Menu Close

TO NANCY

                                                                        Weymouth, 29th September.

    IT happens that I have seen much of you, Nancy, at an eventful
moment—eventful for yourself I mean, in your life and your career—
and here, because I like you, and like to think of and reflect on you, there
is written down, straight and full, the record of my impression : concealing
nothing, though written to yourself : a letter absolutely frank, looking all
facts in the face; for, young though you are, you are intelligent enough
to bear them. My letter you may find tedious, perhaps, but at all
events unusual ; for letters, even when detailed, generally omit much, hide
some part of a thought—put the thing in a way that pleases the writer,
or is intended to please the receiver. Here am I at the end of my first
page, Nancy, and all preface ! Well, I shall recall, to begin with, how it
was that I met you.

    Acquit me, please, of any general love of your over-praised Music Hall.
Neither it nor the Theatre counts for much in my life. I like you personally :
I imagine a Future for you ; but I am not anxious for “the status of the
profession.” Life, it is just possible, has other goals than that of being
received in smart drawing-rooms—whatever art you practice, its practice is your
reward. Society, my dear, has bestowed of late upon the stage “lover” an
attention that is misplaced. We are getting near the end of it : the cabotin,
in a frock coat, no longer dominates the situation at afternoon teas. Youths
from the green-room have, in the Past, over the luncheon-table, imparted
to me, with patronage, their views about Painting ; to me, Nancy, to your old
friend, who has painted for thirty years—a full Academician one year since, with
but few honours (as men call them) left to gain : few years, alas ! in which to
live to gain them. Child as you are, your common sense—that neatly-balanced
little mind of yours, so unusually clear—that neatly-balanced mind assures

32                              THE SAVOY

you that it is not the profession you follow, but what you have been able to
do in it, and what you really are, that gives you—I mean, of course, gives
any one—legitimate claim to be in privileged places, to be motioned to
the velvet of the social sward. “Artist,” indeed ! As well expect to be received
with welcome for having had sufficient capital to buy a camp stool and a few
feet of German moulding with which to frame a canvas sent to the Dudley
Gallery, as to be suffered to dictate and to dogmatise in virtue of a well-worn
coat and an appearance at a London theatre !

    You have read so far, and yet I have not reminded you how it was
that you and I came to know each other. It was just two years ago, in
this same town from which I write to you. I saw a photograph that
struck me, at the door of your place of entertainment—at the door of the
“People’s Delight.” The face was young—but I have known youth. Pretty,
it was— but a fashionable portrait-painter lives with prettiness. It was so
monstrously refined !

    At three o’clock, they said, there would be an entertainment— Miss
Nancy Nanson would certainly be seen. And in I went, with a companion—
old Sir James Purchas, of Came Manor— my host more than once in these
parts. Sir James, you know, is not a prey to the exactions of conventionality,
and there was no reason why the humble entertainment your lounge and
shelter offered to the tripper should not afford us half an hour’s amusement.

    The blazing September afternoon you recollect— September with the
glare of the dog days. The “people,” it seemed, were not profiting that day
by the “People’s Delight,” for the place was all but empty—everyone out of
doors—and we wandered, not aimlessly indeed, but not successfully, among
those cavernous, half-darkened regions, among the stalls for fruits and sweets
and cheap jewelry, in search of a show. A turn, and we came suddenly on
rows of empty chairs placed in front of a small stage, with drawn curtain ;
and, at a money-taker’s box (for reserved seats, as I supposed)—leaning over
the money-taker’s counter, in talk with someone who came, it may be, from
a selling-stall—there was a child, a little girl. Sir James touched my arm,
directing my attention to her, and I took the initiative—said to the little girl :

                                TO NANCY                                                     33

“We came to see Miss Nancy Nanson. You can tell us, perhaps, when is the
show going to begin?” “There won’t be any entertainment this afternoon,”
the girl answered; “because, you see, there isn’t any audience. I am Miss
Nancy Nanson.” The dignity of the child !

