THE DETERIORATION OF NANCY
[I have obtained access to the remaining portion of the Correspondence between a dis-
tinguished member of the Royal Academy and Miss Nancy Nanson, of the Variety Stage.
I see that the young lady’s are the more numerous and the shorter letters ; and in them, as
they proceed, I seem to discern some change of tone—a rather quick transition or develop-
ment (call it what you will) which, if it is really there, is unlikely to have escaped the eye of
her correspondent, and may perhaps even have prepared him in a certain measure for a
dénouement which, nevertheless, when it arrived, disturbed him seriously. That, at least,
is my own reading of Miss Nanson’s notes. But I am possibly wrong.]
DEAR MR. ASHTON
AS I suppose you leave Weymouth to-day I will send this to
London. It is only to thank you very much for your long
letter and your kindness to me, in which Mother joins. I
hope you are well.
I remain yours very sincerely
MR. CLEMENT ASHTON.
100 YORK ROAD, WATERLOO ROAD.
Dear Mr. Ashton
I thought I should like to let you know that I have come to London.
I have not an engagement yet, but I have a pantomime engagement in view.
With best wishes I remain yours sincerely
CLEMENT ASHTON, ESQ : R.A.
100 YORK ROAD, WATERLOO ROAD.
DEAR MR. ASHTON
I was so sorry I was out when you called. If I had known you were
coming I would have stayed at home. We are all right here. The landlady-
is awfully nice. I would come and see you if you appointed a time.
100 THE SAVOY
I think you will be glad to hear that I’m engaged for principal girl
for the Pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Hoxton, by R. Solomon, Esq. In
about a month we shall begin rehearsing. I am engaged for eight weeks.
We hope you are well.
Hoping to see you soon, with my best wishes, in which Mother unites, I
am yours very sincerely,
100 YORK ROAD, WATERLOO ROAD.
DEAR MR. ASHTON
It was so kind of you to take me to the theatre yesterday afternoon.
I must write to tell you so. How nice Miss Annie Hughes was ! She makes
you laugh and cry. I like her more than any actress I have ever seen. The
man was funny, wasn’t he !
Thanking you again, and with best regards from Mother, believe me
yours very sincerely
P.S. I am to do an extra on Saturday nights at the Bedford Camden
Town, and at Gatti’s, Westminster Bridge Road. I am very pleased, as I am
tired of ‘resting.’ When we go to Hoxton we shall take lodgings where there
is a piano. I have been practising an acrobatic trick for the pantomime.
The public likes them. The Theatre Royal, Hoxton, is more for the masses
than the classes.
THE WALK, HOXTON,
DEAR MR. ASHTON
O ! thank you for remembering us on Christmas Day. I was so
pleased. We hope you will come to see the Panto. It went very well last
night. I go very well so far. My voice sounds splendid here. It is not lost
in the glass roof, as at the ‘People’s Delight.’
I have been so very, very busy rehearsing, I have seen very little of Hoxton
yet, so I do not know how I shall like it. I shall know better soon ; now that
we have started the Panto.
With best wishes for a happy Christmas from Mother and from me, I am
yours sincerely and gratefully, in haste,
THE DETERIORATION OF NANCY 101
THE WALK, HOXTON,
I am glad you came to see me yesterday afternoon. How did you like
me? But it was so flat. I am sorry you came to a matinée. Half the house
are mere children, then. In the evening it is different. And they cut out
part of my song yesterday. It made me cry—I was so cross. I generally jump
about much more. I am much merrier. Mother and I shall be so pleased if
you have time to come again.
Sincerely yours in haste,
P.S. Mr. Solomon wants to engage me for next year, I think. And for
THE STUDIOS, WESTMINSTER,
No, I did not think you were up to the mark yesterday. It was a
ragged performance. I write, of course, frankly. First then, as to your singing,—
I never very much believed in that. But you would sing much better if you knew
that you sang badly. You would then understand that I was serious when
I told you, what you really wanted was singing lessons. Voice production, my
dear. And your speaking voice is excellent. You used it well upon the whole,
yesterday. A little careless, I thought—a mistake sometimes, in the emphasis.
But what is pantomime dialogue ! I will come again, if you like me to see you,
and you will do all that better. For agility in dancing, for vivacity in action,
you seemed as good as it is possible to be. And you take in every point—
even yesterday I noticed, you believed in every bit of the story. To do so, and
to live in it, is the foundation of an actress. Yes, with your intelligence, with
your alertness, your quick life, actress just as much as dancer you may
very well be.
You come to Westminster, next week, any morning except Wednesday.
