Culture Magazine

From Fun to Nun...

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
"It has been a wonderful life.  It passed through many dark places but there was always light enough to walk by and now, thank God, He is bringing me to the haven."
As final words go, those are rather lovely.  They are actually not the very last words, but some of the parting sentiments of a Victorian actress, star of stage and Henry Irving's first leading lady.  Of course by the end of her life, she was Mother Superior in a convent. Welcome to the amazing journey of Isabel Emilie Bateman...
From Fun to Nun...Who?  I know, until doing the research for this post I had no idea beyond the fact that she had posed for Julia Margaret Cameron and was an actress.  After reading a lot, including a wonderfully pious biography, I am fascinated in what we aren't told about a woman who isn't as famous as she should be.  You've heard of Ellen Terry?  Then you should have heard of Isabel Bateman, and yet through the politics of biography, she has been overlooked, dismissed and forgotten. So, let's start remembering.
She was born in Cincinnati, just after Christmas in 1854, the youngest daughter of Hezekiah Linthicum Bateman, theater manager and impresario, and his actress/writer wife, Sidney Frances Bateman. Mrs Bateman was the daughter of a British comedian who had settled in America, and was remembered as intellectual and energetic, with a fierce devotion to her children.  The Batemans had seven children that survived infancy including five daughters.  Isabel was close to her sister, Virginia, two years her senior, and the pair were known for their interest in religion.  In her biography, there is a odd but sweet story of how the pair wondered if they could achieve martyrdom by eating an entire bar of soap...

From Fun to Nun...

Isabel (seated), Sidney and Virginia Bateman

What we know of Isabel's childhood is quite rose-tinted.  She was clever, with a talent for reciting.  At two years old, her party piece was 'Mary had a little lamb', and by four years, she was absorbed in reading the history of Greece and arguing with Virginia about Achilles and Hector. Meanwhile, older sisters Kate (1842-1917) and Ellen (1844-1936) were being celebrated as child actresses.  Kate debuted in 1847 and by the time her sister was five, the girls were appearing in New York, reciting passages from Shakespeare.  Between 1850 and 1852, P T Barnum sponsored the girls in a tour of the UK, then a tour of the USA, as they performed their Shakespeare to an enraptured crowd.

From Fun to Nun...

Ellen as Richard III!  Kate as the Earl of Richmond!

The girls retired from being child stars in 1856, at the grand old age of 12 and 14, but graduated to adult acting, including in plays adapted by their mother.  Kate especially found popularity due to her emotional range, and in 1866, she married a doctor, George Crowe and moved to England.  Her family followed.  Isabel attended school in Clifton near Bristol, and was famous for her ability to recite Tennyson by heart, including a memorable rendition of 'The May Queen' when she was 15.  She also had a French governess and spoke and read French fluently.  Her ability to memorise and recite so beautifully inspired her mother to remove her from school and enroll her in the family business of acting.  Virginia had little interest in acting and Kate and Ellen had grown and were managing their own careers.  Isabel was her parents' new project...

From Fun to Nun...

Virginia and Isabel Bateman (c.1870)

In order to launch their daughter onto the unsuspecting London theatre-goers, Mr Bateman bought a West End theatre, the Lyceum, just off the Strand.  Bateman looked about for a suitable leading man to match his wonderful daughter and found an up-and-coming chap called Henry Irving...

From Fun to Nun...

Isabel Bateman and Henry Irving in Othello, 1876

The Lyceum had been in crisis, with a succession of failures and structural problems.  The superstitious acting profession saw the place as unlucky, but Irving, tempted from the employ of Ruth Herbert at St James' Theatre by the hope of permanent leading man status, joined the Batemans in their venture.  After a couple of false starts, Irving convinced Bateman to produce The Bells, a melodrama about a man driven mad by the guilt of a murder he has committed.  Ironically, Isabel did not have a part in The Bells, but the play was a sensation and Irving and the Lyceum became the talk of the town. On the journey home from the theater on the opening night of The Bells, Henry Irving's wife of two years turned to him and asked 'Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?'.  Legend has it that Irving got out of the cab and walked away, never seeing his wife again.

From Fun to Nun...