    The fact was, you remember, that photograph at the entrance gave the
impression of a girl of seventeen ; and I did not at all connect it with the
figure of the well-spoken, silver-voiced, elegant child, who proved to be your-
self—since then my model and my youthful friend. But the moment you
spoke, and when my eyes, still not quite used to the obscurity, took in your real
face and those refined expressions, the identity was established, though the
photograph, with its dexterous concealment, showed more the Nancy Nanson
you were going to be, than the Nancy Nanson you were. I was pleased,
nevertheless ; and we talked about yourself for a few minutes ; and when you
said (because I asked you) that there would be an entertainment next day, I
told you we would come to see it, certainly. And Sir James was indulgent.
And I am a man of my word.

    And now there is a bit we can afford to hurry over ; for the next
stage of our acquaintance does not advance, appreciably, the action of your
story. We came ; we saw your entertainment : your three turns : singing,
dancing: and pretty enough it was ; but yet, so-so. You were such a pleasant
child, of course we applauded you—so refined, yet singing, tolerably, such
nonsense. Even then, it was your charming little personality, you know—it
was not your performance that had in it attractiveness. Next day, I left the
neighbourhood.

    For two years after that, I never saw Miss Nancy Nanson, “vocalist and
dancer” ; only once heard of and read of you—only once, perhaps, thought of
you. The once was last Christmas—your name I saw was advertised in a
pantomime played by “juveniles.” I might, it is just possible, have gone to see it.
But the average “juvenile !”—think !—and then, the influenza and the weather !

    Well ! this present glowing September, Nancy—glowing and golden as
it was two years ago—brought me again, and very differently, into touch
with you. The Past is over. Now I fix your attention—for you are still

34                              THE SAVOY

patient with me—I fix your attention on the Present, and I point out
to you, in detail—I realise to myself—how the time is critical, eventful ;
how you stand, Nancy, upon a certain brink. I am not going to prophecy
what you may be ; but I tell you what you are. The real You, you know :
something better and deeper than that which those seven pastels, any or all of
them together, show you—my delighted notes of your external beauty ; touched,
I think, with some charm of grace that answers well to your own ; and
mimicking, not badly, the colours and contours of your stage presence.
Nothing more. Chance gleams—an artist’s “snap-shots” at Miss Nancy
Nanson, vocalist and dancer, at sixteen. (Sixteen yesterday.) But you—No!

    This present September—a fortnight since—I came again to Weymouth ;
this time alone ; putting up at the old “Gloucester” (it was George the Third’s
house) from which I write to you ; and not at Came Manor in the neighbour-
hood. In the Weymouth of to-day one is obliged, in nearly every walk, to
pass the “People’s Delight”—your cheap vulgarity, my dear, that the great
Georgian time would have resented. I passed it soon, and the two names
biggest upon the bills were, “Achilles, the Strong Man”—there are things in
which even a decayed watering place cannot afford to be behind the
fashion—”Achilles, the Strong Man,” then, and “Miss Nancy Nanson.”
Again did I go in ; took the seat, exactly, that I had taken two years since,
in the third row of chairs ; and while a band of three made casual, lifeless,
introductory music, I waited for the show.

    The curtain rose presently on a great, living, breathing, over-energetic
statue—a late Renaissance bronze, by John of Bologna, he seemed—that
muscular piece of colour and firm form, that nigger, posed effectively,
and of prodigious force. “John of Bologna”—but you never heard of him!
Then he began his operations—Achilles, the Strong Man—holding, and
only by his teeth, enormous weights ; and rushing round with one, two,
hundredweight, as if it were a feather ; lifting, with that jaw of his, masses
of iron ; crashing them on the stage again, and standing afterwards with
quivering muscles, heaving chest. Applause—I joined in it myself in
common courtesy—and then the curtain fell.

                                TO NANCY                                                     35

    A wait. The band struck up again—it was your first turn. A slim
and dainty figure, so very slight, so very young, in a lad’s evening dress,
advanced with swiftness towards the footlights, and bowed in a wide
sweep that embraced everyone. Then you began to sing—and not too well,
you know—a song of pretty-enough sentiment ; the song of a stripling whose
sweetheart was his mother. His mother, she sufficed for him. It suited
your young years. A tender touch or two, and with a boy’s manliness.
Applause! You vanished.

