ROBERT WILLIAMS BUCHANAN (1841 - 1901)
HARRIETT JAY - A BIOGRAPHY
This is an attempt to construct a biography of Harriett Jay using her biography of Robert Buchanan, supplemented by information from newspapers. As with her brother-in-law, there are no personal papers to examine, and she has not, despite a very varied career, been taken up by the academic community. Unlike Robert Buchanan she has no entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. So, I apologise for the rather jerky nature of what follows but there are large gaps in the narrative, which will probably never be filled. However, I thought it worth doing, if for no other reason than to explain how the daughter of a labourer at a chalk pit and an illiterate mother, came to be responsible for one of the most popular English plays of the first half of the 20th century.
I have tried to keep links to other pages to a minimum in the ‘biography’ but further information is available in the following sections:
HARRIETT JAY - A BIOGRAPHY
Harriett Jay was born on September 2nd 1853 in the town of Grays, Essex. Her father, Richard Jay, was a labourer (later becoming a foreman) at the Grays Chalk Pit. Harriet (the second ‘t’ was added later) was the fifth daughter of Ann Jay, and by 1861 two sons had also been added to the family. In the latter part of 1861 (according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography September 2nd) Harriett’s elder sister Mary Ann Jay married the writer, Robert Buchanan. In her biography of Buchanan, Harriett Jay writes:
“In the eye of the law I was his sister-in-law, but that relationship could not possibly convey any idea of the tie which bound us together. Briefly told, the story is as follows: When my sister had been married some three or four years, and was still childless, she resolved to adopt me. In doing this she was anxious that any love which I might have to give should be given to herself and to her husband, so I was taken from my home at a very tender age and for many years was never allowed to revisit it. When at length I was permitted to see my mother I remember looking at her very much as little Paul Dombey looked at Miss Pipchin, wondering all the time whether she could possibly be my mother, or whether she was some ‘strange person’ whom I was told to regard in that light. I turned away with a great sob and threw myself into my sister’s arms, clinging to her as the only mother whom I was thenceforth to know.”
In the spring of 1865 Buchanan moved to Bexhill, near Hastings, and the biography includes a brief description of the house and garden, which perhaps suggests that this was when Harriett Jay was ‘adopted’ by the couple. If so, Harriett Jay would have been 11 at the time.
One of the problems with Jay’s biography of Buchanan, which is also the main source of information about Jay, is that she obscures some of the facts in an attempt to hide her real age. There is some evidence in the census returns that she did lie about her age - in 1891 she gives her age as 36 which is just a year younger than her real age, but in 1901 her age is recorded as 38, when in fact she was 47. In Chapter 15 of the Buchanan biography she also includes the following referring to Buchanan’s illness in 1869:
“You do not remember,” wrote one of his old friends to me during his last illness, “because you were only a child, but I remember that as far back as those Oban days he had a slight stroke of some kind. He was very ill then, and his brave young wife nursed him back to life.”
Harriett Jay would have been 16 in September, 1869. Buchanan seems to have been complicit in this attempt to conceal her age - in his memoir of Charles Reade, published in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1884 he wrote:
“The occasion of our first meeting was peculiarly interesting to me. A near relation of mine, Miss Harriet Jay, then a very young girl in her teens, had published an anonymous novel, The Queen of Connaught, which had been attributed in many quarters to no less a person than Charles Reade himself.”
The Queen of Connaught appeared in September 1875, when Harriet Jay was 22.
The winter of 1865 was spent at Etrétat in Normandy. They returned to find Buchanan’s father seriously ill. He died at his son’s house in Bexhill on 4th March 1866. Buchanan’s mother, Margaret Williams Buchanan, continued to live with her son for the rest of her life.
“The struggle for existence which darkened his whole life was mainly the result of his early training—a taste for luxury of all kinds had been instilled into him by his mother, while from his father he inherited a love of speculation. From neither had he learned the value of money; when he had it he spent it like a lord, when he hadn’t it he lived upon credit, and then, finding himself in difficulties, he endeavoured to extricate himself by hard work, or by plunging into hazardous speculations which very often had the effect of sinking him still deeper in the mire.
