ABSTRACT

While the details of Ellen Terry’s sixty-year career on the stage might be little known to the general public, many will recognize her from one or two portraits which are today on show at the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate. Perhaps most famous is John Singer Sargent’s portrait (1889), catching her in the act of self-coronation in her role as Lady Macbeth, glittering in her insect-encrusted gown. Julia Margaret Cameron (1864) captured Terry’s seventeen years of youth at the fateful moment when she married England’s Michelangelo, G. F. Watts, and for whom she was restricted to the role of muse. His portrait entitled Choosing (1864) characterizes her, not having resolved on her choice in the face of the object of her desire, but, typically, in the act. She could not settle; she was always on the move. In Virginia Woolf ’s curious comic play, Freshwater, Watts constantly reprimands Terry for dgeting. A er her rst very wrong choice (the brief marriage to Watts from whom she was divorced in 1877), she was set on a path of ‘choosing’ which never became satisfactorily resolved. Once she made a choice based on her heart’s desire, Edward Godwin, (her lover for seven years, the father of her children and designer of her Portia costume), she had to deal with the consequences of society’s judgement: that the right choice for her was otherwise deemed to be wrong. In settling for the morally compromised position of fallen woman, she made her beloved role of mother forever vexed. ese images form part of a cultural circuit, described by Penny Summer eld as involving the retelling of an individual’s life story in public forms (e.g. newspapers), such that ‘It becomes di cult to speak outside it’.1 In Terry’s case, aspects of her life story were retold and fed back into correspondence, theatrical memoirs, theatre history and in her own life-writing, proliferating provisional selves which seem to evade any xed point, creating meanings about her public and more intimate ways of being.