    You vanished to return. In a girl’s dress this time, with movements
now more swift and now more graceful. Another song, and this time dancing
with it. It was dancing you were born for. “She has grown another being—
and yet with the old pleasantness—in these two years,” I thought. “A child
no longer.” In colour and agility you were a brilliant show. I have told you
since, in talking, what I thought of you. You were not a Sylvia Grey, my dear ;
still less that other Sylvia Voltaire praised, contrasting her with the Camargo.
The Graces danced like Sylvia, Voltaire said—like the Camargo, the wild
nymphs. No ! you were not Voltaire’s Sylvia, any more than you were
Sylvia Grey. Sylvia Grey’s dance is perfect, from the waist upwards—as
an observant actress pointed out to me, with whom I saw it. Swan-like in
the holding and slow movement of the head and neck ; exquisite in the
undulations of the torso. Where Sylvia Grey ends—I mean where her
remarkableness ends (for she has legs like another, I take it)—you, my dear,
begin. But you want an Ingres to do you justice. The slimness of the
girl, and what a fineness, as of race ; and then, the agility of infinite practice,
and sixteen young years !

    A third turn—then it was that you were agile most of all. The flying
feet went skyward. Black shoes rushed, comet-like, so far above your head,
and clattered on the floor again ; whilst against the sober crimson of the
background curtain—a dull, thin stuff, stretched straightly—gleamed the white
of moving skirts, and blazed the boss of brightest scarlet that nestled some-
where in the brown gold of your head. Then, flushed and panting, it
was over.

36                              THE SAVOY

    Next day, in a gaunt ante-room, or extra chamber, its wooden floor
quite bare, and the place furnished only with a couple of benches and a
half-voiceless semi-grand piano—the wreck of an Erard that was great once
—in that big, bare room, Nancy, where my pastels since have caught
your pose in lilac, rose and orange, but never your grave character, I came
upon, and closely noted, and, for a quarter of an hour, talked to, a sedate
young girl in black—a lady who, in all her bearing, ways, gesture, silver
voice, was as refined as any, young or old, that I have been in contact
with in my long life—and I have lived abundantly amongst great ladies, from
stately, restful Quakeress to the descendant of the “hundred Earls.” No one
is more refined than you. This thing may not last with you. Whether it
lasts depends, in great measure, upon the life you lead, in the strange world
opening to you. Your little craft, Nancy, your slender skiff, will have some
day to labour over voluminous seas.

    You remember what you told me, in the great ante-room, standing
by the wreck of the Erard, that your fingers touched. All your life
to that time. You were frankness absolutely ; standing there in your
dull, black frock that became you to perfection ; standing with hat of
broad, black straw—the clear-cut nose, the faultless mouth, the bright-brown
hair curled short about your head, and the limpid look of your serene eyes,
steadily grey. It was interesting, and amusing too, your story. I told you,
you remember, how much you had got on, how changed you were, what
progress I had noticed. And you said a pretty “Thank you.” It was clear
that you meant it. We were friends. I asked who taught you—so far
as anything can be taught in this world, where, at bottom, one’s way is,
after all, one’s own. You said, your mother. And I told you I’d seen your
name in some London Christmas play-bill. “I had a big success,” you said.
What a theatrical moment it was !—the one occasion in all my little dealings
with you in which I found the traditions of “the profession” stronger with you
than your own personal character. Now, your own personal instinct is to be
modest and natural; the traditions of “the profession” are to boast. You did
boast, Nancy! You had a big success, had you? Perhaps, for yourself ;

                                TO NANCY                                                     37

I do not say you failed. But the piece—my dear, you know it was a frost.
Did it run three weeks? Come now! And someone, out of jealousy, paid
four guineas—she or her friends did—to get you a bad notice somewhere
in back-stairs journalism. And they got it, and then repented of it. You
were friends with them afterwards. But what a world, Nancy !—a world
in which, for four guineas, a scoundrel contributes his part towards damning
your career !