Isabel (c.1870s)

The newly unattached (but never divorced) Irving was embraced into the Bateman family.  At weekends, he would go to Margate for seafishing with Mr Bateman while Isabel, Virginia and their mother would await the fish to cook in the evenings.  Irving acted as big brother to the girls, taking them off to dressmakers for new outfits and taking care of them.  In Charles I, Irving played opposite Isabel as his leading lady.  Irving used Van Dyke's portrait of the king to perfect his make-up and Isabel took the role of Queen Henrietta Maria, which gained praise in the newspapers for the prettiness of her French-English and the depth of her emotional portrayal.  Isabel was fascinated by Charles I, whom she regarded as a martyr.  It seems to have been a defining role for her as she was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in the role in a number of pictures.

From Fun to Nun...

Queen Henrietta Maria and her daughter Princess Elizabeth (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron


From Fun to Nun...

Queen Henrietta Maria (May, 1874) Julia Margaret Cameron

A star, praised in the press and reviews and sought by artists for portraits, Isabel had flattery heaped upon her, but did not lose her serious, religious edge.  At a luncheon party filled with celebrities, a politician told a story in French about a party he had attended where someone had turned up dressed as God.  Disgusted, Isabel got up and left.  She was 19 and harboured a secret.  Despite being the most famous and celebrated actress in London, Isabel hated acting. She was torn between her love of religion and her love of Henry Irving.  Dilemma!

From Fun to Nun...

Isabel being torn between being a nun and Irving-fun

As it turned out there were a couple of minor problems with her crush on Irving.  Firstly, he was not a religious man, quite the opposite having grown up with a very religious mother who he found oppressive.  Although Isabel contemplated giving up her faith for him, he was married and likely to remain so.  This was a massive problem for Isabel, but not for Mrs Bateman who encouraged the relationship and implied she didn't mind if Isabel became Irving's mistress as long as they were great on stage.  The other problem however was that Irving didn't think of Isabel that way.  The successes kept coming with Isabel being the Ophelia to his Hamlet and the Desdemona to his Othello but the awkwardness had set in.

From Fun to Nun...

She Walks in Beauty (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron

For what happened next you have to read a number of biographies.  You have to wonder how long Irving had been aware of the problem and if the death of the Bateman's son, Richard in March 1874, made him delay his decision.  Richard had been traveling in the east and was lost at sea when the French steamer 'Nil' was wrecked on submerged rocks between Hong Kong and Yokohama.  The Lyceum continued to produce hits, including Hamlet in 1874.  According to Irving's grandson's biography of his grandfather, Isabel's portrayal of Ophelia was so moving that 'she quelled the restive elements in the audience, rekindled their interest, and had them once more enthralled.'  The Prince of Wales declared that the only thing worth looking at in Hamlet had been Isabel Bateman's face.

From Fun to Nun...

Isabel c.1872

Interestingly, one thing we know is that when Isabel needed time to think, she liked to travel.  Obviously aware of the problems surrounding her involvement with Irving, Isabel visited her friend Julia Margaret Cameron.  Having posed for her in 1874, Isabel made the long journey to Ceylon the next year.  We do not know enough about Cameron's photography in these last years of her life, but it is possible that another photo session was attempted but either lost or not completed.  In 1876, Cameron still held Isabel in high esteem and wrote to a friend that she longed to photograph her 'in these mountain heights, far from theatrical heights.'  Unfortunately for Isabel, issues were about to come to a head.

From Fun to Nun...

Isabel Bateman (1874) Julia Margaret Cameron 

In 1875 Mr Bateman dropped dead in March of heart disease, after an attack of angina pectoris, leaving Mrs Bateman in control of a restless Irving and three actress daughters.  Kate had returned to the stage, unable to stay away, but did not like Irving one little bit.  She also harbored jealousy against Isabel after all the publicity that the younger sister had received.  Neither Virginia or Isabel were particularly happy on the stage, and Virginia refused to appear with Kate.  Irving and Isabel had a somewhat strained relationship, due to Isabel's crush and he requested the option to bring in an alternative leading lady, Miss Ellen Terry.

From Fun to Nun...

