In the Church of The Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon there stands a dark green marble pulpit inlaid with the figures of the Saints Ambrose, Helena, Augustine and Gregory in white marble. Sir Theodore Martin presented this to the church in memory of his wife, the actress Helena Faucit. She had added the final ‘a’ to her name later in life and indeed, the figure of St.Helena bears a remarkable facial resemblance to her.
As the fabric of the church is largely in Cotswold and Warwick stone, one observer described the marble pulpit as incongruous, while when it was dedicated in 1900 another referred to it as a most beautiful work of art, and cost a thousand pounds, no doubt more impressed by the price than its aesthetic value.
Although Helena Faucit had been the leading Shakespearean actress of her day, she had appeared only once at the Stratford Memorial Theatre when she came out of retirement in 1879 at the age of 62 to play Beatrice for the last time to Barry Sullivan’s Benedick at the opening performance.
She had acted with Macready as his leading lady for a number of years and was infatuated with him, although in 1832 she had written, There is something about Mr. Macready that is quite awful (i.e. awesome). I think he dislikes me. I don’t yet like him, nor do I think I ever can.
However by 1838 she was visiting him in his dressing room after a performance on an almost nightly basis. On May 31st Macready wrote in his diary: Miss (he frequently left out her name) in her nightly flirtation told me that she thought of going to the Haymarket, and chiefly because I was to be there. Nous verrons! On another occasion he wrote: spoke to Miss Faucit about her boy’s dress for Imogen, and suggested to her, on the supposition that her legs were rather thin, the use of a pair of fleeced stockings such as Malibran (the opera singer) used to wear. I managed this delicate negotiation as dexterously as I could and reconciled her easily to this experiment; went out and purchased a pair for her! On a later occasion he wrote, she came in to speak to me about stuffed stockings.
Scandal began to circulate amongst the company, but Macready managed to subdue it by persuading his wife to invite the actress to visit them at home. In 1851 she married Theodore Martin – lawyer, author, poet and Private Secretary to Queen Victoria, who was later to write, with the Queen’s full approval, a five volume, ‘Life of the Prince Consort.
Helena Faucit acted with Henry Irving only twice. When he played Pisanio to her Imogen in Edinburgh in 1857 a local resident wrote: Pisanio came on the stage — a tall, thin, angular, nervous looking young man and a stranger evidently. Says the check-taker in answer to a question, ‘That’s a young man lately joined the company. He’s on his mettle and will give a good account of himself tonight.’ This was the future tragedian Henry Irving. Pale and anxious he looked and eager to do his best with his limited stagecraft. Hitherto perfect he went through the trying business of Scene 2 Act III but made no special impression, over-shadowed as he was by the greater genius. Nevertheless, tyro as he was, he held his own, and afterwards shared in the triumphs of that memorable evening. The writer goes on to describe how Pisanio when urged to kill Imogen, flung his sword off the stage, comparing the action to Coleridge’s ‘Shakespeare by flashes of lightning’—this was one flash and an early one, from an actor who has now earned his name. In 1876 Irving played Count Tristan opposite Helena’s lolanthe, in her husband’s version of ‘King René’s Daughter’, – the last appearance before her retirement.
Helena seems to have recognised the latent genius in Irving and was always ready to help or praise. When he was studying his first Macbeth she gave him a book containing an essay by G. Fletcher on the play, and in 1877 she wrote inviting him to join her in a Reading of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, hoping that he might take the part of Bassanio. This he did with good grace having overcome his resentment at a criticism of his Hamlet, by the Revd. Alfred Ainger who was also participating in the Reading. She wrote to Irving again in 1879, to warn him of the deficiencies of ‘The Lady of Lyons’ by Bulwer Lytton, that he was about to put on: I do not feel so anxious to see this as I have your other productions …..the construction is perfect, and some of the characters well drawn, but the language is feeble and stilted. In 1882 she gave another private Reading at her house in Onslow Square, when the actor read Benedick to her Beatrice. She appears to have maintained a contact with him for the remainder of her life.