In 1868 Buchanan left Bexhill and moved his family to Scotland, eventually settling at Soroba Lodge in Oban. In 1869 he made an attempt to raise money through a series of public readings, but this had to be abandoned because of ill health. In January 1870, through the intercession of Robert Browning, Buchanan was awarded a Civil List Pension of £100 per year. At this point Buchanan’s main literary endeavour was poetry, but the ‘Fleshly School’ incident effectively put paid to his ambitions in that area. In 1873, Buchanan left Scotland and seeking a cheaper place to live, moved to Rossport, County Mayo, Ireland. It was here that Buchanan first considered writing novels as a solution to his financial problems and towards the end of 1874 he began a writing partnership with William Canton, working on the novel which was later published as The Shadow of the Sword. However Buchanan dissolved the partnership in the early stages and the first novel written at Rossport to be published was the work of the youngest member of the Buchanan household.
Harriett Jay - novelist
In 1875 Harriett Jay’s first novel, The Queen Of Connaught, was published (anonymously) by Richard Bentley and Son. In a letter to Robert Browning of 27th October, 1875, Buchanan wrote:
“You will be glad to hear that my sister-in-law, whom you know, and who has lived with us from childhood, has had a great success with her first story – “The Queen of Connaught.” A large first edition has been sold, & the second is out. You may guess how far more this delights me than any success of my own.”
Jay’s first novel was well received by the Press and is summed up by Stephen J. Brown, S.J. in his Ireland in Fiction: A Guide to Irish Novels, Tales, Romances, and Folk-Lore as follows:
“How an Englishman, John Bermingham, fell in love with and married the descendant of an old western family. How he tried, but failed, to reform with English ideas the Connaught peasantry. Told with considerable power and insight. Note especially the description of a police hunt over the mountains in the snow.”
Sales of the novel were no doubt helped by the rumour that it was the work of Charles Reade, and Buchanan added this postscript to his letter to Browning:
“The authorship of the “Queen of Connaught” is mentioned in confidence, but my sister particularly wishes you to tell Miss Browning, to whom she sends kindest regards (in which I join).”
Buchanan’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sword began its serialisation in the Gentleman’s Magazine in January 1876 and was published in November of that year. Harriett Jay’s second novel, The Dark Colleen, was published around the same time, again anonymously, by Richard Bentley and Son.
“Scene: an island off the W. coast. Morna Dunroon finds a French sailor, survivor of a shipwreck. She afterwards marries him, but he abandons her and goes back to France. She follows him, and passes through strange adventures, but he is still false to her. Nemesis follows in the end. Father Moy is a fine portrait of a priest. The dialect and the scenery are both true to the reality, the description of the storm at the close is particularly well done.”
On 15th January 1877 the first theatrical collaboration of Jay and Buchanan, an adaptation of The Queen of Connaught was produced at the Olympic Theatre, London, starring Ada Cavendish. The extent of Jay’s involvement in the adaptation is open to question. It is usually credited to Buchanan alone, but the section concerning the genesis of the play and Charles Reade’s involvement, in Chapter 24 of Robert Buchanan, gives the impression that as well as providing the initial story, she was also involved in the adaptation process:
“As the work proceeded we went, on Mr. Reade’s invitation, from time to time to Albert Gate, to read him certain scenes and talk over others, and many delightful evenings were so spent.”
The dramatisation of The Queen of Connaught achieved a three month run of 53 performances closing on 17th March 1877. However it was the success of Buchanan’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sword which gave him the means to move back to London and in the autumn of 1877 the family left Ireland. Buchanan spent the next year producing his own weekly journal, Light, which only lasted for six months. In September 1879, Madge Dunraven, Harriett Jay’s third novel, was published by Richard Bentley and Son. This review is from the January 1880 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine:
“Madge Dunraven, is essentially an Irish tale, although the scene is shifted very early to England, and the narrative has little of the rollicking abandon of the conventional Irish novel. The characters for whom our sympathies are most keenly excited are indeed Irish of the Irish in their tastes and feelings; but the alchemy of love converts them to many English and thoroughly un-Irish ways, while their Irish virtues exert a mellowing influence upon their English associates. The author describes a “Castle Rackrent” which is no less dilapidated, and is even more genial in its dilapidation, than Miss Edgeworth’s. The narrative is seasoned with a double love story, several poaching adventures, a brace of homicides, and an exciting trial scene. It is, however, less sensational than might be inferred from these rather startling incidents.”