I must make one more drawing of you. Not a pastel this time. I have long
since done with the pastels of you. They are good as far as they go. Your
colour and your dress, your movement and your pose, they record not at all
unhappily. But I want a careful drawing—a drawing in line—and shall make
it perhaps in pencil ; perhaps even in silver-point. You are such a strange,
variable child, you see—there is not one subject in you, but a hundred ; and
I shall not be contented till I have, somewhere else than in my memory, the
102 THE SAVOY
eyebrow’s line, the delicate low forehead, the fine nose, half Greek (and it
gains so in character as you throw your mind into your work)—all that and
the curve of the open nostril. This moment, they are at my fingers’ ends.
And your grave sweetness !
Frank, is it not ? Yet I am not a foolish person, making up to you. I
am not a vulgar flatterer of the first prettiness in the street. You know how
much I am an artist—heart and soul, my dear—by which I mean that unlike
too many of my brethren, I am not only a painter.
Your ‘notices’ are good, I see. Very good. I congratulate you. The
time is coming perhaps when you will patronise me—when you will even be so
very great that you will quite ‘cut’ me. ‘No, no’ I hear you say—indeed
you said it when I saw you last—‘No, no, Mr. Ashton, I should never do that.’
You say it with your voice—and with your steady eyes you say it even more.
Until next week, then !
I am sincerely yours,
THE WALK, HOXTON,
DEAR MR. ASHTON.
Mother says, How long since we have seen you ! You said you would
come again to our Panto. Since that, remember, I have been twice to West-
minster, to sit to you. They are going to publish one of the drawings, are they ?
You will put my name to it, won’t you ?
Saturday is my last night. Mother says, Can you come then ? I shall
have all my admirers. And the boys in the gallery—though you say I sing so
badly—all the boys in the gallery taking up my song. After Saturday, I am
booked for the Halls.
Yesterday I was taken a long drive to Hagley Wood. It is near Barnet.
I have had a great deal of attention here.
I am yours very sincerely,
P.S. Mr. Ashton, I allow you to say anything. Be sure and tell me
what you think, if you come Saturday.
THE STUDIOS, WESTMINSTER,
Sunday, 16th Feb:
MY DEAR NANCY :
Yes, you allow me to say any thing—for a lifetime divides us—and
because I am a friend of yours I shall say the bare hard truth. I saw you
THE DETERIORATION OF NANCY 103
yesterday, as you know, for you espied me from the stage. From the point of
view of a theatrical success, the thing was quite undoubted. You were a mass
of nerves. You came across the house to us. The footlights ceased to be.
Your effect was extraordinary. Shylock’s ‘How much more elder art thou than
thy years !’—the thing he said to Portia—is a question which may be put, no
doubt, with reasonableness, to many little ladies at the theatre. There is
nothing like the theatre for ageing you. You, Nancy, are now, not five
months, but two years older than you were last autumn. At first I was afraid
of it, physically. That last time that you came to me, to the studio, your face
was quite drawn : not only its expressions, its very lines, had aged. You were
pale ; you were worn. And sixteen !
But yesterday that was all right, again ; and, Nancy, it was the deeper
You that had altered. I—I was always an idealist, remember, and so you will
forgive me. I go down to the grave, when my time comes, poet, after all, far
more than craftsman. Those changes, more or less, that I notice in you—those
changes not for the better, I mean—I was never blind to the possibility of them.
Idealist though I am, I foresaw them—I foresaw them, with forebodings.
There was my first long letter to you. It will be well, perhaps, that
I should not say anything more in detail. But read that again—the last part
of it, I mean—and be warned.
But no—the detail shan’t be spared you, though what it really comes to—
I tell it you from my heart, and you will keep this letter to yourself
—all that it really comes to is that you will be ‘spoilt.’ ‘Spoilt’ or ‘ruined.’
You are so sensible in many things. Clever I don’t know that you are, except
in your profession. It all runs into that one channel with you. Quickness of
‘study,’ closeness of observation, immediate faultless power of mimicry,
vivacity, agility in the dance—all that we know ; and then at home your
sensitiveness, your quickness, and your helpful tact. But as to books, as to
pictures, as to music beyond your showy music of the theatre, as to the things
that happen in the world, and that interest people—these things are all
nothing to you. Who can wonder ! Your whole little eager heart is in your
work. Your work is your play too—and the whole of your play. But a
thirst for admiration, my dear, and vanity, vanity ! Will you split, like the
others, on that rock ?
Last night, your face had new expressions. There were things I never
saw in it, before. In that palace-scene, the slim young thing—how queenly
you were, in the white silk, spangled with silver : how queenly, and withal a
little contemptuous, a little scornful ! I watched you, Nancy, with a keenness
104 THE SAVOY
horribly inconvenient for you—or the scornful look, the bored look, the blasé
look (I have said the worst that I can say) would have passed perhaps
unperceived. They were there.