    You remember, before I asked if I might make some sketches of you,
you were turning over a song that had been sent you by “a gentleman at
Birmingham.” He had had it “ruled” for you, and wanted you to buy it
for three pounds. It was “rather a silly song,” you thought. I settled
myself quietly to master the sense, or, as was more probable, the nonsense, of
it. My dear, it was blank rubbish ! But you were not going to have it,
you said. “Mamma would never buy a song I didn’t like and take to.”
That was well, I thought. And then you slowly closed the ruined Erard, and
were going away. But on the road down-stairs, remember, I persuaded you to
ask your mother that you might give me sittings. I told you who I was. And
in the gaunt ante-room, lit well from above, I had a sitting next day. It
was the first of several. And your mother trusted me, and trusted you, as
you deserve to be trusted. And we worked hard together, didn’t we ?—you
posing, and I drawing. And there are seven pastels which record— tant bien
que mal, my dear— the delightful outside of you, the side the public might itself
see, if it had eyes to really see—the flash of you in the dance, snow-white or
carmine ; and I got all that with alacrity—”swift means” I took, to “radiant
ends”—the poise of the slim figure, the white frock slashed with gold, the
lifted foot, and that gleam of vivid scarlet in your hair against the background
of most sober crimson.

    This tranquil Sunday I devote to writing to you, is the day after
your last appearance at the “People’s Delight.” You and your mother,
very soon, you tell me, leave Weymouth and your old associations—it is your
home, you know—and you leave it for ever. The country, you admit, is
beautiful, but you are tired of the place. I don’t much wonder. And you

38                              THE SAVOY

leave it—the great bay, the noble chalk downs, the peace of Dorset and
its gleaming quiet—you leave it for lodgings in the Waterloo Road. For
you must be among the agents for the Halls. Though you have been
upon the Stage since you were very little, you have but lately, so you
say, put your heart into it. Well! it is not unnatural. But no more
Sunday drives into the lovely country, recollect, with your brother, who is
twenty-one and has his trade ; and your uncle, who is in a good way of
business here, you said—your uncle, the plumber.

    And so, last night being your last night, Nancy, it was almost like
a Benefit. As for your dancing, you meant, I knew, to give us the cup
filled—yes, filled and running over. I had noticed that, on some earlier
evening, when Little Lily Somebody—a dumpling child, light of foot, but with
not one “line” in all her meaningless, fat form—when Little Lily Somebody
had capered her infantile foolishness, to the satisfaction of those who rejoice
in mere babyhood, someone presented her with a bouquet. And you
danced, excellently, just after her—you, height and grace, slimness and
soul—and someone, with much effusion, handed you up a box of chocolates.
And you smiled pleasantly. I saw there was a little conflict in your mind,
however, between the gracious recognition of what was well-enough meant, and
the resentment—well, the resentment we can hardly call it : the regret, at all
events—at being treated so very visibly as a child—and yesterday you were to
be sixteen ! So I myself—who, if this small indignity had not been offered
you, might conceivably have given you, in private, at all events, a basket
of fine fruit—I meant to offer you flowers. It might have been fruit, I say,
if smuggled into the ante-room where I had done my pastels ; for I had seen
you once there, crunching, quite happily, imperfect apples between perfect
teeth—your perfect teeth, almost the only perfect things, Nancy, in an
imperfect world.

    But it had to be flowers. So I sent round to the dressing-room, just
as you were getting ready, two button-holes merely—wired button-holes—
of striped carnations, red or wine-coloured. They were not worn in your
first turn. They were not worn in your second. In your third turn, I

                                TO NANCY                                                     39

espied them at your neck’s side, in the fury of your dance. Already there are
people, I suppose, who would have thought those striped carnations happy—
tossed, tossed to pieces, in the warmth of your throat.

    Your second turn, last night, you know, was in flowing white, slashed
with gold—old-gold velvet—with pale stockings. The third—when the
Bowers died happy in your riot—in pure white alone, with stockings
black. You remember the foot held in your hand, as you swing round upon
the other toe—and one uplifted leg seen horizontal, in its straight and modelled
slimness.