In October 1879 Buchanan (and family) visited Ireland again. They arrived in Mulranny, near Westport, County Mayo, on the day when Mr. Sidney Smith, Lord Sligo’s land-agent, had been attacked by an armed gang, one of whose number was killed by Smith’s son. The incident was later used by Buchanan in his play, The English Rose, but it could also account for the change in tone in Harriett Jay’s next ‘Irish novel’, The Priest's Blessing, or Poor Patrick’s Progress from this World to a Better. The Buchanans cut short their visit to Ireland and returned to London.
“His young wife, who had never been strong, was stricken with the cruellest of all diseases, cancer, and for two long years she was slowly dying. He was too poor a man to be able to sit down and nurse his grief, work had to be done, and he did it, though not with the same heart, the same enthusiasm. His great ambition now was to make money, and so he scribbled at fiction in order to attain this end.”
Buchanan’s last book of poetry had been Balder the Beautiful, his last play, the adaptation of The Queen of Connaught in December 1877 and he had not published a novel since his first, The Shadow of the Sword in 1876. Most of 1878 had been taken up with his failed weekly journal, Light, but he does not seem to have produced anything at all in 1879 or for most of 1880. So Harriett Jay’s assertion that Buchanan’s “great ambition now was to make money” is probably correct, although as well as fiction (which he was still taking seriously), he was also concentrating on the theatre, particularly since Harriett Jay had ambitions to become an actress.
Harriett Jay - actress
According to a profile of Harriett Jay in The Theatre (April 2, 1888), “it was in 1879 that Miss Jay first trod the boards with a touring company to get a little insight into theatrical life”. Harriett Jay’s entry in The Dramatic Peerage: Personal Notes and Professional Sketches of the Actors and Actresses of the London Stage, 1892 adds a few more details:
“Although in receipt of a good income from her pen, she decided to take to the stage. Knowing the manager of a country company, she prevailed upon him to let her join it, and her first part was the Player Queen in Hamlet. She then studied for some time under Mrs. Stirling, and prepared herself to undertake the character of Kathleen in the dramatised version of her own novel, “The Queen of Connaught.”
This rather sketchy information was culled from an article Harriett Jay had written for The Theatre Annual of 1888 entitled, ‘How Actresses Work’. The piece is notable for the absence of any reference to Robert Buchanan.
“Much curiosity, was awakened by the novelty of an authoress appearing as an actress—an event scarcely paralleled in the present generation. The result, on the whole, warranted the very hazardous attempt, chiefly on account of the young lady’s very unusual personal advantages. Miss Jay is very young, tall, and graceful, with a good voice and expressive face, and her acting, though far from perfect, showed careful study and preparation. At the conclusion, in answer to a boisterous call, Mr Neville led Miss Jay forward, and warmly shook hands with her before the audience. There is no doubt that the lady will be an acquisition to the stage.”
The matinée was the curtain-raiser to the main event a month later when Harriet Jay starred as Lady Jane Grey in a new play by Robert Buchanan, The Nine Days’ Queen. The play was first tried out at a matinée at the Gaiety Theatre on December 22nd 1880 before transferring to the Royal Connaught Theatre on February 14th 1881 for a month’s run. The play was then taken on tour, including a week in Glasgow. A review in The Scotsman of the Gaiety matinée was generally favourable towards both the play and Harriett Jay:
“The principal character, Lady Jane Grey, was played by Miss Harriet Jay, a lady who, as the authoress of “The Dark Colleen” and “The Queen of Connaught,” has won a high reputation as a novelist. Miss Jay has only once before made her appearance on the stage, and her performance was indubitably one of high promise. She has, as was only to be expected, much to learn, but still her acting is sympathetic and intelligent, and she evidently spares no pains to embody the author’s ideas. With more experience and confidence, and a more entire abandonment of herself to the situation, she will one day be an acquisition to the stage.”
