'We are not in little England now': Charles and Ellen Kean in civil-war America.
Throughout their wanderings, the Keans maintained a regular correspondence with their only child, Mary, who, at the age of twenty, was left behind in London to manage their affairs. To her they confided with remarkable frankness the details of their everyday domestic, professional, and social experience. The correspondence survives in three major caches. The letters written from Australia, thirty-seven in all and owned by the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, were published by J.M.D. Hardwick in his Emigrant in Motley (London, 1954), (2) and are consequently well known. The Keans' letters from America, on the other hand, have received relatively little notice.
This essay is designed to alert researchers to this valuable, but underused, resource, to indicate its provenance, to outline its contents, and to suggest three areas of research potential, among others. In the absence of published versions of the correspondence, I have, wherever possible, privileged Charles's and Ellen's first-person revelations over critical commentary. I have not attempted to reconstruct the Keans' wanderings in detail, a task already undertaken with varying emphases by Hardwick, Carson, and Strahan. (3) Nor have I ventured upon cultural analysis, an intriguing challenge, but one better suited to follow than accompany an effort at archival description. I try, however, to provide sufficient historical, biographical, and cultural markers to render the narrative coherent and the issues clear.
The Pacific-coast phase of the tour is recounted in a recently-discovered volume of twenty-six letters in the Performing Arts Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. (4) The binding appears identical to that of the volume owned by the Alexander Turnbull Library. (5) The cover title, engraved in gold lettering, reads:
Manuscript Journal/ of/ Mr. & Mrs. CHARLES J. KEAN/ DESCRIPTIVE OF THEIR/ THEATRICAL TOUR IN CALIFORNIA/
This title is repeated on the title page with the addition:
With extension along the western coast of America/ from Vancouver Island down to Panama. And across the Isthmus to the West Indies./ Also/ giving a graphic account of the political and/ social life in the places visited./ Mainly contained in a series/ of lengthy letters written by/ them to their daughter Mary,/ &c./1864-65.
Many of the letters are indeed lengthy, running to as much as eight, twelve, eighteen, and even, in one case, twenty-three pages. An epistolary account of the Keans' highly uncomfortable voyage from Sydney to San Francisco, privately printed for circulation to family and friends, prefaces the collection. Like the Turnbull Library volume, the Ransom Center letters are accompanied by handsome typed transcripts bound in. (6)
A further collection of the Keans' letters to Mary, unbound and little noticed, is housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. This archive, consisting of some sixty-eight letters, treats the Keans' tour of the east coast and the mid-west and south of the United States, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Attached to each is a legible handwritten transcription. (7)
Although both the Ransom Center and Folger Library collections comprise primarily letters from Charles and Ellen to Mary, several pieces of the Ransom Center correspondence are directed to others. One is written by Ellen to Marianne Skerrett (1797-1887), retired first dresser and amanuensis to Queen Victoria, and a longtime royal confidante. Others are exchanges between Charles and his touring colleague, J. F. Cathcart, Kean's agent George S. Coppin, and Arctic adventurer John Rae. (8) The Folger collection contains one letter from Patty Chapman to Mary and a note from Ellen to Charles and Patty. (9)
Theatrical Touring. Social History, and Personal Revelation
The Keans' North American wanderings, in company with Ellen's niece Patty Chapman, who played ingenue roles, James F. Cathcart, who undertook second male leads, George Everett, stage manager and supporting actor, Kean's North American agents, and their maid, Clara Jackson, offer an intimate insight into the lifestyle of touring stars in mid-nineteenth-century America, to say nothing of the Keans' particular idiosyncrasies (Plate 1). As social history the letters have even greater significance. The Kean party arrived in California in the final year of the Civil War and later, in the east and south, witnessed the first phase of Reconstruction. Their eyewitness accounts of destruction, violence, deprivation, and postwar trauma are a compelling addition to the Civil War narrative, lent an almost Brechtian chill by being viewed through the Keans' imperial, detached, condescending, yet unremittingly observant, eyes. Finally, the letters supplement and complement the personal and family revelations begun in the Australian correspondence. Stained and rumpled pages written under stressful, often life-threatening, conditions to a trusted daughter permit a more immediate and less sanitized encounter with Charles and Ellen than that afforded by J. W. Cole's hagiographic The Life and Times of Charles Kean F.S.A. (1859), the only book-length biography of Kean to date. (10)
Many of the letters amount to miniature diaries. Timed to be posted as mail-carrying ships left for England, they often cover the events of a week or two, with entries dated day-by-day. I have identified letters cited by the date at the head of each.
The Keans and the Theatre
Charles and Ellen and their entourage arrived in San Francisco 1 October 1864 half-starved, ill, and exhausted from their Pacific crossing, but were on stage within a week. From the moment of his arrival in North America until his departure, money was Charles's overwhelming obsession, a preoccupation Ellen shared. Not only their letters to Mary, but also Ellen's to Marianne Skerrett, are fraught with details of nightly box-office receipts, expenses, and anxieties about the effect on attendance of weather and competing events. From the outset of his tour, Charles demanded half the nightly gross receipts of every house, an arrangement enjoyed during his American tour by Kean's arch-enemy William Charles Macready. In a typically uncompromising exchange with George Coppin, his agent, regarding his New York engagement, Kean wrote,
Let me in the first place impress upon you that I will make no sacrifices either as to terms or prices ... I must therefore ... have every where the Boxes at a dollar, with additional payment for reserved seats, & I must also receive my usual terms of a clear half of the nightly receipts, payable on the following morning. (CK to GC, At Sea, 16 February 1865)
Even when times were relatively good, financial uncertainties nagged. From San Francisco Ellen informed Marianne Skerrett with a surprising forthrightness: 'We shall play a fine engagement here, although the nightly receipts run up and down according to the excitement out of doors.... They run pretty much thus, $1500, $800, $1300, $400, $1400, $250. The average tells up, but it is not agreeable' (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864). So frantic was Charles to capture the uttermost farthing that he briefly contemplated an absurdly taxing overland journey from California to Utah. 'We have had an offer by telegraph to act at the Mormon city of Utah', he wrote, 'but as the winter is approaching I feel my strength would not allow me to travel a 1000 miles over difficult, rough, and dangerous roads. Were it summer I think I should go'. (CK to Mary, San Francisco, 1 November 1864)
Comfortable performance spaces were not a priority: as long as a theatre could hold a substantial audience and possessed a roof, he seems not to have minded greatly. 'We returned here last night from Sacrimnto [sic]', Charles told Mary, 'where we gave two readings in the Theatre and bitter cold it was with a draft pouring down upon our heads'. (CK to Mary, San Francisco, 8 January 1865) In Washington, he noted, 'The Theatre is built in a swamp and is many feet below the surface of the earth. There is a cold damp chill comes over me whenever I enter the building'. (CK to Mary, Washington, D.C., 22 March 1866) In Columbus, Ohio, 'the Theatre not having been open for months, was like a well and the stoves could not be lighted as they filled the place with smoke'. (CK to Mary, Columbus, 21 November 1865)
While box-office receipts were maximized, overhead costs were mercilessly whittled. To aggravate the stresses of a taxing performance schedule, they carried their costumes with them and, as an economy measure, assumed responsibility for their maintenance. The maid doubled as dresser. On arrival at a performance venue, Ellen, Patty, and the maid, often after harrowing journeys, unpacked the wardrobe for the evening's bill and prepared it for wearing. Charles describes a not untypical day, in the course of which the party journeyed from Cleveland to Columbus and played the same night. 'We were called yesterday morning at a quarter before six', he records,
and left the Hotel for the railway station at a quarter past seven. At half past two we arrived here, had dinner such as it was, and a quarter before four Patty and her Yankee maid Sally (11) started off for the theatre, which is fortunately very near us, and then and there unpacked the boxes and arranged the dresses for the Mert. Of Venice and the Jealous Wife. They only returned at six, when it was quite dark, to have their tea and return to the theatre to prepare for acting. (CK to Mary, Columbus, 21 November 1865)
