Neilson, Adelaide (1846–1880)

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Neilson, Adelaide (1846–1880)

English actress. Name variations: Lilian Adelaide Neilson. Born Elizabeth Ann Brown in Leeds, England, in 1846 (some sources cite 1847 and 1848); died in Paris, France, on August 15, 1880; daughter of an actress named Brown or Browne; married Philip Henry Lee (divorced 1877).

The child of a strolling player, an actress named Brown, Adelaide Neilson worked in a factory as a girl and at age 15 made her way to London. Here she secured employment, because of her beauty, as a member of the ballet at one of the theaters. After receiving some instruction from veteran actor John Ryder, Neilson played for a number of years in various stock and traveling companies. In 1865, she appeared in Margate as Julia in The Hunchback, a character with which her name would long to be associated. She also gained notable success as Amy Robsart in an adaptation of Scott's Kenilworth. For the next few years, she played at several London and provincial theaters in various parts, including Rosalind, Rebecca in Ivanhoe, Beatrice, and Viola, as well as Isabella in Measure for Measure.

In November 1872, she arrived in America to appear as Juliet at Booth's Theater, New York; her intelligence, beauty, and talent made her a great favorite, and she returned year after year, touring America in 1874, 1876, and 1879. She not only achieved distinction on the American stage, but accumulated a considerable fortune. Adelaide Nielson's career was cut short by her sudden death in Paris in August 1880.

"The acting of Adelaide Neilson, was exceptionally remarkable for the attribute of inspiration," wrote her contemporary, William Winter, in Other Days. "At moments her voice, countenance, and demeanor would undergo such changes, because of the surge of feeling, that her person became transfigured, and she was more like a spirit than a woman. She possessed a poetic soul, and that is why her radiant presence in the balcony scene of 'Romeo and Juliet' diffused a golden light of romance, and why her action in the potion scene was thrilling and pathetic, with a fire of imagination, a truth and depth of feeling, that could not be resisted and cannot be forgotten."