Not so, the critic of The Era:
“The acting, as we have hinted, was by no means generally adequate, and, consequently, the play suffered much. To begin with, the “Nine Days’ Queen” had a very incompetent representative in Miss Harriett Jay. Miss Jay may be, and doubtless is, a very able writer, but the writing of novels is no training for the stage. Miss Jay, in a word, is a raw amateur. She has not yet learnt how to walk the stage, and her action is irritatingly angular—not to say awkward. In the quieter passages of the play Miss Jay progressed very well, and won deserved sympathy; but directly there was the slightest occasion for warmth or passion, for the expression of horror, as in the scene where Lady Jane Grey conjures up visions of murdered monarchs and the sound of the funeral bell, she failed completely; the musical voice became harsh and strident, and little jerky sentences were screamed forth in a way that was anything but edifying or satisfactory. That Miss Jay was applauded, and that flowers were piled at her feet was said when we chronicled the presence of a friendly audience.”
In the 1881 census, taken on 3rd April, Buchanan is listed as ‘Author and Dramatist’, Harriett Jay as ‘Authoress and Actress’ (Jay also gives her age as 24 rather than 27). They are listed as boarders at the lodging house of George Remnant at 3 Guildford Place, St Pancras. Meanwhile, Mary Buchanan is staying with her elder sister, Eliza Dear, in East Ham, and Margaret Buchanan is living at the Westward Ho Boarding House in Southend-on-Sea. At the time, Buchanan and Jay were involved in a new play by Buchanan, The Mormons: or St. Abe and his Seven Wives, which was partly based on his popular poem. It opened at the Olympic Theatre on May 7th 1881 and lasted for just under a month, closing on June 2nd. The following night there was a benefit performance for Harriett Jay, the programme consisting of A Madcap Prince (in which she appeared as the heroine, Elinor Vane) and the final act of The Nine Days’ Queen.
“A most objectionable book from a Catholic point of view. Very hostile picture of the priesthood of Ireland, who keep the people in ‘bovine ignorance.’ The two specimens that appear in the story are villains of the worst type. One is 25, and has been seven years a priest! He drinks heavily, and works miracles. By another a respectable peasant is incited to murder. The views of politics can only be described as ‘Orange.’”
It is no surprise that Stephen Brown (S.J.) is so critical in his appraisal, although it should be said (to avoid any misconception that there is some supernatural element in the book) the curate does not actually ‘work miracles’ - that is how he is perceived by his ignorant flock. This is no romantic tale of Ireland, it is a savage indictment of the Catholic Church. The novel is written in a very spare style, there is no hero as such, just a victim (the ‘Poor Patrick’ of the title) and a truly Machiavellian villain in the person of the parish priest, Father Malloy. Anyone with lingering doubts about Buchanan’s influence on Jay, and how much he guided her literary career, need only read The Priest’s Blessing - Buchanan could not have written it. It was the first of Harriett Jay’s novels to appear under her own name and it was not well received by the Press. Robert Buchanan provided a preface to Harriett Jay’s next Irish novel, My Connaught Cousins (1882), defending The Priest’s Blessing and his sister-in-law, but also indicating that their views on the ‘Irish question’ differed:
“The Authoress of My Connaught Cousins, smarting under a certain misconception, but thinking that polemics of any kind ill befit a lady’s pen, has asked me to write a few prefatory words explaining how this book and its predecessors came to be written, and how unjust is the charge, made in one influential quarter, that she is an enemy to Irish nationality. The task is a difficult one, especially as I sympathise more strongly than she does with the present political movement, and am, indeed, much more of an advanced Liberal; but we are entirely at one in our sympathy with the social life and aims of the Irish people, and in our love for what is best and noblest in the Irish nature. In these days of haste and folly, anything really original in literature is certain to be misunderstood. ... In a subsequent but far less successful work, unpopular from its rigid and terrible truth of delineation, the Authoress put her finger on the canker which now, as heretofore, poisons the wholesome life of Ireland; but the Priest’s Blessing, though neglected now, will live as perhaps the most powerful social study that ever came from the mind of a young girl. No unprejudiced person who reads that work, and takes it in connection with other works from the same pen, will doubt its deep insight—I should say, its unparalleled insight—into the nature of the Irish peasant.”