Charles's parsimony apparently extended to the quality of the wardrobe--a strange about-face for a manager whose reputation had been built on lavish stagecraft. In America, it seemed, anything would do. At one point Ellen described their costumes as 'in a filthy shabby state'. (EK to Mary, Albany, 18 March 1866)
Charles's execration of the cost of travel and subsistence was as frequent as it was insistent. Agents' fees were a particular irritant. In Australia he was represented by George Coppin, whom Charles mistakenly invited to accompany him to America. 'I am disgusted with Mr. Coppin my Agent', he wrote Mary shortly after arriving in New York. 'He is a coarse vulgar brute, & as far as this country is concerned perfectly incompetant [sic]. There is only one thing he is always ready to do & in which he is punctual to the moment-taking his share of my profits'. (CK to Mary, New York, 6 April 1865)
On the southern leg of the tour Kean and Coppin parted, but Coppin's successor, William Brough, proved equally uncongenial. 'I have taken, indeed we all have, the greatest possible disgust to the dirty old man engaged in Mr. Coppin's place ...', Charles complained. 'He has the bad qualities of the Irish character. Untruthful and double faced. It is $100 pr week (20 [pounds sterling]) thrown away for he is worse than useless, he is mischievous'. (CK to Mary, Mobile, 30 January 1866) Just over a month later, Charles reported with unqualified relief, 'He leaves me, praise be to Heaven, the day after to-morrow and as I shall begin again with a guaranteed sum pr. Night.... I shall no longer require my Agent'. (CK to Mary, Baltimore, 5 March 1866)
Dispensing with agents might reduce the company's expenditures, but there was no way to mitigate the losses incurred on currency transfers to England. The disadvantage of being paid in 'greenbacks', treasury bills issued to finance the Civil War, was an endless source of complaint. '[T]he greenbacks in the Eastern States', he maintained in a typical inventory of his financial woes, 'will render it impossible for me to send over much profit. Were it possible to save 1,000 [pounds sterling] in greenbacks, the exchange into gold would only allow me to remit 400 [pounds sterling] out of 1000 [pounds sterling], literally a loss of 600' [pounds sterling]. (CK to Mary, San Francisco, 8 January 1865)
Despite, or perhaps because of, Charles's financial anxieties, the tour's profits met or exceeded his expectations. As early as the end of 1865, he conceded to Mary that success was in sight. 'We have at last reached the last day of the year, the last nine months of which have brought to your parents toil & anxiety, but little pleasure and much pain. We have however in a commercial point of view been very successful and we shall thereby add some thousands of pounds sterling to our invested property; but it is money hardly earned'. (CK to Mary, Memphis, 31 December 1865)
Personal and aesthetic offences were legion, the inevitable price paid for their financial harvest. Louisville, overrun with demoralized military seeking mindless diversion, rebuffed the purveyors of high culture outright. 'Neither manager would have anything to do with us', Ellen reported. 'Theatres were nightly filled at low prices by low soldiers to see half naked girls who could not speak English in the lowest Burlesques and they said "they didn't want no Keans"'. (EK to Mary, Louisville, 4 December 1865) Audiences that welcomed them, and there were many, were invariably faulted for a perceived lack of cultivation. 'Readings of poetry is [sic] quite above these people', Charles declared of San Franciscans. 'Some of them are so ignorant that they did not know who King John was, never having heard of him'. (CK to Mary, San Francisco, 8 January 1865) Ellen was in complete agreement. 'I think they know less about artistic acting here, than they do in Australia', she concluded, 'and have been so used to their tragedians roaring all through a play that they cannot understand Mr Kean's quiet death scenes'. (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864) Only New York theatregoers pleased. 'No where out of New York where we have acted', fumed Charles, 'do they understand such lines as I say as Louis XIth. "I know how much a Royal son can do against a King--I was a Dauphin once ..." I do not believe they know what "Dauphin" means'. (CK to Mary, Buffalo, 27 July 1865) Worse still, 'audiences throughout the States' were reckoned 'as cold as ice. They neither applaud nor laugh at a joke'. (CK to Mary, Buffalo, 27 July 1865) And to add insult to injury, ignorance and passivity were frequently conjoined with rudeness. On their last night in Columbus, while they played Henry VIII and The Wonder, 'a party in a Private box on the Stage had a bottle which was passed from one to another during the performance and occasionally put into a hat which they placed under the box on the Stage!' (CK to Mary, St. Louis, 25 November 1865)
Supporting stock companies left the Keans equally ungratified: in fact, they almost never mention their hardworking and ill-paid local associates save to censure or deride. 'You should have heard a very tall Falconbridge and a very little Dauphin roar at each other some nights ago in "King John"', Ellen remarked. 'I never in my life heard anything so absurd. They are just beginning to comprehend that Mr Kean does not roar upon principle. All the actors here have gruff hoarse voices from nothing else but incessant roaring'. (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864) In Detroit during a performance of The Merchant of Venice, 'Antonio the Merchant was very drunk and did not know a word. Cathcart was by his side all night giving him in a whisper every line he had to utter' (CK to Mary, Detroit, 9 November 1865). Backstage profanity caused singular vexation. From New Orleans Charles declared, 'The manager of this Theatre, the St. Charles is a Barbarian.... He is the most blasphemous wretch I ever heard of, although in Nth America blasphemy is common and popular. You should hear the women swear behind the scenes of the theatres!!!' (CK to Mary, New Orleans, 18 January 1866)
Added to the provocations external to their company, the alcoholism of their colleague James Cathcart caused Charles and Ellen constant personal and professional stress. Cathcart began drinking heavily in Australia where he permitted, perhaps even encouraged, his tavern acquaintances to organize a claque at the theatre to applaud him at the Keans' expense. On the ship to San Francisco he suffered bouts of delirium tremens throughout which Ellen nursed him devotedly. (12) In San Francisco his behavior worsened, and early in the new year, Kean wrote him to remonstrate, observing that 'that evil propensity is now inflaming your brain, and you seem to be under the influence of chronic delirium'. (CK to Cathcart, San Francisco, 3 January 1865) Cathcart, in a classic problem drinker's response, denied the charge and tendered his notice, a gesture Charles promptly accepted. The errant actor quickly recognized his error. 'The poor sot found himself in a most awful position', Ellen reported,
His flatterers could do nothing for him and he could get no engagement so after turning every stone over for a whole fortnight he wrote a most abject letter to your Papa imploring forgiveness for the sake of his wife and children.(EK to Mary, At Sea. Off the Guatemala Coast, 13 February 1865)
Documentation of Ellen's account is contained in the pathetic Kean-Cathcart correspondence included in the Ransom Center volume (Plate 2). On 15 January Cathcart made his first abject appeal for forgiveness, to which Kean failed to reply. Four days later Cathcart made a more frantic plea. 'I pray you to forgive me and give me the power to make you atonement,' he wrote,
I will do so if you will generously overlook my faults, believe me they have been the errors of my head not of my heart. To add to my present punishment, on Tuesday last I received bad news from home that my wife was very ill. (Cathcart to CK, San Francisco, 19 January 1865)
Ellen, though deeply annoyed by Cathcart's disrespect, nevertheless realized that to 'leave him in San Francisco was to leave him to a miserable death'. Consequently she 'begged and prayed your Papa to take him back to England'. (EK to Mary, At Sea. Off the Guatemala Coast. 13 February 1865)
In an effort to force Cathcart to confront his problem, Charles secured an affidavit on 12 January from a San Francisco physician, certifying that he had treated the delinquent actor on his arrival in October for 'an attack of Mania E Potu induced in my opinion from the inordinate use of alcoholic Stimulants,' (13) but Cathcart adamantly refused to accept the diagnosis (Plate 3). In the end the miscreant was reinstated, but despite promises of amended behaviour, he remained a source of exasperation throughout the tour. In Boston, only a couple of weeks before their departure for home, Ellen reported,
Cathcart is at his low actor tricks again and was last night called on in Macduff after the scene had changed to do my sleeping scene and I was assailed by cries of 'Cathcart, we want Cathcart' with bells and shouts. I made a halt, and surveyed the house. 'We want Cathcart'. I made a solemn courtesy and retired saying to the Prompter, 'Send Mr. Cathcart on and change the scene. I shall not go on again'. Nor did I.... I will never act Lady Macbeth again to his Macduff. On this point I am firm. I will never again subject myself to anything so unseemly. (EK to Mary, Boston, 8 April 1866)
Harrowing as the Keans' theatrical crises may have been, however, they bore no comparison with the fearsome national drama played out around them, and at which they were reluctant spectators and participants.