Faucit died in 1898 at the age of 81, and the pulpit already referred to was placed in the church at Stratford. However, Sir Theodore Martin (he received the KCB in 1880 and the KCVO in 1896) proposed to erect a further memorial to his wife in the shape of a bas-relief to be fixed to the wall of the church. As it was at that time in debt to the tune of £900, Martin offered the church £200 for this privilege, later increasing it to £500. The vicar, the Revd. George Arbuthnot agreed reluctantly at an informal meeting of the Vestry. The Bishop of Worcester granted a faculty and a place on the wall opposite the bust of Shakespeare was selected. This would involve the removal of a memorial tablet to a former vicar, the Revd. John Clapton, whose widow was still alive, and whose permission apparently was not sought.
The pulpit had aroused little opposition, but the proposed wall bust stirred the novelist, Marie Corelli, into action. She had lived in Stratford only since 1898, but had almost immediately set about establishing herself as the arbiter elegantarium of the town. Ever ready to take up the cudgels for any cause she deemed worthy, she wrote to The Morning Post on October 20th. 1900:
Students of Shakespeare and all those who revere the sacred shrine of the Holy Trinity, Stratford-on-Avon where lies all that is mortal of the world’s greatest poet will, no doubt, be considerably surprised to learn that the historic bust on Shakespeare’s monument is to be confronted in the very chancel by a modern innovation, namely, the bust of the late Helen Faucit, Lady Martin. With all respect for the deceased actress, and for the homage her bereaved husband, Sir Theodore Martin, elects to pay to her memory, there are thousands of people in Shakespeare’s native town who most indignantly resent this intrusion into one of the most sacred of English shrines as an outrage.
She went on to say that if this were allowed, then why not memorials to Garrick, Kemble, Macready, or Siddons and then continued:
but that her features should confront those of Shakespeare himself as his equal is a little too much for the patience of those thousands to whom the poet is everything and the actor a mere cypher in the sum of fame.
Marie’s information was not entirely correct. She had heard rumours that the proposed memorial was to be, ‘seven feet high and three feet wide and that it was to project eight inches from the wall’. This was not true and it is also likely that her estimate of ‘thousands of indignant Stratfordians up in arms’,’owed more to her fertile imagination than to reality.
She had tried to raise a fund to pay for the restoration of the church and clear its debts. She had written to Ellen Terry who sent £15 and £1 each on behalf of her children Edie and Gordon Craig. Marie now proposed to pay off the whole £900 herself if the memorial was abandoned. The unfortunate vicar was in a cleft stick. He could not afford to offend a wealthy patron like Sir Theodore, but his sympathies were with the indomitable Miss Corelli and her £900.
Newspapers throughout the country seized on Corelli’s letter and reproduced it together with their own comments. Newcastle, South Wales, Hull, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow all featured the controversy. The Newcastle Chronicle wrote:
This is where the plain difficulty comes in. At present Shakespeare is left in the splendid isolation befitting his colossal genius. Is it right that there should be what Miss Corelli calls an intrusion?
A letter from a Mr. W. H. Wilkins FSA appeared in The Morning Post of October 25th. saying,
The talent of an actress is one thing, and the genius of the world’s great poet and philosopher is another.
A Worcestershire vicar wrote supporting the decision of his bishop to allow the memorial and suggesting that sufficient correct and legal actions were not taken in time for objections before the faculty was granted. He was, no doubt, partly motivated by anxiety to protect his living. The Birmingham Gazette suggested that Miss Corelli was incorrect in one or two particulars and that Sir Theodore did not promise £500 on condition that the bust faced Shakespeare, merely that it should be in the chancel, and the exact position was not mentioned until a month later.
Marie did not have it all her own way. The Daily Express published a leading article on October 26th:
Miss Marie Corelli is at it again. The proposed erection of a bust of the late Lady Martin to face Shakespeare’s in the church of Stratford-on-Avon she considers a ‘vandal act’. Possibly that righteous disciplinarian has privately reserved that place of honour for herself. But surely if the spot is too sacred for a Lady Martin it would be worse than vandalism to reserve it for a lady martinet
The Topical Times on November 3rd. said:
We do not know whether the site is one which the fair sympathiser with Satan (a reference to her novel‘The Sorrows Of Satan’) had set her mind upon as a good place for her future monument, but whether or no, we entirely agree with her— for this time only.
