Robins, Elizabeth (1862–1952)
Robins, Elizabeth (1862–1952)
American actress, novelist, playwright and author of nonfiction who made her home in Britain, became a suffragist, and promoted women's causes. Name variations: Claire, Clara or C.E. Raimond; Mrs. George Parks; Bessie; Lisa. Pronunciation: RAY-mond. Born Elizabeth Robins on August 6, 1862, in Louisville, Kentucky; died in Brighton, Sussex, England, on May 8, 1952; daughter of Charles Ephraim Robins (a banker and metallurgist) and Hannah Maria Crow; attended Putnam Female Seminary, Zanesville, Ohio; married George Richmond Parks, on January 12, 1885 (committed suicide in 1887); no children.
Left home for the New York stage in her teens, toured in various companies, and worked for the Boston Museum Company where she met her actor husband; following his death (1887), toured with Barrett and Booth; visited Norway (1888) and settled in England; popularized Ibsen on the British stage, playing the first Hedda Gabler in English (1891) and creating the role of Hilde in The Master Builder (1893); managed, produced and wrote plays and co-founded The New Century Theatre; retired from the stage (1902); published first of 14 novels pseudonymously (under name C.E. Raimond, 1894), also wrote plays, several volumes of short stories and nonfiction; wrote bestselling Klondike tale The Magnetic North (1904) after a trip to Alaska to visit brother Raymond; launched suffrage drama in Britain with her play Votes for Women! (1907); sat on the Executive Committee of the suffragist Women's Social and Political Union (1907 to 1912); helped convert Dr. Octavia Wilberforce's Sussex house into a women's convalescent home (1920s).
Major theatrical roles—in repertory and on tour in America (1881–88):
The Count of Monte Cristo; A Celebrated Case; Forgiven; Julius Caesar; The Merchant of Venice.
Major theatrical roles—in London, England (1888–1902):
Pauline in Her Own Witness (1889); Liza in The Sixth Commandment (1890); Mrs. Linden in A Doll's House (1891); title role in Hedda Gabler (1891); Constance in The Trumpet Call; Claire de Cintré in The American (1891); Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder (1893); Rebecca West in Rosmersholm (1893); Princess Zicka in Diplomacy (1893); Asta in Little Eyolf (1896); Ella in John Gabriel Borkman (1896–97); title role in Mariana (1897); Lucrezia in Paolo and Franchesca (1902); Alice (final role) in Eleanor (1902).
Novels and collected short stories (under the name C.E. Raimond) George Mandeville's Husband (1894), The New Moon (1895), Below the Salt (1896), The Open Question: A Tale of Two Temperaments (1898); (under name Elizabeth Robins) The Magnetic North (1904), A Dark Lantern (1905), The Convert (1907), Under the Southern Cross (1907), Come and Find Me! (1908), The Florentine Frame (1909), Where Are You Going To …? (1913, published in America as My Little Sister), Camilla (1918), The Messenger (1919), The Mills of the Gods and Other Stories (1920), Time Is Whispering (1923), The Secret That Was Kept (1926).
(Anonymous) Alan's Wife (co-authored with Florence Bell, 1893); Elizabeth Robins, Votes for Women! (1907).
Way Stations (1913); Prudence and Peter (co-authored with Octavia Wilberforce, 1928); Ibsen & the Actress (1928); Theatre and Friendship: Some Henry James Letters (1932); Both Sides of the Curtain (1940); Raymond and I (1956); also Anonymous, Ancilla's Share (1924).
Hailed as England's first great intellectual actress, Elizabeth Robins was neither English nor formally trained for the stage. Seven years' schooling at the Putnam Female Seminary in Zanesville, Ohio, was the sum total of her formal education. Yet in the early 1890s, this highly intelligent, sensitive American woman made an enormous impact on the London stage, bringing Henrik Ibsen's new drama to life and in the process shocking and delighting theatergoers and critics.