Harriett Jay’s next novel, Two Men and a Maid, published by F. V. White and Co. in November 1881, was a return to the usual romantic business, although this time the story was set in Wales. A review in The Scotsman summed it up as follows:
“This preposterous story is told with a certain amount of narrative and dramatic vigour; but no literary power could give real interest or vitality to a plot which is one long violation of probability. It is impossible for the reader to have the smallest sympathy with the personages of the tale, most of whom would inevitably, in real life, be consigned to a lunatic asylum before they had committed half the follies here ascribed them.”
Through September and October 1881 Harriett Jay was back on stage, although for one of the few times in her acting career, not in a play written by Buchanan. She appeared as Lady Clancarty in George Rignold’s touring production of Tom Taylor’s Clancarty, playing Birmingham and Glasgow.
“Mr. Buchanan was unfortunate in the lady who represented his heroine, for no matter how well Miss Harriett Jay may dress on the stage, or how becoming she may look, this will not atone for her want of dramatic instinct.”
Lucy Brandon just ran for a week of matinée performances and Buchanan took the managers of the theatre to court to recover the £76 12s. 9d. he had invested in the play. On 23rd April, Buchanan wrote to Andrew Chatto asking for an advance of £250 so he could “go away at once into the wilderness, & see what solitude & quiet thought will do to restore me.” A month later he was in Paris. Whether Harriett Jay was with him is not known (Buchanan’s mother was back in the Westward Ho boarding house), but it would have been foolish since a rumour had been circulating in the Press that Buchanan had just married his sister-in-law in Switzerland. Buchanan issued strenuous denials to the Press, including this letter to The Era (29 April, 1882):
Sir,—An author’s work is public property, and even malignant criticism is endurable; but the newspaper press transcends its functions when, to gratify some secret spite, it intrudes upon private life and domestic sorrow. During the past week a paragraph has been widely circulated to the effect that I have been recently “married, in Switzerland, to Miss Harriet Jay, my deceased wife’s sister.” My wife, beloved by all who knew her, and most beloved by her to whom she was (as it were) both sister and mother, died only last November, and the public are asked to believe that her husband has already forgotten her, and that her noble-minded sister, sharing this forgetfulness, is also oblivious to the love, the self-sacrifice, and the saintly devotion of the departed. How this cruel report arose, and by whom it was originated, I am at a loss to guess; but I write this letter to affirm that it is without the faintest shadow of foundation, and in the name of public decency to protest against such violations of the sanctity of great and enduring grief.
Although Buchanan was successful in scotching the rumour in Britain, it had also been widely reported in America and it would cause the couple some problems during their visit to the States in 1884-85.
“Jack Kenmare goes to his uncle’s place in Connaught, and has a pleasant time in company with his cousins. He becomes engaged to one of them, who writes stories. Several of these are given. An excellent moral tale, and a glimpse of happy Irish life in a country house. The political point of view is not Nationalist; neither is it hostile to Ireland.”
In 1883 Buchanan’s theatrical fortunes changed with the production of Storm-Beaten, an adaptation of God and the Man, at the Adelphi Theatre. It opened on 14th March and ran till 8th June. Buchanan also managed to sell the play to Messrs. Shook & Collier of New York where it opened at the Union Square Theater on 26th November. Harriett Jay was not in Storm-Beaten, but Buchanan’s next play, Lady Clare, featured her in a supporting role as the Hon. Cecil Brookfield. Reviews of Harriett Jay’s performances so far had largely wavered between polite and lukewarm (occasionally hostile). This changed with Lady Clare and for the first time her performance received universal praise, including this from The Scotsman:
“Miss Harriet Jay played a lad with infinite truth and many pleasant touches of humour. This lady has, indeed, rarely been seen in a part which showed her to so much advantage.”
And this from Reynolds’s Newspaper:
“Miss Harriett Jay, as the Hon. Cecil Brookfield, had a part which fitted her, so to speak, like a glove, and she played it with a light-heartedness and charm that made it a performance altogether sui generis.”