Ellen Terry as Juliet (1882)
Sorry Ellen, this post is not about you

Now, depending on who's biography you read, Irving either brought in Ellen because Isabel was nothing more than a sister to him and he felt embarrassed, or he brought in an actress equal to his talents, or Isabel was rubbish and Irving wanted to be shot of her.  Ellen Terry's biographer's, definitely more recent ones, have gone with the latter version of the story, that completely writes Isabel out of the cannon of great Victorian actresses, rather unkindly in my opinion.  Irving's grandson goes with a middle ground that Isabel and Irving were both embarrassed and this hindered their performance, so Irving had no choice but to bring in a new actress.  When Irving asked, Mrs Bateman, possibly seeing the control of the Lyceum sliding from her to Irving wrote in defense of Isabel's feelings - 'It would be an endorsement signed by you - a friend of her family and me - her mother - of her entire incompetency.'  
In truth, Mrs Bateman, in order to earn more after her husband's death, had bought Sadler's Wells theater in Clerkenwell.  At the time, Sadler's Wells had been run down and plans had been submitted to turn it into bath house and it was a roller-skating rink for a while. Finding her finances stretched Mrs Bateman gave the Lyceum over to Irving and moved her family and half the company over to Sadler's Wells.  It might also have been a mark of how much Mrs Bateman saw Irving as a surrogate son that she could not refuse him, coupled with the drop in wages Isabel would suffer in her demotion under Ellen Terry. In 1878, Irving took over the lease, moving in Ellen Terry as his leading lady and Bram Stoker as his General Manager.  The rest was history.

From Fun to Nun...

Charles Warner, actor

Over at the Sadler's Wells, things were somewhat less rosy.  Isabel took over the book keeping as well as leading lady duties with Charles Warner as her leading man.  The renovations cost £8,000 more than planned and took a year more than scheduled impacting on the earning potential.  Sadler's Wells was rebuilt on a lot of borrowed capital and despite some success, it was not enough to keep afloat.  Waiting for an omnibus one evening after a performance, Mrs Bateman caught a chill which turned to pneumonia and she died in 1881. When Irving visited to pay his respects, he was received very coldly by Kate.  When Mr Bateman had died, Irving was embraced in the family and attended the funeral with them.  Kate did not include him this time, and Irving did not go, which he regretted later in life, but the bonds between the Batemans and Irving had been well and truly severed. 

From Fun to Nun...

Kate Bateman as 'Medea' (1872-3)

The three sisters agreed to shut Sadler's Wells and settle the enormous debt as best they could.  Virginia and Kate found work in provincial theatres, so it was left to Isabel to let the house, sell as much as possible and go through their mother's enormous hoard of theater memorabilia, giving away or destroying as much as possible.  Her desire to leave the stage was as strong as ever but as long as the debt existed, she needed to act in order to pay the bills.  However, a brief trip to New York to visit elder sister Ellen helped clear her head  and she returned in 1882 with a plan.  She did recitals, for which she was famous, but the wages on the stage were better so she returned to the boards at the Adelphi Theatre.  She combined her acting with giving recitals which she actually enjoyed doing, and managed to raise money for charity with her performances.

From Fun to Nun...

Virginia Bateman (1870s)

In 1885, she traveled with Kate and her husband, Virginia and her husband and their children, together with Isabel's fox terriers to Great Malvern for a marvelous holiday.  Isabel was remembered fondly by her many nieces and nephews as a sweet, witty woman.  The holiday was cut short by a request for Isabel to take a part on Drury Lane.  She traveled with plays, taking care of the children involved in the performances.  When she was 30, she learnt the piano just so she could teach the child-actors to sing. She was much admired as an actress for her physical skills - in 'The Anatomy of Acting' in Longman's Magazine in 1888 she was quoted: '"I often turn pale," writes Miss Isabel Bateman, "in scenes of terror or great excitement.  I have been told this many times, and I can feel myself getting very cold and shivery and pale in thrilling situations."'.  She might not have loved her craft, but that didn't mean that she wasn't good at it.

From Fun to Nun...