The Keans as Social Observers
Charles and Ellen reached San Francisco a month after the fall of Atlanta, and they were there for the Lincoln/McClellan election campaign and Lincoln's reelection on 8 November 1864. They docked in New York just after Lincoln's inauguration, and were scheduled to open their New York season on 16 April, a week after Lee's surrender to Grant (9 April 1865). And, as events turned out, two days after Lincoln was shot. With a decorous postponement behind them, they began playing 26 April and in mid-May proceeded to Baltimore and then west to Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and back to Buffalo. After a vacation in Niagara Falls, they fulfilled engagements in several Ontario and Quebec centres, and returned to New York in late August for a second season of several weeks. Late in October they revisited Chicago, then proceeded to Detroit, and on to Cleveland, Columbus, and St. Louis. As winter set in they moved south to Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Mobile, then back to New Orleans and Louisville. With the return of Spring they struck north to Baltimore, Washington, Albany, and Boston from where they sailed for home (Plate 4).
Unlike many of their itinerant compatriots such as Harriet Martineau, Isabella Bird, or Charles Lyell, the Keans were not in America to expand their cultural horizons. (14) Charles had already toured the continent three times and Ellen twice; (15) and now they would have preferred to be elsewhere. Profound anti-American prejudice did not ameliorate their mood: both regarded the American Revolution as a personal and national insult, and the Civil War as a monumental piece of bad manners, not to mention a major professional inconvenience. Recognition of any degree of achievement in a country that had spurned the beneficent rule of Britain was out of the question. To the Keans' chagrin, there was no way of insulating themselves against the physical and social environment. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, conversations, events, kept impinging upon them; and, despite unfailing repugnance, they dutifully recorded their experiences. To their credit, humane instinct occasionally got the better of knee-jerk disapprobation, and they found themselves detailing postwar misery with more than a coldly objective eye.
The Keans' accounts of journeys by ship up and down the West Coast and by train across the north of America and into the deep south constitute a compelling record of the traveller's lot not long after the mid-century point: modes of transport, hotels, food, and the social conduct of enforced companions.
Wherever there was locomotion, risk to life and limb was endemic. The hair-raising crossing of the bar on the Columbia river en route to Portland, Oregon, from Victoria, British Columbia, is described by Ellen with breathtaking sangfroid:
The Pilot was on one mast aloft, the Captain on another to direct the course. The mate was lashed to the upper deck. The men were lashed to the wheel, three men on each side with ropes attached to the rudder were lashed also, that they might steer the ship in case the wheel broke. Men were lashed on each side forward and as the waves seethed up, poured oil on them which made them calm down, all moveable things were brought under cover and fastened and then we took the passage [.] I do not think we were more than ten minutes in crossing and it was really not so rough a sea as we had all the previous night but as the Captain said our danger was not the less because we felt it not. (EK to Mary, Portland, 27 December 1864)
The dangers escaped were brought poignantly home to Charles some months later when he read 'of the total loss of the Californian Steam ship Brother Jonathan with all on board, sixteen out of 162 escaping'. He reminded Mary that the ship was 'the Steamer which took us from San Francisco to Vancouver Island and on board of which we ate our last Xmas dinner'. (CK to Mary, New York, 12 September 1865) The physical miseries of the voyage from Jamaica to Havana, however, seem to have distressed Ellen more than outright danger. 'We embarked', she records,
in a wretched little steamer expecting few comforts and we got less than we bargained for. A filthy little cabin in which Patty, Jackson and I were crammed without a single necessary convenience for the sickness we encountered and utterly neglected by the only creature they stiled [sic] a Steward. We lay until we were exhausted for want of a few spoonfuls of arrowroot. We had bad weather, not dangerous, but foul and disagreeable. I never was so sick in all my life. (EK to Mary, Havana, March 1865)
Trains in the east were as comfortless as ships in the west. 'From New York to Harrisburgh [Pennsylvania] we had 48 people in the same long omnibus car with us [,] chewing and spitting in the most sickening manner', Ellen recalled,
[H]ere all classes bundle in together, dirty or clean, niggers and all. You have no room to stretch out your feet, and no possible place to put any little parcel you may wish to carry in your hand. Bag, parasol, luncheon, everything must be kept hot in your lap. The back of your seat only comes up to your shoulder and when you are overcome by the heat and incessant shaking and might be sound in sleep oblivious to the spitting in front behind and beside you even that relief is denied and your poor head rolls and bobs every way to the danger of breaking your neck. (EK to Mary, Baltimore, 18 May 1865)
Rail travel offered little more safety than sea transport. Approaching Crestline, Charles told Mary,
[W]e met with an accident which might have been fatal to many. By some mistake a luggage train with its engine was left on the road into which we plunged. I was asleep and was quickly woke up by the concussion, the screams of the women and the lights all being put out by the crash. Patty by my side was also asleep and was thrown forward, her nose receiving a blow from the back of the seat in front of us.... The coupling chain that fastened us to the carriage before us broke in two and we fell back some distance from the force of the blow. Our engine as well as the engine of the goods train was completely smashed up and lay on the side of the road a complete wreck.... (CK to Mary, Chicago, 24 October 1865)
Misery and risk increased by the mile as they ventured south. Early in the war, the railway became, for both sides and for the first time in history, a crucial means of transport for troops and supplies, and was, as a result, the frequent target of military action. In April 1863, for example, prior to the siege of Vicksburg, Colonel Benjamin Grierson led some 1000 cavalrymen from La Grange, Tennessee, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a distance of about six hundred miles, 'leaving a trail of torn up railroad track, shattered bridges and burning supplies in his wake'. (16) At war's end, remnants of severed track were tacked together and demolished railway bridges were replaced with makeshift ferries. Through this life-threatening landscape the Kean party made tedious and precarious progress. 'The railway we travelled over', Charles wrote from Memphis,
is not considered very safe for it was in parts torn up and in others burnt during the many conflicts that took place between the contending parties in this state. We occasionally came upon a spot where the ravages by fire were still perceptible. Under these circumstances we made very slow way, not travelling sometimes more than 10 miles an hour and occasionally 5 or 6. The permanent way is daily repairing, but the people are too poor to take very active measures. (CK to Mary, Memphis, 22 December 1865)
Charles's rueful observation on one such occasion, 'We are not in little England now. Would that we were!' (CK to Mary, Mobile, 2 February 1866) seems remarkably restrained under the circumstances.