Lady Clare (the plot taken - without permission - by Buchanan from Georges Ohnet’s Le Maître de Forges) was a moderate success, running from 11th April to 29th June at the Globe Theatre and was also sold to the American producer, Lester Wallack. It opened in New York at Wallack’s Theatre on 13th February 1884 and despite some controversy over its disputed origins, was described by The Brooklyn Eagle as “the solitary success at Wallack’s this year. It has caught the public fancy and is doing an immense business.”
“The revival has probably been thought of so that Miss Harriett Jay might repeat the success that she made as the boy in Lady Clare. But her Lemuel possesses no realisation whatever of the character, and the attempt can only be regretted.”
On October 15th 1883, Buchanan’s next play, A Sailor and his Lass, a collaboration with Augustus Harris, opened at Drury Lane. Harriett Jay was back playing the heroine, Mary Morton, the ‘Lass’ of the title, although in this elaborately staged melodrama, the actors took second place to the scenes of exploding bombs and shipwrecks. The play closed on 8th December to make way for the Drury Lane pantomime.
“Miss Jay holds the balance evenly throughout, between whatever reasons have in any period injured the stage in social estimation and those dull and stupid prejudices which go far to keep the stage from vindicating itself, and gaining the full recognition bestowed upon other arts so freely. In short, the novel admits the due amount of right and wrong on both sides of the question, and amply shows how much more human interest attaches to the life of the stage as it really is than to those monstrous illusions hitherto given to the world as theatrical novels. That actors and actresses are just men and women is a piece of knowledge which is still uncommon; and Miss Jay’s interesting and able story will help to promulgate this truth.”
The book was also the subject of two contrasting reviews in The Spectator, which caused Harriett Jay to write letters to The Standard and The Academy in February, 1884. In November 1884, when Robert Buchanan and Harriett Jay were both in America, an adaptation of Through the Stage Door, retitled Lottie, was produced at the Novelty Theatre in London. There was no author’s name attached to the play but it was subsequently attributed to Robert Buchanan and it seems reasonable to assume that Harriett Jay was also involved in the adaptation. The play was not a success.
In 1884 Buchanan and Jay turned their attention to America. Storm-Beaten had its 75th performance at the Union Square Theatre in January, and Lady Clare opened at Wallack’s Theatre, New York in February. In April an item appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle announcing that Harriett Jay would be “going to the United States under the management of Colonel Sinn, of Brooklyn. She will appear in Mr. Robert Buchanan’s historical dramas.” This was not strictly correct, but Buchanan and Jay did travel to America in August, 1884. In Robert Buchanan Jay deals with the American visit, which lasted almost a year, in one brief paragraph. The trip did not get off to an auspicious start since the play which Buchanan had hoped to sell to Messrs. Shook and Collier, A Hero in Spite of Himself, was rejected by the managers of the Union Square Theatre as being unsuitable for an American audience. They were expecting a ‘society comedy’ but Buchanan had inserted scenes set in the ‘Wild West’, including a couple of gunfights. Buchanan then tried Lester Wallack with another play, Constance, which opened on 11th November and was a dismal failure.
“One of the Britons who have personally come fortune seeking to America, but altogether on a high plane, is Harriet Jay. She is something of an authoress and all the time sister-in-law to Robert Buchanan. She is a big, handsome blonde with plenty of flesh and fluency and original enough to command popular attention if once she gets the opportunity. While waiting for a possible debut on the New York stage she is writing the concluding chapters of a novel that is running in a London paper and drawing the illustrations for it. A caller on entering found her at a desk, pencil in hand. She was clad in a suit somewhat like that worn by the Grosvenor of “Patience,” consisting of a tunic and trousers of black velvet, the latter reaching to the knees, below which were silk stockings and slippers. Miss Jay said in explanation that skirts were a nuisance, in her estimation, and that for relief, especially when composing, she discarded them in favor of the knickerbockers. She never went abroad in them, of course, but saw no impropriety in receiving visitors while thus arrayed.”