The Birmingham Gazette had already written on 26th. October:
Miss Corelli’s vivid imagination has been too busily at work while she has framed her indictment against one of the most honoured and venerable men of letters living. She is wrong, cruelly wrong, in declaring that Sir Theodore Martin has practically purchased a precious privilege, which otherwise would not have been granted. The chancel is crowded with the tombs, statuettes, brasses, slabs and memorials of others.
The Manchester Sunday Chronicle of November 4th. commented:
If Shakespeare doesn’t mind, why should Marie worry? Now if it had been a bust of Bacon —well that would have been a grievance
Letters and leading articles, some siding with Sir Theodore and some with Marie continued to pour out. The Eastern Morning News (Hull), The Glasgow Herald, The Stage, The Era, The Christian World and The Birmingham Post all contributed to the argument that sufficient publicity was not given before the Vestry gave permission, and that, a gifted writer has come amongst us and is using her mighty pen and influence to prevent the inner sanctum of the church being invaded with the effigy of an actress. There was even a suggestion that Shakespeare himself should not be there: a reader’s letter in The Daily Mail of November 9th.commented:
He (Shakespeare) was a gentleman many of whose plays are not fit reading for young people, whose verses are distinctly improper, and whose morals were nothing to boast about, but at whose feet Miss Corelli says only the best women in the world are fit to grovel.
The Daily Chronicle (London) of October 31st:
Shakespeare’s reputation is old enough to look after itself. And may we recommend to Miss Corelli’s notice — in the interests of peace — the advice of St. Paul as to the relations between ladies and churches. (See 1 Corinthians 14.34)
In the meantime The Morning Post of October 26th. had already published a further letter from Marie with details of protests from the townspeople:
We consider that his (Shakespeare’s) monument should be left unconfronted by that of any lesser genius, though we willingly consent to have the said bust of Helena Faucit (Lady Martin) placed wherever the vicar may consider suitable in the main body of the church.
Signatories apparently included the Earl of Warwick, his son Lord Brooke, Sidney Lee – and everyone who can hold a pen.
The vicar now openly sided with Marie, but was powerless to act against the faculty granted by his bishop. Marie was, therefore, compelled to apply to the Court of Arches for the bishop’s decision to be overturned. She won her case and Sir Theodore was compelled to withdraw. On November 7th. he wrote to The Times:
I will not have a journalistic wrangle over a monument to my wife. A monument in Stratford church or anywhere else is not, I believe, necessary to her fame. I therefore propose to withdraw my offer to Stratford church of Mr. J. H. Foley’s beautiful work.
Martin did subsequently send £200 to Sir Arthur Hodgson – a former mayor and currently High Steward – for restoration work to the church. So the controversy was settled and the memorial was instead placed in the Memorial Theatre.
The design of the monument by J. H. Foley, R.A. who incidentally designed the Albert Memorial, was first seen at the RA exhibition of 1856. Sir Theodore had a copy made for the Llantysilio church in the Vale of Llangollen near were they had their country home, Bryntysilio and where the actress died in 1898. This can still be seen today. A further copy was made in 1900 for Stratford. Lady Martin is seated, looking right, wearing flowing robes and holding a book (presumably an edition of Shakespeare) with a lamp at her side and a plaque featuring a head of Shakespeare on the floor behind her. Below is a marble slab with the following inscription:
To the memory of Helena Faucit, Lady Martin. Her genius was devoted to interpreting upon the stage and by her pen the chief female characters of Shakespeare. In her life she was an example of their finest qualities:- Gentleness, Patience Courage, Goodness, Charity and Reverence, combined with rare Grace of mind and body.
The whole is made of white marble, and actually measures, not the 84″ x 36″ alleged by Marie Corelli, but 32″ x 37″ with the slab underneath being 18″ x 40″.
Visitors today may see the memorial in the Gallery which houses the theatre collection and which is part of the original theatre of 1879. Radical alterations are proposed for the main theatre, but the gallery is unlikely to be touched. In any case I am assured that the monument, which all the fuss was about, will remain in the collection.
Acknowledgements: The Shakespeare Centre Records Office; Charles Calvert, Stratford Historian; The Life of Henry Irving by Austin Brereton; Henry Irving and his World by Laurence Irving; The Journal of William Charles Macready, Ed. Trewin; The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli by Teresa Ransom. (2566 words)