mark on your left arm?

Cox: “No!”

Box: “Then it is he!”



By the autumn of 1988 I was buried in Research-Somewhat-Gone-Awry.

I had stacks of notes. I was afraid I’d researched myself out of writing a first draft.

That’s probably when I fell in love with the new angle of my story, straight out of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

You see, Nelly made her stage debut as the Fairy Queen Titania in March 1863, a few months after meeting Watts and Godwin for the first time. It was in a sense the first adult role she’d played, and Godwin—ever the theater aesthete—designed her dress for the performance at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Since completing the first draft of the script, I’ve come to realize that my story is about three lives: Nelly (pictured at right, in 1881), Godwin, and Watts. In my mind, the three symbolized characters from Shakespeare’s play. Nelly begins as Puck, who somehow transforms into Titania; Godwin appears as Theseus, Duke of Athens (Architect of Industrializing Britain) and, by night so to speak, as Oberon, King of the Fairies (and Defender of the Theatrical World). Watts began to fill a less-flattering, but nonetheless important, role of Bottom the Weaver, transformed into an ass’s head and beloved of the spellbound Titania. The interrelationship between these characters/roles took on a new fascination for me, but I was determined to make more of a reference than an issue out of it in the first draft.

It’s a central metaphor to Nelly and Godwin’s relationship: the quarrel between the Fairy King and Queen and their subsequent reconciliation, which I made as Godwin and Nelly’s flight that night of October 10. Their relationship comprises the last quarter of the script, but the lines that bring them together in the first quarter carry an undertone of the elopement to come, and the working title of my screenplay:

Godwin/Oberon: “Then, my queen, in silence sad, trip we after the night’s shade; We the globe can compass soon, swifter than the wandering moon.”

Nelly/Titania: “Come, my lord; and in our flight, tell me how it came this night, that I, sleeping here was found, with these mortals on the ground.”



Author Peter De Vries once said: “I love writing. It’s the paperwork I hate.”

When January 1989 arrived like a bad joke, I knew I had to put away the mad research scientist role and nail myself down to some raw writing. After all, I knew vaguely where I was going, so why be afraid?

I don’t know why writers complain about writing. There has to be a reason to write. There has to be a story to tell. Although I’m suspicious of pencil-happy Pollyannas who clutch lucky rabbits’ feet and spit out screeds of paper, I also think that anyone who treasures an idea or image will get up the next morning after a blank-sheet hangover and have another punch at it. Again, it’s the story that’s important.

I spent months screening The Wandering Moon in my head and saw every scene of it as clearly as a garbage burner on a Midwestern city skyline. I knew what I had to do.

I had to write it.

In between breaks on the first draft, I dropped notes to friends in England and wrote letters in response to research queries I’d made the previous year. Then I promised myself a reward if and when I finished the first draft: I’d visit England to see my friends and tour locations in the story. I cached away some money and kept working at the draft.

By the end of October 1989, I was wrapping up its ends, like a diaper on a newborn baby.



For two weeks in November 1989 I toured the British countryside looking for the scraps of Victorian England that remain. At the Watts Gallery in Compton near Guildford, curator Richard Jefferies told me, “We’re nearly rounding that corner for good, never to see it again…” At the end of my trip I met with Jefferies and his assistant Hillary at the gallery.

There, hung in the shadows of tourist off-season, above the gallery tomcats dozing on wooden floor grates, were the legacies of G.F. Watts—and the full-size original of his painting Found Drowned. It shows the body of a young woman lying under the arch of a bridge by a riverbank, a lone star shining in the night sky above her.

Mr. Jefferies and Hillary looked over my script and we talked about the relationship between Watts and Ellen Terry. The story was told how when Nelly left Watts at the end of the marriage, he destroyed many of his sketches and paintings of her. Hillary confirmed this by showing me one of Watts’ sketchbooks from the time of the marriage, with many pages ripped out.

We also talked about the connection with Tennyson, Knowles, and Pritchard, and Hillary retrieved from the library an edition of William Boyce’s diary. She located an entry dated Nov. 8, 1868, which noted that “the actress Ellen Terry has been found drowned and it is believed she had been despondent over some argument with her sister.”

I was amazed.

At the Ellen Terry Memorial Library and Museum in Smallhythe, Kent, I met with curator Margaret Weare and her husband Tony. In the short time I had there I went over Ellen Terry’s books, looking for traces of her relationship with Godwin. Perseverance paid off in two ways.

As I sat in straight-backed wooden chair, paging through an old notebook, Tony Weare pointed out that the drawings of tile designs and sketches of birds were in Godwin’s hand.

“You’re also sitting in one of his chairs,” he added.

The past is just sleeping, I thought. It isn’t dead.

At Freshwater Bay, on the Isle of Wight, I saw the house where Watts and Nelly spent their honeymoon. “Dimbola” as it’s still called, has been partially renovated into holiday flats. The other abandoned half awaits renovation or demolition. Up the road is Tennyson’s home, Farringford, now a hotel. I stayed there a night and tried to locate the bathroom where the photo of Nelly was taken, but the place has been so completely renovated and commercialized that it was hard to tell which room it had been.

In Bath and Bristol I toured the Theatres Royal, and at the Bristol city library I located Godwin’s theatrical column in the Western Daily Press for 1862. He began each column with Jacques’ line from As You Like It: “I must have liberty, withal as large a charter as the wind, To blow on whom I please.”

In London I stayed with my friends and met with Joy Melville, author of a biography of Ellen Terry and her daughter Edith Craig. We met at Waterloo station, and then had coffee at her flat while she looked over my first draft. I asked her: “Has anyone made a film about Ellen Terry?”

“No,” she replied, not to the best of her knowledge. “But it would be magic if it were…”

And later the same day, on an enormous whim, I wandered into David Puttnam’s Enigma Productions office, just down from the Victoria and Albert Museum. I told the secretary that I wanted to see Mr. Puttnam “if he was in.” Another gentleman, Colin Vaines, overheard my request and asked if he could help, if I’d had an appointment with Puttnam. “No…I hadn’t…” I said I had a screenplay I felt Engima might be interested in and gave him Nelly’s story in a nutshell.

“Do you have an agent?” he asked, looking at a copy of the script. “Can we keep this?”

I declined. After all it was just a draft and I was there to see if I could whip up some interest in the idea. He gave me his card.

“You’ve got a lot of pluck walking in here like this,” he said.

I left feeling like I’d taken my own swing at the Berlin Wall. Nothing can compare with the joy I felt. The film I had seen in my head, that I tried to put on paper so that others could see it, was that much closer to reality, if only a tiny bit, even if I was the only person to believe in it.

I knew others had sensed it, too. After talking with a friend about the changes of 1989, we got on to the script and its coincidences. Where had it all come from? Why this particular story, and why Ellen Terry?

“Well,” my friend said. “Maybe it’s time the world met her again.”

~ by completelyinthedark on July 20, 2017.

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