Buchanan did not regard newspaper serials as serious work and there is evidence that he would hand his plays over to others for this treatment. However, A Marriage of Convenience is the only one which appeared under Harriett Jay’s name. The novel was published in May, 1885 by F. V. White and Co. The Graphic, a paper which had previously been very complimentary about Jay’s novels, was not impressed and felt that the book “bears all the signs of fatal hurry.” The review went on to say:
“The characters are stagey to extravagance—the melodramatic Spanish Duke, the man who has vowed life- long vengeance against him and follows him like a sleuth-hound, the stern old lady who also lives for an incomprehensible or rather lunatic revenge, the persecuted heroine, and all the rest of them. ... We have had so constantly to speak with unqualified admiration of Miss Jay’s work that we are the more bound to note the first symptom of indifference to what is due from an artist to her art. Nobody can be always at his or her best: but novels like “A Marriage of Convenience” are best left in the limbo of the magazines—in one of which, to judge from the periodical recurrence of a fainting fit or some other temporary climax, the story probably first appeared.”
If Buchanan’s initial playwriting experiences in America were disappointing, they were matched by Harriett Jay’s efforts to conquer the New York stage as an actress. Her American debut was in a matinée of Tom Taylor’s Lady Clancarty at the Madison-Square Theatre on 26th November. The New York Times had this to say:
“Miss Jay is a lady of stately presence, with an interesting face, and her methods as an actress were evidently derived from a careful study of good models. Her voice is sufficiently strong, though her utterance is lacking in variety of tone, and therefore somewhat monotonous. In moments of excitement Miss Jay’s speech is apt to be thick, as if her mouth were filled with pebbles. This defect, however, may be partly attributable to the nervousness due to her first appearance before a strange audience. As a whole, her performance yesterday produced a decidedly favorable impression, and it is safe to predict that this lady will always please in characters which do not demand too great a display of emotional power. Her Lady Clancarty is a sweet and lovable gentlewoman, more at ease while hearing good tidings of her absent husband from the lips of the pseudo Hazeltine than in the subsequent scenes of sorrow and despair. Her graceful manner and her earnestness, however, pleased everybody, and she was warmly applauded.”
This was not too bad a review for The New York Times, considering that earlier in the year (18th May) the paper had printed the following item about Buchanan and Jay:
“Mr. Robert Buchanan, the adapter of “Lady Clare,” has written a new comedy which he is trying to get produced in London. Mr. Buchanan is led to this reckless course through the success of “Lady Clare” and the large royalties which have poured into his pocket from this country ever since the production of this piece. In London Mr. Buchanan is not regarded with enthusiasm by theatrical managers. In the first place he has written a large number of pieces, none of which, barring “Lady Clare,” has been successfully performed in the English metropolis. In the second he has a sister-in-law named Harriet Jay, who is the cause of travail and sorrow in managerial circles. Whenever Mr. Buchanan writes a play he insists, as far as he can, upon having Miss Jay perform the principal character. The lady is an amiable and interesting person when she does not try to act. But the quickest preparation for a London exodus lies through the appearance of Miss Jay in public. It is because Mr. Buchanan, metaphorically speaking, goes around with a bundle of manuscript under one arm and his sister-in-law under the other that he is not enthusiastically regarded by English managers.”
Prior to Harriett Jay’s appearance in Lady Clancarty, The New York Times on 2nd November had also mentioned that:
“The principal design of this stage representation seems to be to prove to the great American public that Miss Jay is a vastly more beautiful woman than Mrs. Langtry.”
And it was not just The New York Times, which seemed to have something against Harriett Jay. The Brooklyn Eagle in a piece published on 7th December also seemed unimpressed:
“In connection with this last failure, another one occurs to me. It is that of Miss Harriet Jay, the sister in law of the author, Robert Buchanan, whose last play fell so flat. Mr. Buchanan said that his sister in law was considered the handsomest woman in England, and that he considered her a great actress. The first statement didn’t go for much; the faith of the American people in the appreciation of the English for female beauty grows beautifully less as the years roll on. There was, therefore, no surprise when Miss Jay proved to be a very long, square shouldered, sharp featured and awkward lady. As for her histrionic ability, it may be said that she made one appearance only, and that the effect of her acting was somnolent, solemn and trite. It was a comedy part, too.”