On the journey from Nashville to Memphis, in the absence of a railway bridge, they were ferried across the Tennessee river to a train waiting on the other side. 'Fortunately for us all', Charles writes,
we crossed ... by daylight but oh such a scene as it was. We were turned out of the car amidst drizzling rain and had to walk about the eighth of a mile through mud and slosh to reach the Steam Ferry boat that was waiting to take us across. On the way we had to descend some wooden steps placed very loosely without nails or other fastening.... By the time we had crossed the river the rain was more threatening. We had to land on a single shaky plank and I momentarily expected to see some of our party go splash into the water.... At last as I was nearing the platform the rain came down not in torrents, but in sheets. I tumbled into the cars a mass of mud and wet.
Ellen, flinging modesty to the winds, stood 'before the stove unheeded and unheeding taking off her skirt which was wet through'. (CK to Mary, Memphis, 22 December 1865)
The neglect of steamer maintenance during and immediately after the war meant that river travel was not undertaken lightly. 'We are now waiting for a safe steamer, if such a thing exists, to take us up the Mississippi river to Cincinnati', Charles told Mary as he prepared to head north. 'The destruction of life and property lately and especially last week by the blowing up of steamers has been fearful. Hundreds of people including ladies and children have been sent in a moment to the presense [sic] of their Maker!' (CK to Mary, New Orleans, 6 February 1866)
Hotels awaited at the end of every journey, and in the north generally found favour. The noise level, however, was an offence to the ears in the daytime and the bane of sleep at night:
One man rushes through the passages in the middle of the night roaring out with Stentorian lungs 'Ohio & Mississippi railway' which means that those who are going by it must get ready without delay. Then follows the rush of those who are about to travel, women shouting with laughter, children screaming, men with heavy boots clattering through the lobbies like troops of cavalry.... Screaming, yelling, crying of babies etc. is the order of the day'. (CK to Mary, St. Louis, 16 June 1865)
Food, everywhere a matter of concern, became an obsession in the war-ravaged south. '[I]n this blessed country I neither sleep nor feed', Charles complained. 'Beef, mutton, veal or pork all taste alike or rather I should say are all tasteless!' (CK to Mary, Louisville, 9 December 1865) Frequently unpalatable hotel fare obliged them to supplement their diet from local shops and markets. From Memphis Charles informed Mary, 'Your mother has gone out in a carriage for which she has to pay 12 shillings English an hour to buy eggs and chickens to cook for us in her own chamber!' (CK to Mary, Memphis, 22 December 1865) In due course Ellen issued a mock formal invitation to the Christmas feast she had shopped for and prepared:
Lady Eleanor Kean presents her compliments and requests that Mr. Kean and the Honble Miss Chapman will partake of a banquet to-day consisting of fried eggs and bacon, English mustard, and chicken pie.... (EK to CK, Memphis, 24 December 1865)
A foreign climate, inedible food, stressful travel, and overwork conspired to keep one or another ill most of the time. The correspondence is riddled with accounts of symptoms, self- and professional diagnoses, naturopathic and conventional therapies, and protracted recoveries followed by the onset of fresh miseries. Ellen reported from British Niagara, 'I have been taking remedies for a furious attack of bile and acidity. I can scarcely hold my pen for pain under my right wing'. (EK to Mary, British Niagara, 23 July 1865) Two days later Charles described a rash for which he consulted a doctor in St. Catherine's, Ontario:
He told me it was gouty influence & acidity. I have to rub in twice a day some ointment with Prussic acid in it & take a daily dose of mixture containing magnesia, salts, & colchicum with something else besides.... Your mother acted in great pain last night. I think she is suffering from the same cause, acidity. (CK to Mary, Buffalo, 25 July 1865)
Late in August Charles suffered 'a relaxed sore throat' which he treated with iodine. (CK to Mary, New York, 28 August 1865) Two months later, in Philadelphia, Jackson was stricken 'with some fever, they say a kind of typhoid', and was left behind to recover. (CK to Mary, Chicago, 24 October 1865) Indeed, by the end of the year Charles concluded that the entire party 'would be unfit to work' were it not for the medicinal qualities of Ellen's mutton broth with which she dosed all corners. (CK to Mary, Memphis, 31 December 1865)
However intriguing the Keans' observations on travel, food, and health, it is their engagement with the political and social scene that most captures the imagination. And if their reactions evince a persistent and unredeemed imperial chauvinism, it should be noted in fairness, that conviction of British cultural superiority was widely shared by their middle-class contemporaries at home and abroad. (17)
Particularly compelling is the Keans' memoir of the dying days, and the aftermath, of the Civil War, which they observed from all of the country's compass points. Arriving in California at the height of the Lincoln/McClellan presidential campaign, they were largely unaware of the issues at stake: Ellen, for her part, saw the San Francisco contest as simply a political spectacle, a competitor for box-office receipts. 'On quiet nights the houses are great, on political nights they are bad', she remarked. But she could not deny the competition its attraction:
[G]enerally twice in the week we have torch light processions of some ten or twelve thousand people marching through the streets singing union hymns and war songs in which as many thousand spectators join. There are bonfires blazing and crackers popping all the time. And these processions last from eight o'clock in the evening until midnight. All this excitement is about electing their President. The Democrats who are called Broomraggers are for Maclellan [sic] and have in their processions, immediately following the band, about one hundred men carrying huge brooms (I suppose to sweep away abuses when they get into power). Then come Marshals on big horses and Marshals on little horses each carrying some ensign and the main body carry innumerable pretty Chinese lanterns on long poles, and flags and transparencies with some abuse of the opposing candidate. The republicans are for the re-election of Lincoln and in their processions have Marshals, and Lanterns, and flags and transparencies, and plenty of abuse also.... (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864)
The grim reality of the war did not strike until they moved east. 'Poor New Orleans undone', Ellen lamented to Mary, 'Mobile in ruins, Charleston but a name, Vicksburgh [sic] ... battered to pieces. And Baltimore ... dear clean lovely Baltimore, under Martial Law'. (EK to Mary, ?Pittsburgh, 30 May ) At war's end, Union armies were demobilized with astonishing swiftness: seven months after Lee's surrender, only 65,000 men remained out of an army of a million. (18) The workforce could not reabsorb such numbers with any facility, and criminality was the inevitable outcome. 'In fact the whole country is demoralized since the war and the disbanded soldiers prefer stealing to working' (CK to Mary, Louisville, 3 December 1865), Charles observed. Ellen confirmed Charles's assessment in a letter written a day later: 'We are now on the confines of rowdyism.... [T]he people you see walking about in the streets appear to be the roughest of the rough'. (EK to Mary, Louisville, 4 December 1865) The nearer the traveller approached former battlefield zones, the greater was the risk, a fact of life the Keans did not shun. 'Murders were committed every night in St. Louis', Charles informed Mary, 'and the Treasurer of the Theatre always deposited the notes (greenbacks) in the soles of his boots'. (CK to Mary, Louisville, 3 December 1865)
Political gatherings, such as one organized to protest Congress's Reconstruction agenda, were particularly hazardous. 'To-night there is a political meeting that may end in bloodshed', wrote Ellen, 'and we are advised to keep within doors. They are reconstructing the Union and passing what the people think tyrannical laws and are doing what the people think unlawful acts. The Governor of the State has displaced (unlawfully) two Judges. They refused to resign and were removed from their seats by soldiers. To-night the people meet to deprecate this violence and the Militia are ordered out. As every man here goes armed it is very difficult to say what may not happen'. (EK to Mary, St. Louis, 22 June 1865) If Louisville was for Ellen 'on the confines of rowdyism', Nashville she imagined 'the headquarters of rowdyism' (EK to Mary, 4 December 1865). And her conviction was abundantly vindicated. 'A man was shot on Saturday night in a dispute at a billiard table', confirming Charles's worst fears.