She had been born in Louisville, Kentucky, in the summer of 1862, during the Civil War, the eldest daughter of Charles Ephraim Robins and Hannah Maria Crow ; her parents had seen more prosperous times and their marriage was not to last. She had two sisters, three brothers and a half-brother (who died in his teens). The birth of Raymond, the youngest child, precipitated their mother's mental decline and in the mid-1880s she entered an asylum. Robins' father had abandoned the sedentary life of a banker for mining engineering and as a teenager Robins spent some months living with him in a mining camp in Colorado. Although she had lived on Staten Island, New York, as a child, her formative years were spent at her paternal grandmother's home in Zanesville. Her grandmother became her touchstone, closer to her than both parents and a thinly disguised portrait of this stern, yet loving, old woman appears in Robins' most autobiographical novel The Open Question.
Still in her teens and with no family history or encouragement of acting, Robins took herself to New York in search of fame. From her first small part in 1881, she was blessed with a combination of luck and talent, aided (and hindered) by her good looks and helped by the chance discovery of a wealthy distant relative. Initially calling herself Claire Raimond, she toured with several companies including that of James O'Neill (father of Eugene). She spent several years at the renowned Boston Museum Company where she met and married a histrionic young actor, George Parks. They had no children. Prone to depression and jealous of her minor successes in relation to his, he drowned himself in the Charles River after two and a half years. Distraught—she never remarried—Robins threw herself into Shakespearean parts, traveling around the United States on an exhausting tour with the veteran actors Barrett and Booth.
In the summer of 1888, she came to Europe for the first time, accompanying Sara Bull , widow of the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, to the family's idyllic island off the west coast of Norway. Stopping in London en route home, she was captivated by the London stage and the possibility of acting there. Encouraged to stay by Oscar Wilde and several actor-managers, she kept postponing her passage and finally made England her home for the rest of her life. Although in her mid-20s and a highly experienced actress, she was forced to start again from the bottom in her search for work and fame. These depressing early years in London are recollected in a volume of her memoirs published in 1940 called Both Sides of the Curtain.
Yet her timing was fortuitous. Ibsen's great prose dramas were beginning to reach Britain, and after seeing a performance of A Doll's House on the London stage, Robins was captivated. It was she who now proceeded to make Ibsen a household name in Britain. She raised the money for and produced (with another American actress, Marion Lea ) the first Hedda Gabler in English in the spring of 1891. Robins played the part of Hedda to much critical acclaim though she felt her best part to be the one she created in Britain, that of Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder in 1893. She organized a successful subscription season for a number of Ibsen's plays and worked closely with her friend and lover, Ibsen's translator William Archer. Together, they founded in 1897 the New Century Theatre. Robins was dedicated to obtaining decent parts for women, breaking the stranglehold and abuse of the actor-manager system, and introducing stimulating European drama to the English stage. She maintained that "no dramatist has ever meant so much to the women of the stage as Henrik Ibsen."
Robins continued acting until 1902, but in 1900 she had made a lengthy visit to her brother Raymond in Alaska. This intrepid journey at the time of the gold rush resulted in typhoid fever which hastened her retirement from the stage (though it is interesting to note that this also coincided with the end of Ibsen's great dramatic contributions). Alaska also provided something more positive: material for journalism and novels, most notably a bestseller about the Klondike entitled The Magnetic North (1904), for which she was compared to Daniel Defoe.
Ever conscious of the need to help pay for her mother's medical bills and to meet the costs of a younger brother's medical training as well as making her own ends meet, Robins had long been only too aware of the precariousness of the stage as an extended livelihood for a woman. She had, therefore, for some years seen writing as an alternative means of earning money and had been writing stories and articles since the late 1880s. Her early stories and novels were pseudonymous. Her first novel, the satirical George Mandeville's Husband, was published in 1894 under the name of C.E. Raimond. Her identity was revealed after the publication of her American epic The Open Question (1898). She also co-wrote (anonymously), with her close friend Florence Bell (Lady Bell), a play about infanticide called Alan's Wife, based on a Swedish short story and set in northern England. Robins also played the main part of Jean Creyke on the London stage.