Again, you acted to the house too much. I am not finding fault with
you technically for that,—though you did, I think, overdo it. I am talking to
the girl, and not to the stage character. There was one look at the Boxes : at
a private Box rather—but I spare you.
Who the dickens are the people who have had this influence upon you?—
hour by hour ; drop by drop, I suppose : here a little and there a little—in the
life I begin to hate for you. . . . But it is no use hating it. I suppose that I
could take you from it, if I liked. I have the money to—no overwhelming
claims on me. But you would leave all this unwillingly : and, in the end,
ought you to leave it ?
My dear Nancy, I will spare you any more. But read much more than I
have actually written. Imagine yourself talked to, very gravely : fancy your-
self receiving a good long, serious talking to. Think ! Think ! I have finished.
My dear child, you are a good girl at heart, you know—and such an
eager little fiery one—when you are not grave and sober. The stuff is in you
out of which they make Sisters of Charity. The stuff is in you out of which——
But No! Why?
I am your old and fatherly, your grand-fatherly friend,
if you prefer it—
Tuesday, Feb. 18th.
MY DEAR MR. ASHTON.
I cried so much when I got your letter. For you have been very
kind to me. I suppose I deserved it.
Great Coram Street,
Thursday, Feb. 20th.
DEAR MR. ASHTON,
We have moved. Until I get into a burlesque at Easter, I am
working two of the Halls. On Monday I have a new song at the Metro-
politan—the ‘Met’—Edgware Road, nine o’clock. New dresses, and I do
a new dance. Also at Gatti’s, Westminster Bridge Road, at 10.15.
Sincerely yours and gratefully,
THE DETERIORATION OF NANCY 105
GREAT CORAM STREET,
Tuesday, Feb. 25.
THE engagement only lasts a week, Mr. Ashton. Am I not going to be a
favourite, then ? I have tried for that music-hall kept by that faddy lady, the
philanthropist. She is very severe. Why, she won’t let you take up your
skirts, even. I say, and Mother says, she ought to keep a chapel—not a music-
GREAT CORAM STREET.
You were always kind to me. Mother is wild. And you, you will never
MY DEAR NANCY.
At least I hurried to make the matter smoother for you at home,
though, sooner or later that would have been effected anyhow ; for you and
your mother are at one, generally. She is really fond of you, and you of her.
I have not done much for you.
And now what can I do ? My business—if I have any—is to wait. ‘Did
I,’ I ask myself, ‘lose any opportunity of action ?’ Could I have stepped in,
to stop you ? Nancy, I talk brutally, though I would not know, with definite-
ness, any detail—but the valuation set by me on mere physical chastity—
were it that that was in question—might be perhaps three half-pence. One
friend at all events you have, between whom and yourself no mad outrageous
freak of yours, raises insuperable barriers. And you feel that. Then why
was I concerned for your Future, months ago ? The deterioration, the slow
change in you, that must be coming or have come ; the undermining and
deterioration, it may be—I say, that is the deep injury—but the very words
draw round you like a curse. I haven’t the heart left to sketch in words a
sure decline. And, if I had, why should I overdo it ?
Was it done by you for gain, for sudden greed, for ambition, for vanity?
106 THE SAVOY
Answer yourself—not me. If it had been done for love—well then at all
events I might have thought of your Future differently. Nancy, I must make
excuses for you—excuses in any case. Once in your short life at least, you
have been near to want—that winter you and your Mother came out into the
Strand, from the empty treasury of a bogus management, with sixpence in
your pockets, instead of a salary. Yes, sixpence it was—that was your salary.
You told me so yourself. And your voice ‘went’ in that cruel winter weather,
as the little figure, with its slender grace, slid through the fog and blackened
rain and reeking river mists of December in London. After that, Money,
which seems to some people a small thing in the distance—so sure, so unim-
portant—must have loomed large and of immense importance, in the near
foreground, to you. Again, of course, we have our moods. We may be taken
unawares. Judgment goes—principle. All your life, Nancy—with only trivial
exceptions, after all—your life is good to this hour. And in all our lives, every
day has its own difficulties : every hour is a choice. Good and diligent, and
sweet and bright, wise too and helpful—week after week, month after month,
you answer to your helm : and then there comes one hour which leaves you
rudderless. I should be hard on you indeed, if I remembered only that hour
—if I forgot the ninety and nine. My dear Nancy, I am not hard on you !
It is late at night when I write this. And, in my thoughts, you have been
with me the whole of the day. The story can’t be an unusual story—and I am
a man of the world, or ought to be. No, the story can’t be an unusual story :
but the girl is an unusual girl.
Well, you must live it down, my dear—must have done with it—must
forget it. But then there is the deterioration—some deterioration at least—
that made the thing possible. And what more may be possible—mend and
patch and cobble as we will ?