Four men have been apprehended for murder and robbery. The citizens have formed themselves into patrols and are on active duty all day, but more especially at night, armed with revolvers.... As Patty and I entered the Hotel today a pool of blood was at the foot of the stone steps. I suppose some merciless shot or knife had done it's [sic] work ... Oh, it is a nice land of freedom where one man can kill his neighbour with impunity. Such little matters are called 'a difficulty between so and so'. (CK to Mary, Nashville, 11 December 1865)
To prove his point, he forwarded Mary '15 advertisements from one day in a single paper', each 'offering rewards for the capture of different murderers'. (CK to Mary, Nashville, 19 December 1865) Indeed, on at least one occasion Charles found himself face to face with potential personal catastrophe. 'Patty and I', he recalled, 'while walking in the principal street saw the beginning of a "difficulty" ... and I hastened her into a shop to avoid a chance bullet for revolvers were drawn on both sides.' Other travellers were less fortunate: '[A] set of villains without any motive whatever, but from pure wantonness, fired into the ladies car as a railway train was passing'. (CK to Mary, Memphis, 31 December 1865)
Ellen's attention was frequently rivetted by the behaviours of wartime children. Her matter-of-fact record of stolen childhoods, although short on the subtleties of juvenile psychology, has particular resonance for the reader/viewer of journalistic dispatches from contemporary combat zones. Newly arrived in San Francisco, she noted the politicization of virtual infants, and found it 'quite wonderful how early they learn to talk politics here':
A group of little children were playing near my door the other day, when one of them, a dark eyed boy about eight years old put his hands to his sides and trying to look manly said to another little boy who was about six years old, 'Are you union?' 'Union is not my name' said the child. 'What is union?' asked a still younger child. 'What is union' said the first speaker contemptuously. 'Why union whipped the rebels'. My maid (who dines at the children's table) told me that a little creature only three years old, who eats her dinner with a spoon threw up her tiny hands when she had finished and said, 'I'm Union.' That was the poor baby's grace. (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864)
The widespread indoctrination of children into fanatic ideological positions, effected by parental pressure, the war-related deaths of older siblings, and pervasive political and religious propaganda, has only recently begun to capture the attention of Civil War historians. (19)
In Pennsylvania, a destination of choice for both black and white refugees, the culture of street children caught Ellen's ear and eye. (20) 'Do you know it is really awful to walk in the streets here and listen to the swearing of the little little children.' she told Mary. 'The mildest term they use to each other is d--d fool and some of them can only just speak plain'. (EK to Mary, ?Pittsburgh, 30 May )
In the south, in particular, the closure of schools, the absence of male parental influence, and the degree of military violence witnessed by children, often in close proximity to their homes, facilitated the evolution of youth gangs which sought security in togetherness and empowerment through acts of terrorism. The premature maturation of older children inevitably infected their younger siblings. In Louisville, Ellen reported, '[B]abies of five and six years old have the self-possessed manners of six and twenty. All the charm of childhood is obliterated from their poor precocious faces. Pretty and intelligent looking but so conscious and worldly that they are utterly uninteresting. It is painful to see mere infants so matured. Little boys of six smoke cigars and swagger about like men'. (EK to Mary, Louisville, 4 December 1865) In Memphis, she observed, 'even the children carry firearms'. (EK to Mary, Memphis, 31 December 1865)
Lincoln's victory in the election of 1864 was a ringing endorsement of his earlier Emancipation Proclamation, and Charles and Ellen witnessed its initial impact on both north and south. They reported the event as they experienced it at street level, with all the prejudices of their class and time, to say nothing of their personal biases. Virtually no English travellers of the period regarded the African-American as their equal, but many of the Keans' contemporaries opposed slavery on principle. Frances Trollope, Harriet Martineau, and Fanny Kemble, for example, were absolute in their condemnation of the institution. (21) Charles and Ellen, for their part, knew little of African-Americans, slaves or freedmen, but were not short of firmly-held opinions. Their first unsettling encounter with the depth of African-American hostility to their erstwhile oppressors occurred in San Francisco when Kean's African-American barber deprecated England's compensation of Jamaican slave-owners for the release of slaves. Ellen reconstructs the conversation thus, beginning with the barber's assertion:
'I dare say England did it with a good heart, but she did it wrong. She should have pronounced them free, she could have given that money to them to build Churches and schools and have left them to settle it with their tyrants'. 'Do you mean you would rather they had been freed by blood than by money?' said Mr. Kean. I shall never forget the change that came over that mild Mulatto's face, [Ellen continues] his eyes became like two burning coals, his lips quite thin, he set his fine teeth, and looked like a wild beast ready for a spring (the tiger rose in him) and smiling terribly he slowly said, 'Blood is good' ... Mr Kean ordered him out of the room and told him never to come near him again. (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864)
African-Americans were finding a voice, and the messages communicated were not comforting. Indeed, the Keans' experience of post-Emancipation America offers as good a demonstration as one could wish of Peter Parish's conclusion that while emancipation 'would dispose of the problem of slavery, it seemed bound to aggravate the problem of race'. (22)
At heart Ellen was profoundly leery of the non-white population, and preferred to see them maintained in a comfortable subservience, a condition which at once mitigated her unease and enhanced her sense of social superiority. In the absence of first-hand experience, she constructed slave-life in the romantic, 'happy darky' fantasy of Stephen Foster's minstrelsy. Viewed in such a light, emancipation was at best a mixed blessing. 'It was a wicked thing to cast these helpless creatures upon [the] world', she concluded.
How they miss their warm hut, their feather beds, chickens in the hut, their patch of ground, their little perquisites, home and food and clothing found them and no responsibility.... This plenty and to spare is over for them and they have now to drink of a bitter cup and I am sorry for them. (EK to Mary, Baltimore, 18 March 1866)
Ellen's distaste for emancipation led her to attribute to it a variety of personal inconveniences. In New York, it was even blamed for poor service: 'We are very uncomfortable in our Hotel here', she complained, 'very dear & no attention. The coloured servants have become very rude & sluggish since the civil war, which they consider is all on their acct. & they are insolent in the extreme in consequence'. (EK to Mary, New York, 6 April 1865)
Ellen, curiously enough, did not consider herself a racist: she saw no inconsistency between her disgust at having to share a rail car with African-Americans and her outrage at 'a young man very drunk with a pair of boots in his hands asking with a terrific oath where the niggers were and swearing by a sacred name that they would do nothing now... in a raving state, addressing his Creator in the most frightful language for having made niggers'. (EK to Mary, Altoona,  May ) In similar fashion, Charles could be unmoved by the injustices felt by his African-American barber, yet scandalized by the racism of Caucasian youngsters observed by his maid:
Jackson yesterday saw two little white children belonging to some boarders in this Hotel playing in the Hall and she kissed one of them between three and four years of age. 'Get away', the child shrieked. 'You great nasty black nigger, you stink'.... [S]o you see how the children here are brought up'. (CK to Mary, Memphis, 22 December 1865)
On the whole, however, issues of race seem not to have troubled the Keans materially. After a recital of tortures inflicted on southern slaves by Union soldiers, for example, Ellen callously dismissed the topic with 'Oh what tales I have of romantic horror for long winter nights!' (EK to Mary, Baltimore, 18 March 1866)
Although the war frequently threatened the Keans' comfort, health, safety, and financial success, it failed to inhibit their attendance at church and social functions, or their enjoyment of walking, sightseeing, shopping, and exchanging visits with local celebrities. All the while, however, they privately regarded themselves as constrained onlookers in a society which they abhorred. Censure seasoned with condescension was their response to almost every cultural contact.