Between the early 1890s and 1926, she had 14 novels published, many of them addressing critical yet risqué social issues such as divorce, abortion, and prostitution. She wrote numerous short stories for journals in Britain and the United States (two collections of these were also published in book form). Her suffrage novel The Convert (1907) was reprinted in America and Britain in the 1980s. It grew out of her successful play Votes for Women! which was performed at the Royal Court Theatre London, inaugurating suffrage drama. Robins became a committed suffragist, sat on the committee of the militant Women's Social and Political Union from 1907 to 1912, and was first president of the Women Writers' Suffrage League. She replaced Emmeline Pankhurst on a Scottish speaking tour when the suffragist leader was in prison. Yet although she was persuaded to speak frequently for the cause and was a very powerful, persuasive performer, Robins detested public speaking and preferred to convert by the written word. She published a number of pamphlets on suffrage and a collection of her suffrage speeches and writings, Way Stations, was released in 1913.
Feminism remained one of the main defining forces of Robins' life. During the First World War, she worked for a time as a librarian in a London military hospital entirely staffed by women. When peace came, she wrote frequently in the press on equal rights issues and was a founder member of the board of the influential weekly feminist paper Time and Tide and a member of the Six Point Group. She was especially interested in the plight of women doctors and spent her later years with a pioneer woman doctor, Octavia Wilberforce . In the late 1920s, they converted Wilberforce's 15th-century Sussex house into a rest home for women recuperating from illness or stress. In 1924, Robins published anonymously a weighty work entitled Ancilla's Share. Subtitled An Indictment of Sex Antagonism, it was also a paean to peace. Two years later, she wrote her final novel.
Elizabeth Robins' address book and diary (which she kept for most of her long life) read like a Who's Who. Her close friends ranged from the poet John Masefield to the politician Sir Edward Grey, the actress Dame Sybil Thorndike and writer Virginia Woolf . A volume of her correspondence with her compatriot Henry James was published in 1932 as Theatre and Friendship. She took the leading role in his play The American on the London stage. Her favorite brother Raymond, a well-known human rights activist in the States, married Margaret Dreier Robins , president of the American Women's Trade Union League. Elizabeth Robins was a part owner of their Florida home and frequently visited America.
One of the most notable events in the history of the modern stage, [Elizabeth Robins' performance in Hedda Gabler] marks an epoch and clinches an influence.
—The Sunday Times, 1891
She retained her American citizenship throughout her life and spent World War II back in the United States. A number of her novels are set there while one, Camilla (1918), reflects the author's own transatlantic life by being set in both America and Britain. Robins made her final visit to her home country (flying the Atlantic in place of her old long sea voyages) at the age of 88. She died in Brighton on the south coast of England on May 8, 1952, in her 90th year.
Elizabeth Robins' diaries and correspondence in her Papers at the Fales Library, New York University Library.
Gates, Joanne E. Elizabeth Robins: Actress, Novelist, Feminist. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
John, Angela V. Elizabeth Robins: Staging a New Life. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.
Marcus, Jane. "Art and Anger," in Feminist Studies. Vol. 4, 1978, p. 69–98.
Stowell, Sheila. A Stage of Their Own: Feminist Playwrights of the Suffrage Era. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.
Thomas, Sue. "Elizabeth Robins," in Victorian Fiction Research Guide. No. 22. University of Queensland, Australia, 1994.
Correspondence and Octavia Wilberforce's unpublished autobiography, The Fawcett Library, London Guildhall University, England.
Correspondence in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.
Elizabeth Robins Papers, Fales Library, New York University Library.
Angela V. John , Professor of History, University of Greenwich, London, United Kingdom
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