1894 Programme for Miss Isabel Bateman at the Prince's Theatre

Irving admitted privately that he always felt uneasy about how he had treated Isabel until later in life Isabel wrote a letter to him, expressly forgiving anything he felt needed forgiving.  Finally, the death of Isabel's niece Claudia in 1897 brought an unexpected gift.  Obviously beloved by her niece, Claudia left Isabel enough money in her will that Isabel could clear her mother's debts once and for all.  With the need to act removed there was nothing more for it than to pack up her belongings and enter the community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, Berkshire...

From Fun to Nun...

The doorway to St Mary Virgin Convent

Ellen, whose daughter Claudia had left the money, had become an aetheist at the death of her daughter and so was somewhat depressed by her sister's faith but in time was happy that her sister had finally found peace.  Isabel's career as a nun was not entirely removed from the outside world. Sister Isabel Mary chose to work in the St James Home in Fulham, saving girls from immoral lives.  She appeared at a drawing-room meeting in order to appeal for funds and raised £300.  In her speech she suggested that the audience might like to donate the cost of their last hat.  It was in this public appearance, her first since taking holy orders, that her fellow nuns discovered her former profession and it was a sensation in the newspaper.  Sister Isabel Mary became well respected for her care of those that came to the home and loved by the girls who contributed their find memories to the biography From Theatre to Convent, published after Isabel's death, in 1936.

From Fun to Nun...

Isabel (seated right) at St Mary's Home, Bangalore (1923-4)

Nor was Isabel denied he pleasure of travel as a nun.  After being made Mother, Isabel traveled to South Africa, India and Europe, visiting religious communities and enjoying the beauty of the landscape and architecture of the places.  Obviously used to traveling all over the place as an actress, her accounts of journeys as a nun are rich and fearless.  

From Fun to Nun...

Portrait from 1930

Eventually old age caught up with her and on travels through South Africa, the high altitude made it impossible for her to enjoy herself in her normal manner.  She returned to Wantage and there died in 1934, remembered by all the nuns as a thoroughly lovely woman in the S.P.C.K published biography, From Theatre to Convent: Memories of Mother Isabel Mary  CSMV.  Of the rest of the Bateman family, Kate died in 1917 of a cerebral hemorrhage after a long and celebrated stage career. Ellen died in 1936 and Virginia last of all in 1940, but the Bateman legacy did not end there. Despite not being comfortable on stage, Virginia  married actor-manager Edward Compton and her daughter Fay became a celebrated actress, best known for her Shakespearean roles.  In the 1930s it became somewhat of a newspaper sensation when the niece of Isabel Bateman played Ophelia opposite John Gielgud, great-nephew of Ellen Terry, which is all rather incestuous.

From Fun to Nun...

John Gielgud and Fay Compton in Hamlet (1939)

In conclusion, Isabel Bateman caught my eye for more than just her talent and beauty.  Like many of the women we discuss here, Isabel is the victim of history and our seeming need to form a narrative to suit ourselves.  We rightly celebrate the wonderful Ellen Terry as an actress, but in telling Terry's story it seems we cannot help but down-play Isabel.  Irving and Mrs Bateman's relationship had some questionable moments (as does the Batemans' attitude to their daughters and acting).  A reason that excuses Irving and Terry's apparently callous discarding of Isabel was that she was not a good actress.  In Nina Auerbach's mighty tome on Terry from 1987, Isabel is referred to as 'untalented' and Irving was desperate to be rid of the 'dependent Bateman women'.  All this seems a tad harsh, especially as Terry herself wrote in admiration of Isabel's performances, and a self-depreciating reticence about following in her footsteps in roles such as Queen Henrietta Maria. Yet again, in celebrating the life of one woman we seemingly need to trash the lives of others, as if we only have room for one 'great actress'.  Did Ellen Terry kick Isabel Bateman out of the Lyceum?  Of course not.  Did Irving and Mrs Bateman handle the difficult situation of Mr Bateman's death, Irving's desire to expand as an actor and her money trouble well?  Of course not, but then it's easy for us looking back to see what a mess people get into when trying to give everyone what they want.

From Fun to Nun...

Mother Isabel Mary (1923)

While I fret about the injustice of female biography, it is a comfort to know that despite everything, Isabel got her dream of becoming a nun, the one role she was always meant to play and one she did with immeasurable grace.

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