Frequently they, and Ellen in particular, imagine the tour as a sort of royal progress, dwelling at length upon their social obligations, or the necessity to give and withhold approval of individuals and projects, all the while elevating their standing more than a notch or two above the rank accorded them at home.
Ellen for her part affected an overweening obsession with propriety, a sensitivity to the dress and behavior of women worthy of the Widow of Windsor herself. Masculine traits were a particular target. 'We have a very fast young lady in this Hotel', she informed Marianne Skerrett:
This young girl is up in all the hunts, races, and fights in the country, talks to men about Bill this, and Jack that, and their chances of winning, takes a cool bet or two and occasionally walks off to the Billiard table. She is an honorary member of the No. 5 Fire Brigade and sometimes in their processions sits on the Engine.
Although honesty compelled Ellen to admit that the young woman was 'both good and amiable', she insisted that she 'would as soon see my darling child a nun as see her so fallen from womanly propriety'. (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864)
Class impropriety was as much an affront to Ellen's susceptibilities as the gender variety. In Victoria, for example, the dress and accent of a businessman's wife to whom she paid a social call incited the visitor to an ecstasy of well-bred derision. 'I called on the wife of the principal Banker there', she reported,
and after waiting a considerable time a little plebean looking woman came in huddled up untidily in a shawl, her tumbled hair tumbled into that resort for lazy people, a net. I saw at once she did not know how to receive me or what to say.... She looked to me as if she had come to the Colony as a little housemaid and that the Banker had married his domestic. (EK to Mary, Portland, 27 December 1864)
Preservation of the conventionalities of middle-class behaviour was for Ellen a bulwark against the instabilities of a war-torn country and a mark of the genteel status to which the Keans made such forceful, if somewhat self-conscious, claim. Lapses from the highest standards of good taste in their company were rigorously catalogued and condemned. American personal habits, regularly censured by British travellers from at least Frances Trollope onwards, were a particular annoyance. On the subject of spitting, by both sexes, Charles was more graphic than most. In his Memphis hotel, he claimed, 'All the passages and staircases etc are shining with the expectoration so liberally discharged'. (CK to Mary, Memphis, 31 December 1865) Ellen's mock warning to Mary a few weeks before quitting the country, for all its lighthearted tone, spoke of months of genteel revulsion:
Don't be surprised if we take our meat up in our fingers or introduce you to other primative [sic] customs. We all still use our pocket handkerchiefs and we do not put knives half down our throats at dinner, but you will decidedly have to look to our manners. (EK to Mary, Washington, D.C., 23 March 1866)
The Keans in Private
Charles' and Ellen's correspondence, if short on artistic apercus, offers unmediated, and often poignant, access to their individual and collective psyches. And it comes as something of a shock to discover that, despite the artistic and social recognition gained during their reign at the Princess's, both were racked by a devastating personal vulnerability. Even as Ellen pronounced on issues of gender and class decorum, or Charles harangued the working classes on their place in the scheme of things, a corrosive status-anxiety drove them to demand obeisance at every turn. Any shortcoming, real or imagined, brought instant retaliation, and no exception was made on the grounds of rank. 'Mr. [William] Seward the American Secretary of State sent a message for Mamma and myself to call upon him as he would like much to make our acquaintance', Charles told Mary, 'but the invitation is given in with so much discourtesy that I do not intend to go'. (CK to Mary, Washington, D.C., 22 March 1866)
Ellen's craving for social status comes as less of a surprise than her longing for an outlet for her talents more worthy than the stage. Yearnings of both sorts were somewhat eased by her rehearsal of extra-theatrical roles at a safe distance from home. (23) On one occasion she evinces a distinct, if somewhat coyly-expressed, ambition for political influence. After hearing that at least one of her letters to Marianne Skerrett had been read with interest by the Queen, who subsequently forwarded it to the King of Belgium, Ellen seems to have reinvented herself to some degree as the Queen's eyes and ears in North America. She writes Mary with but thinly-veiled self-congratulation:
I sent Miss Skerrett another despatch not long since which is of course no other than a despatch to her Majesty.... One letter from Australia containing some very interesting information has made the queen curious to see every line I write. She seldom hears truth and I write very plainly what I see and what I hear socially as politically. One portion of a letter concerning warships at San Francisco she had copied out. (EK to Mary, Niagara, British Side, 5 August 1865)
At the heart of the Keans' insecurities was a profound distaste for the art form by which they gained their bread, a repugnance which extended also to most members of their profession. Their correspondence betrays virtually no indication of pleasure in the artistic process, and their offstage avoidance of their fellow-actors approached the fanatical. A typical anti-actor outburst followed Mary's mention of her introduction to Edward Askew Sothern, Lord Dundreary in Tom Taylor's runaway success, Our American Cousin (1858). Ellen's disapproval was unequivocal: 'You speak of meeting the Southerns [sic]. Do you mean Lord Dundreary and his wife? Mary dear there are a few actors we are likely to meet sometimes in society but it is your father's wish and mine that you should know as little of them as possible and less if possible of their wives'. (EK to Mary, Baltimore, 6 March, 1866) Charles continued in similar vein:
I would not on any consideration with my own free will meet the Wigans (24) or Southerns [sic] or any such people. I know them & would avoid them.... All I want is, not to come in contact with theatrical people! (CK to Mary, Albany, 26 March 1866)
Unable to occupy the social niche which they craved within the establishment, Charles and Ellen avidly scraped acquaintance with a few casual titled contacts dating from Charles's abortive career at Eton, but drew their friends from the less exalted professional and financial communities. Relationships even with intimates, however, were uneasy. Letters, those of Charles in particular, are riddled with anxieties about whether Mary had been to visit this one or that one, whether gifts shipped had been received, and who had answered correspondence and who had not. Fears of ruptured relationships were constant. 'Do not I beg', Charles wrote Mary, 'let any coolness arise between you and the Youngs, I would not have that happen for the world'. (EK to Mary, San Francisco, 2 October 1864) In the same letter he frets, 'There is something very wrong about Mrs Abell and Mrs Johnstone. I cannot understand what it is'. On another occasion he brooded, 'I perceive that Wallace Barrow does not believe that I wrote him from San Francisco'. (CK to Mary, Nashville, 19 December 1865)
Charles's obsessive concern for the good opinion of friends was matched by a neurotic suspicion of servants and colleagues, which approached paranoia by the end of the trip. Even the faithful Jackson and the longsuffering Everett were cast as the enemy. 'Be careful my child in talking to me when we return', he warned Mary,
for I have grave suspicions of our maid Jackson. I am afraid like Mr. Cathcart she is a traitor. She listens at doors & other places & moves so noiselessly that she is in the middle of your Chamber before you know that any one is approaching. She never gives a warning knock and I am afraid she is too intimate with Mr. Cathcart & Mr. Everett. (CK to Mary, Boston, 10 April 1866)
