The Worst Woman in London, then & now

8 Oct

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.

References

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…

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8 Responses to “The Worst Woman in London, then & now”

  1. Donell 8 October 2008 at 4:35 pm #

    Very enjoyable post!

  2. Melissa Bellanta 9 October 2008 at 2:51 am #

    Hey thanks! Incidentally, I’ve just looked at your blog and seen your posting for the upcoming Kate Decamillo appearance. As an enthusiast of her books (an enthusiasm shared by my six year old), I would love to hear what she is like in person. And dig the Halloween eye-candy!

  3. Janine 11 October 2008 at 5:45 am #

    Fascinating to read how closely the Cruella de Vil character connected with Mrs East Robinson. (‘East’ because it was the east end??) The huge carriage, with her swathed in red does evoke Cruella driving throughout London, sounding her car horn.

  4. Melissa Bellanta 12 October 2008 at 8:57 pm #

    Thanks, Janine. Great to find another Australian history blogger! (This writing about East End theatre is just a bit of moonlighting on my part. Will look forward finding out more about 1840s Hobart via your blog in future).

    The ‘East’ was actually just part of the redoubtable actress’s surname; wholly a coincidence. It’s always fun to discover crossovers between melodrama and classic movies, kiddie cartoons included…

  5. Evangeline 26 October 2008 at 1:01 am #

    Great post! I love these tidbits about the Edwardian era. It gives me fodder for my fiction.

  6. Derek Ive 6 April 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    I have a large number of postcards of the Melville Melodramas which were produced I assume as publicity material. Thye give a great sense of the atmosphere of the plays and are wonderfully “posed”. Thanks for your posting.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Proto-feminism on the East End stage, c. 1885 « The Vapour Trail - 9 October 2008

    […] began producing their bad-girl melodramas at East London’s Standard Theatre (the subject of my last post), that theatre was home to a series of plays featuring late-nineteenth century versions of Lara […]

  2. Edwardian Promenade | la belle epoque in our modern world - 7 March 2012

    […] Walter and Frederick Melville Special Collection at University of Kent – Bad Girl Dramas The Worst Woman in London, then & now The Dangerous Woman of Mevillean Melodrama Share this:EmailFacebookPrint Posted by Evangeline […]

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