All day you have been in my thoughts. When I was setting my palette
in the morning : arranging the light : screwing up the easel, waiting for the
sitter, who was late—they are always late—I thought ‘She has made a mess
of it—poor little Nancy—foolish minx !’ I was very silent with my sitter. I
was scarcely even polite. She noticed it ; and it affected her. The sitting was
a failure. I bowed the lady out. Nancy Nanson in my thoughts. The
luncheon table was all wrong : not a thing as it ought to have been. ‘Nancy
Nanson, at the Devil, poor girl !’ A walk in the streets, afterwards. The
omnibuses rattling past me in Victoria Street. ‘Nancy Nanson—is it all up
with her ?’ Nothing else. The bell of Christ Church, Westminster, a
tinkle for Evensong. The day goes on, then ! ‘Nancy Nanson !’ Afterwards,
THE DETERIORATION OF NANCY 107
in the quiet of St. James’s Park, near Birdcage Walk, the clear sound of the
bugle—the recall to barracks. ‘Nancy Nanson !’ And then, the space of
the Park water, calm, as I saw it from the foot-bridge, by the five poplars—
and the April evening sky, clear and serene. ‘Nancy Nanson at the Devil !
Poor girl ! The Devil perhaps. The dear and clever irresponsible child !’
Nancy, I’ve no more blame for you. The vials of my anger are poured
out. Months ago I said ‘I shall always be your friend.’ ‘Go the straight
way !’ I said. And I believed you would. What a collapse if I must say
to you, to-night, only this word—the very sound of it, connected with you,
is vulgar and repulsive—‘If you should get into any scrape, you know, and
I can help you, come to me. I will help you. Right and left I will help
you. I will see you through.’ . . .
But only to say—that !
Nancy !—with deep regard and real affection,
Post-script. But I can’t end like this. Just when you want to be
reproached the least, some of my sentences sound hard. Be hopeful ! For,
as it seems to me, whatever happened, the quite irreparable has not happened.
Surely, surely, you can forget, for ever, one mad hour ! And, from whatever
point, you can begin ‘the journey homeward’—to yourself. You can be the
real You again ; the real Nancy—your very characteristic, the perfection of
the contrast between the wildness of the theatre and your happy quietude.
So at home I must think of you. With that golden wig, that adds—
piquantly perhaps and yet abominably—to your years, the maddening dancer
is put off. The brown-haired child, in the plain dress, is in her place—the short
brown hair, the quiet eyes, the tender, sensitive mouth. Your lodging-house
parlour is ornamented with a play-bill, and photographs are stuck about the
mantelpiece—Miss Marie Dainton, is it? and your uncle, the plumber; and,
again, a celebrity of the Halls ; and somebody else, who was nice to you,
a year ago, at Weymouth ; some comrade you were fond of : ‘She’s a dear
girl,’ you said. In the lodging-house parlour your mother sits beside the fire-
place, combing out the golden wig, after its last night’s service. The kettle,
in preparation for tea-time, not far off, is at the side of the fire. It begins to
sing. You, Nancy, sit beyond the table, on a cane-bottomed chair ; with your
knees crossed—as I saw you that first time I called on you in London—your
hands, so young, so nervous, and so highly bred, smooth out upon your lap a
bit of wool-work that you—whose instinct is to please and to be pleasant—
108 THE SAVOY
are doing for your landlady. And, in the glow of the fender, lies curled up,
warm and sleeping, that gray kitten rescued from misery, four days before, by
you : won to you by your magnetism, or your kindness—they are both the
same. In the morning, when your mother leaves your bed—leaves the tired
child, worn out by the theatre, to an hour’s extra resting—the soft gray thing,
that you bewitched and cared for, creeps to your side—is happy.
Did they ever teach you, at your school, I wonder, verses of Wordsworth
on the stock-dove ? What did the stock-dove sing ?
He sang of love with quiet blending,
Slow to begin, and never ending ;
Of serious faith, and inward glee.
That was the song—the song for me !
Nancy !—the spirit of the stock-dove’s song lies in the deepest heart of Nancy
[There was reason to apprehend that the Correspondence closed with this letter. One
other note, however—in the round hand of Miss Nanson—has been discovered, and is
GREAT CORAM STREET.
Thank you so very, very much—and for not asking any exact questions,
too. I was a fool. Some one behaved badly to me. No doubt I ‘compro-
mised’ myself. I was on deep waters. But I did not go under. No, Mr.
You have been rather cross with me—but I was very troublesome. You
understand the curious mixture that signs herself—and is—
Wedmore, Frederick. “The Deterioration of Nancy.” The Savoy, vol. 2 April 1896, pp. 99-108. 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/savoyv2-wedmore-deterioration/