Ellen's numerous relatives, who might have been looked to for comfortable companionship, proved at best a mixed blessing. Ellen's sister Anne (known in the family as Nancy) Chapman and her offspring were a perennial affliction. Much of Charles and Ellen's correspondence relates to his guardianship of the widowed and impoverished Nancy and her eleven children, for whom Charles assumed responsibility on the death of Nancy's husband, J. K. Chapman, in 1852. (25)
Charles's and Ellen's day-by-day chronicle of constrained charity, the ingratitude it elicited, and the caustic resentment on both sides is less a demonstration of spontaneous generosity than of dogged duty. While the couple accepted the dependence of Nancy and her family as their inevitable lot, they made no secret of the fact that this burden was responsible for the financial shortfall that delayed their retirement. 'Educating and starting in life my sister's large family has kept us at our work hard, and long', Ellen told Marianne Skerrett, 'but with God's blessing "the good times are coming"'. (EK to Skerrett, San Francisco, 2 November 1864) Ellen's optimism was, unfortunately, the triumph of hope over experience. Efforts to provide Nancy's progeny with educations and jobs were invariably vitiated by the family's utter fecklessness. 'I am very glad to hear that Lucy Chapman has got a situation', Charles remarked with evident weariness on one occasion:
How strangely things come about. Meggy will then be the only girl left on my hands. What to do with the two boys I cannot tell. John Chapman and his sister Maria I am afraid will never get on. They are both weak and silly and nothing seems to prosper with them. (CK to Mary, San Francisco, 1 January 1865)
Unable to account for his wards' deficiencies, he sometimes invoked heredity: 'Mr. Chapman was a bad man and Mrs. Chapman an arrant fool', he once declared (CK to Mary, Louisville, 3 December 1865). On other occasions he blamed nurture: 'What a reproach to Mrs. Chapman to have brought up her children in such a manner', he wrote. (CK to Mary, New Orleans, 13 January 1866) Grumble as he might, his generosity to the family was unfailing. His sister-in-law Nancy's illness in 1865 found him urging Mary, 'Should Mrs Chapman require wine or brandy to sustain her above the allowance I give, send her some from Block & Grey and if she requires any delicate nourishment do not hesitate a moment in sending it'. (CK to Mary, San Francisco, 1 January 1865)
Patty (Martha Elizabeth) Chapman, listed in playbills as Miss E. Chapman, was the only member of the family to receive Charles' and Ellen's unqualified approval, and indeed enjoyed the status of a daughter. They trained her for the theatre, incorporated her into the Princess's company, and took her with them to play ingenue roles in Australia and America. They revelled in her good notices, anxiously monitored her health, and took unending delight in her social successes. 'Patty left Victoria with great regret', Ellen reported:
The Governor's attention to her, Mrs. Kennedy's [wife of the Governor] and the nice daughter's excessive kindness, the rides and drives they took with a live Lord, young, a bachelor and very agreeable, saying pretty things all the time, I assure you Patty was in her glory. Lord Guilford commands the Tribune and is as nice a fellow of about two and thirty as you ever met. (EK to Mary, Portland, 27 December 18 64)
Although thirty-two years of age when she left England, Patty affected an air of coy girlishness, a strategy Charles and Ellen encouraged. Her pettish flirtation with an aging admirer, one Donald Fraser, was chronicled by Ellen blow by blow. Patty's romances, however, came to nothing, and she left America quite as determined to play the real-life juvenile as when she arrived. 'Patty's [birthday] is on the 6th Febry when she will be 35', Charles noted indulgently, 'but mum. "Name it not in Gath". Poor girl she cannot bear to think of it, and I fear she will be miserable when she grows old'. (CK to Mary, New Orleans, 18 January 1866) (26)
Mary, on the other hand, was treated in many ways as more mature than the twenty years of age which she had reached when her parents embarked for Australia. Despite her relative youth, she was expected to act as their London agent, deal with their bankers, settle accounts, maintain their social contacts, oversee the Chapman family, shop for and ship clothes, tooth powder, and other necessities, and arrange rented premises for occupancy on the Keans' return. Simultaneously she was the recipient of choice for parental accounts of dangers past, illnesses present, and woes anticipated.
Mary's responsibilities were viewed by both sides, it appears, as a normal feature of an easy and affectionate relationship. Mary periodically approached her father for luxuries, and he responded generously. In a typically openhanded gesture, he wrote, 'Yes my darling Mary get your Velvet Cloak from Masters and anything else you like only always call at Coutts [his banker] first to ascertain the state of my balance before you draw any large sum'. (CK to Mary, San Francisco, 2 October 1864)
Mary's uncommon patience and maturity must have been sorely tested by a letter from Charles, when, in a fit of exhaustion and depression, he sought to reverse their roles. 'I shall... soon recover my spirits with you, my darling child by my side', he wrote,
never I trust to part from you again. Your affection will be the comfort & stay of my old age which is now coming rapidly upon me. I have had severe trials but you will be my reward. On you shall I repose for the rest of my days, for that comfort & peace so necessary for a worn out brain & body.... You shall do this & everything else for me. Look after me as if I were the child & not your father. (CK to Mary, Boston, 10 April 1866)
Ellen, while somewhat more restrained, was not lacking in warmth and solicitude; but her dispatches tend generally to be factual rather than emotionally effusive. She provides ample descriptions of events, encounters, and places of interest, yet remains markedly reticent about the mother-daughter relationship. In the absence of Mary's side of the correspondence, it is tempting to conclude that she was closer to her father than her mother.
Uncertain of their friends, disdainful of their colleagues, and disillusioned by the Chapmans and other family members, Charles and Ellen found perfect satisfaction only in the company of each other, a domestic and professional union energized by a complex interdependence. Much of the correspondence represents Charles in his public persona, the non-pareil of J.W. Cole's portraiture, the stereotypical Victorian pater familias reading the lesson on Sundays on board ship, leading prayers with his wife and domestics, attending briskly to business, and speechifying at formal gatherings. Beneath the rigid crust, however, seethed profound apprehensions and a sense of physical and emotional frailty, not entirely imaginary, compounded by self-pity and an insatiable appetite for attention. Ellen understood his needs intuitively. While allowing her husband nominal headship of the household, she was the crucial, if inconspicuous, facilitator. In a revealing reference to her parents, she remembers 'that sort of domestic talent my poor Father had with ... little aptitude to push his way in the world'. 'My Mother', she continues, 'piloted our little ship "the Home" and brought us after much tossing to a safe port'. (EK to Mary, Portland, 27 December 1864) Ellen, paired with a similar partner, profited from the maternal example. Cooking meals in hotel rooms, consoling her mate in bouts of melancholy, keeping a weather eye on family finances, she, in her turn, piloted her domestic vessel with consummate energy, tact, common sense, and good humour.