    My dear—what were my little flowers? Who could have known—
when you had finished—the great things still to come? When the applause
seemed over, and the enthusiasm of some lieutenant from Dorchester was,
as I take it, abated and suppressed—when the applause was over, a certain
elocutionist (Mr. Paris Brown, wasn’t it?) brought you again upon the stage,
and saying it was your last appearance, made you some presentation:
a brooch from himself, “of no intrinsic value” he informed us— I willingly
believed him—a bracelet from I don’t know who—that had an “intrinsic
value,” I surmise—and a bouquet, exquisite. It was “From an admirer,”
Mr. Paris Brown, the elocutionist, read out, from an accompanying card.
Then he congratulated you upon your Past ; prophesied as to your Future ; and,
in regard to the presents to you, he said, in words that were quite happily
chosen—because, Nancy, they were reticent while they were expressive—
“She is but a— girl ; and she has done her duty by the management. Long
may she be a credit to her father and mother !” Your mother I was well
aware of—your mother I respect ; and you, you love her. But your father
—he was invented, I think, for the occasion, as an additional protection,
should the designs upon you of the admirer from Dorchester prove to be not
altogether such as they ought to be. The precaution was unnecessary ; it
was taking Time by the forelock. Our young friend looked ingenuous,
and smitten grievously—you seem so big upon the stage, Nancy—so grown
up, I mean. I could, I think, have toned down his emotions, had I told
him you were a bare sixteen.

40                              THE SAVOY

    Nancy, there is—for me—a certain pathos in this passage of yours
from childhood into ripening girlhood; a book closed, as it were ; a phase
completed ; an ending of the way. “What chapter is to open? Nancy Nanson
—what phase or facet of her life,” I ask myself, “is now so soon to be
presented? What other way, what unfamiliar one, is to follow her blameless
and dutiful childhood?” I had a restless night, Nancy. Thinking of this,
one saw—ridiculously perhaps—a presage in the first bouquet, a threat in
the first bracelet—in the admirer’s card. Would she be like the rest?
—at least, too many. Besmirched, too?

    Remember, Nancy, I am no Puritan at all. I recognise Humanity’s
instincts. There is little I do not tolerate. I recognise the gulf that
separates the accidentally impolitic from the essentially wrong. But we
owe things to other people—to the World’s laws. We have responsi-
bilities. Noblesse oblige ; and all superiority is Noblesse. “She must not be like
the rest,” I said, last night, in broken dreams ; “dining, winking, leering even,
since sold at last and made common.” In broken dreams, last night—or in
wakeful hours—your feet tossed higher ; your gay blood passed into the place
—electrical, overpowering. You can be so grave and sweet, you know ; and
you can be so mad.

    Have you ever lain awake, in the great, long darkness, and watched in
the darkness a procession—the people of your Past and all your Future?
But you have no Past. For myself, I have watched them. My mother, who
is long gone ; those who were good to me, and whom I slighted ; the relations
who failed me ; the friend I lost. And the uncertain figures of the Future !
But the line of the Future is short enough for me—for you, it is all
yours. Last night, it seemed to me, the dark was peopled with your
enemies ; with your false friends, who were coming—always coming—the
unavoidable crowd of the egotistic destroyers of youth. Their dark hearts,
I thought, look upon her as a prey : some of them cruel, some of them
cynical, yet some of them only careless. And I wished that last night
had not come—your sixteenth birthday—with the applause and gifts and
menacing triumph.

                                TO NANCY                                                     41

    There are women, perhaps, men cannot wrong—since they have
wronged themselves too much. “This is a good girl,” I said ; and my
over-anxious mind—in real affection for her—cries out to all the horrid
forces of the world : “Leave Nancy!”

    Nancy, when you read this, you smile—and naturally—at your most
sombre friend. You think, of course, with all the reckless trust, courageous
confidence, of girlhood, “So superfluous! So unnecessary!”

    Go the straight way !   .   .   . Whatever way you go, I shall always
be your friend.

                                                                        FREDERICK WEDMORE.

MLA citation:

Wedmore, Frederick. “To Nancy.” The Savoy, vol. 1 January 1896, pp. 31-41. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv1-wedmore-to-nancy/