Waiting for a train to Oxford not so long ago, I wandered into a bookshop on the platform and noted the array of ‘naughty girl’ novels on sale. They had titles such as Confessions of a Call-Girl or Good Girl Comes Undone, accompanied by photographs of femmes fatales in red underwear, or cartoon glamour-girls done up in lipstick pink and dayglo lime – the general idea being that one gets to revel in what it might be like to live life on the wild side, or stories of ‘nice girls like us’ going bad.
In the early twentieth century, the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch and the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel specialised in a series of melodramas on very similar themes. Under the management of Walter and Frederick Melville, the Standard staged a seemingly endless run of plays with names such as The Girl Who Took the Wrong Turning, The Girl Who Wrecked His Home, The Worst Woman in London and A Girl’s Cross Roads. Just down the road, the Pavilion regularly featured a similar fare, with numbers such as Midnight Paris, The World’s Way and The Dangers of London.
In most of the melodramas just mentioned, the most important character was a wealthy villainess. With overblown foreign names such as Vesta de Clere (shades of 101 Dalmations’ Cruella de Ville), these villainesses would parade the stage in furs and diamonds. Habitually, they would ruin a pretty girl from a bucolic village by bearing her off to enjoy city pleasures and plying her with wealth and booze.
Most often, these risqué characters were played by Mrs East Robertson, an actress who became a household name in East London during the early 1900s. Garish theatre posters were slathered over hoardings around Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney Green, in each case giving top billing to East Robertson. As a promotional stunt for the Pavilion Theatre’s A Past Redeemed, she rode the streets in an open carriage, a bloodhound at her side, swathed in red velvet, a scarlet parasol in hand. Crowds gathered to cheer or hiss or gape as she went by. ‘I bet you are a bitch off as well as on!’, a woman apparently yelled from the audience when she appeared that night.
Edwardian melodramas of the Worst Woman in London stripe had important differences from latter-day books a la A Good Girl Comes Undone. They were invariably cast as morality plays, in which virtue was confirmed and vice lavishly reviled. The villainess always got her comeuppance – indeed, she was often shot at the end of the play, as happened to the wicked Princess Vladovski in A Past Redeemed. But still, before that fatal denouement took place, audience members had plenty of opportunities to luxuriate in feminine debauchery, and to admire the rococo glamour of the evil adventuress. In this sense, they provided an enjoyment not altogether dissimilar from those books I saw in that bookstore on Paddington station.
Jim Davis, ‘The East End’, in Michael R Booth and Joel H Kaplan, eds, The Edwardian Theatre: Essays on Performance and the Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp210-14
John M East, ‘Neath the Mask: The Story of the East Family (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1967), pp 233-38
Heidi J Holder, ‘East End Theatre’, in Kerry Powell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp273-4
A E Wilson, East End Entertainment (London: Arthur Burker, 1954), pp 134-38
Royal Standard Theatre, Bound book of programmes and clippings, Enthoven Collection, V&A Theatre Archives
NB a great amount of info on the Melville’s bad girl dramas is held in the University of Kent’s Melville Collection – I hope to visit it sometime…