Charles, for his part, acknowledged Ellen as a vital and equal partner in their enterprise; he consulted her about professional and business issues, and kept her fully briefed. At a more intimate and personal level, however, he adopted a stance of abject dependency, and shamelessly exploited his wife's reflex maternalism. '[W]hen anything is the matter with your mother', he told Mary, 'I am depressed and helpless, a wretched wanderer from room to room'. (CK to Mary, Chicago, 24 October 1865) Ellen, in full consciousness of her gifts and aspirations, cheerfully chose to subordinate her will to his. Watching her homesick, ill, and downcast mate construct budgets for an anticipated leisured lifestyle, she irrevocably nailed her colors to the mast. 'Your Papa amuses himself', she reported, 'by all sorts of calculations of household expenses in retirement and domicile as in various parts of London and the Country, and I say Yes! To all. God bless him! Where he is happy I am sure I shall be content be it London or Buxton'. (EK to Mary, New Orleans, 10 February 1866)
Their pains to sustain each other's illusions were constant and exquisite. No incident in the correspondence so clearly demonstrates Charles's awareness of Ellen's vulnerabilities than his arrangements to have a necklace crafted to mark their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Ellen had gained a substantial amount of weight and was in the throes of denial, blaming the quality of American corsets for her wayward figure. 'Will you get me a pair of steel stay busks?' she asked Mary. 'I enclose the length. I want them stout and stiff. All I get here are so pliable that they bend into my waist and give me great pain'. (EK to Mary, Chicago, 11 July 1865) Charles, for his part, was prepared to allow Ellen her minor self-deceptions, but could not afford to entertain them himself if the necklace was to be a proper fit. '[I]t [the necklace] must be as large as may be', he instructed Mary, who was to act as agent with the jeweller, 'for your mother is now of an age when she requires her neck to be to some extent concealed. I mean the wrinkles should be hid by the necklace. Do not, of course, mention this fact as my remark is intended to be entirely between ourselves ...'. (CK to Mary, Nashville, 11 December 1865)
Much the same affectionate hardheadedness governed Ellen's dealings with her sometimes over-thrifty spouse. When Charles sought to minimize expenditures for their farewell tours on their return to England, Ellen gently outflanked him: 'Papa wishes me to spend as little as possible on our stage clothes as it is only for two years, but dear Mary ... money it must cost. I must get the most essential things first one by one, and make him pay for them right away as they say here, but if it all comes to him in a lump he will think he is ruined body and breeches'. (EK to Mary, Albany, 18 March 1866)
Less than two years after his return from America Charles was dead of heart disease and diabetes at the age of 57. As The Times obituary put it, 'His gains were great, but it is not improbable that to the anxiety consequent on this colossal tour is to be ascribed the calamity which every genuine lover of the stage will now lament' (The Times, 24 January 1868). No reader of the Keans' account of the 'colossal tour' could disagree with The Times's conclusion. The venture was, of course, foolhardy and Ellen's pension poor compensation for her widowhood.
Nevertheless, the project cannot but command a degree of admiration for the dauntless audacity of its aging principals, an audacity happily matched by the unflinching candor of their memoir. Theatre annals, and indeed social and political history, would be poorer for its absence.
(1.) See Tracy C. Davis, The Economics of the British Stage 1800-1914 , Cambridge, 2000, 214-15.
(2.) In 1945 William G. B. Carson published a collection of Kean correspondence titled Letters of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean Relating to Their American Tours, (St Louis, 1945). While most of this material relates to the Keans' earlier American visits, Carson includes fifteen communications to Mary dating from their final expedition. Some are little more than notes. Carson refers to a collection of Kean letters as 'in my possession', (p.vii), but he says nothing of its provenance.
(3.) Richard Denman Strahan has brought together an informative record of the Kean's boxofice receipts in his unpublished Ph.D. dissertation 'The American Theatrical Tours of Charles Kean', Washington University Language and Literature No. 15, University of Florida, 1984.
(4.) The existence of this volume was noted by Robert L. Lublin in 'Unpublished Letters from Charles and Ellen Kean's Final American Tour', Theatre Notebook 55, 2001, 80-82.
(5.) I am grateful to Kevin Stewart of the Alexander Turnbull Library for his description of the volume of Kean correspondence in their collection.
(6.) I acknowledge with thanks the kind permission of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center to quote from their Kean volume, and the generous advice and assistance of its Librarian, Dr. Richard Oram.
(7.) I acknowledge with thanks the kind permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library to quote from their collection of Kean letters and for the Folger Fellowship which facilitated my research. The expertise of Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Folger's Reference Librarian, has been invaluable.
(8.) Carson prints several pieces of the Cathcart correspondence, presumably from copies made by Charles.
(9.) All three collections were sold in the early decades of the twentieth century by Maggs Brothers, a firm of London book and manuscript dealers. The letters from Australia were purchased by the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1916. The Ransom Center volume was advertised in Maggs' Catalogue 378 (Summer, 1919), but the purchaser is not known. Joan Sibley of the Ransom Center conjectures that the buyer may have been Harry Houdini, who at this time was enthusiastically building his collection of theatre memorabilia. Houdini's collection was later acquired by Messmore Kendall, and it was as part of Kendall's collection that the Charles Kean volume came to the Ransom Center in 1958. See Kenneth Silverman, Houdini!!!! The Career of Erich Weiss, New York, 1997, 209, and Messmore Kendall, Never Let Weather Interfere, New York, 1946. Several of the Folger letters were advertised by Maggs Brothers as discrete items, but the collection as a whole was never marketed. In 1925 the archive was privately offered to, and purchased by, Henry Clay Folger.
(10.) Recent critical studies of Kean's work include Richard Schoch, Shakespeare's Victorian Stage: Performing History in the Theatre of Charles Kean, Cambridge, 1998 and Richard Foulkes, Performing Shakespeare in the Age of Empire, Cambridge, 2002, 43-50. The recollections of Theodor Fontane, the German novelist and journalist who witnessed a number of Kean productions, are also helpful. See Shakespeare in The London Theatre 1855-58, trans. and ed. Russell Jackson,. London, 1999, 29-58, 105-07.
(11.) Sally replaced Clara Jackson for a time while the latter recuperated from a typhoid-like illness.
(12.) See Hardwick: 206.
(13.) The affidavit is bound with the Ransom Center correspondence. Also bound into this volume are financial instruments, a shipping invoice, and Charles's Cuban immigration papers.
(14.) See Christopher Mulvey, Anglo-American Landscapes: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature, Cambridge, 1983.
(15.) Charles toured the United States in 1830-33 and again, briefly, in 1839. Ellen, prior to her marriage, played there with considerable success in 1836-39. Charles and Ellen returned together in 1845-47.
(16.) See Peter J. Parish, The American Civil War, New York, 1975, 275.
(17.) See David Morse, Victorian High Culture, New York, 1993, 30.
(18.) James M. McPherson, Ordeal By Fire: the Civil War and Reconstruction, New York, 1982, 486.
(19.) See James Marten, The Children's Civil War, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1998, 154-55.
(20.) See Marten, 125.
(21.) See: Frances M. Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832); Harriet Martineau, Society in America, 2 vols. (1837); and Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (1863).
(22.) Parish, 227.
(23.) For a discussion of nineteenth-century travel and travel writing as 'an expansion of woman's sphere and extension of their itinerary', see Karen R. Lawrence, Penelope Voyages, Ithaca, New York, 1994, 18ff.
(24.) Alfred Wigan (1814-78) and his wife Leonora (1805-1884) were members of Kean's company at the Princess's.
(25.) For details of Chapman's death and Kean's guardianship see Cole, Vol.2, 39.
(26.) Patty eventually married F. M. Paget.
John Ripley is Greenshields Professor Emeritus of English at McGill University, Montreal. His publications include Julius Caesar on Stage in England and America, 1599-1973 (Cambridge UP, 1980) and Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609-1994 (Associated UP, 1998).
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2007|
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