Harriett Jay tried again in January 1885, with a couple of performances of Lady Clare in which she reprised her supporting role as Cecil Brookfield. Again The New York Times had a little dig at her prior to the performance:
“The other item of interest in connection with the “Lady Clare” production is in the statement that Miss Harriet Jay will appear in masculine attire in the part played at Mr. Wallack’s theatre by young Mr. Buckstone. It is reported that when it was decided Miss Jay was to play the part she immediately sent all the way to London for the raiment in which she originally appeared in this character. It has hitherto been supposed that there were plenty of clothes in America.”
Although the paper’s review of the production did concede that:
“Miss Harriet Jay appeared as the Hon. Cecil Brookfield, originally played by her in London, and gave a charming performance.”
The review in the New York Herald confined itself entirely to just one aspect of the performance, Harriett Jay’s legs:
“Mr. Buchanan’s “Lady Clare” was played at Niblo’s Garden last night. His sister-in-law, Miss Harriet Jay, assumed the rôle of the youth, the Hon. Cecil Brookfield. In the first act she wore loose white trousers and the venerable gentlemen in the front row took very little interest in the play. The rear view of Miss Jay’s legs was certainly very unsatisfactory, for they seemed to be bulky and given to inclining inward at the knees. There was a pleasant surprise in the second act, when Miss Jay’s legs appeared in velvet knickerbockers and black stockings. They were plumpish, light comedy sort of legs, but very vague in the region of the knickerbockers, where the general appearance was that of decided stoutness. Miss Jay is two inches taller and a few pounds heavier than Lord Ambermere, and when she cried defiantly, “Hit one of your size,” she made a fine comedy hit. Throughout the last act her legs were clad in tight gray stockings and shooting breeches. In this she made her best points tell.”
This prompted an angry letter in reply from Harriett Jay, which bore more than a trace of her brother-in-law’s style of invective.
Harriett Jay - playwright
The American adventure was not going that smoothly for Buchanan and Jay when in March, 1885 they tried another shot at a theatrical success. The New York Times, as usual, had no faith in the venture:
“Mr. Robert Buchanan has succeeded in disposing of one more play in this country. This piece is called “Alone in London,” and it is to be tried on in Philadelphia some time in May next. If “Alone in London” proves successful it will be brought out in New-York at the beginning of the following season, and after that it will be sent through the general country. “Alone in London” has a material attachment in the shape of Miss Harriet Jay, who appears to be generously thrown in with the most of Mr. Buchanan’s theatrical bargains. Miss Jay is regarded by Mr. Buchanan as the most beautiful woman and the most accomplished actress in the world, and this fact indicates the degree of generosity which induces him to insist that managers who accept his plays shall also receive the further boon of having them performed by the radiant and accomplished Miss Jay.”
But this time the paper got it completely wrong. Buchanan’s production of Alone in London, or, A woman against the world, written by himself and Harriett Jay, which opened at the Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia on 30th March, 1885 was a complete success and the American rights were immediately snapped up by Col. Sinn of Brooklyn. It toured America for the next two years and made a star of Cora Tanner who played the hapless heroine, Annie Meadows. In the original production Harriett Jay played the supporting role of Tom Chickweed, “a waif and a stray” (to quote the programme). Another male character for Miss Jay, but this one got to kill the villain in the final act.
“I am convinced that Mr. Buchanan came here with the conviction rooted in his mind that he was a good deal better than we are, and that he had much to teach us. At any rate, he took an apartment in the town, worked industriously, and tried hard to make himself acceptable to us. He had only one companion, his sister-in-law, who is an actress and an author. Many New Yorkers were not disposed to admire Mr. Buchanan’s freedom in travelling and living with his sister-in-law, who may be an excellent woman, though she is certainly not an excellent actress. Here is a little anecdote, for instance, with a moral. Mr. Buchanan was invited, during the Winter, to speak on a literary subject before an exclusive society—most of the members and guests of which are charming gentlemen. Mr. Buchanan accepted the invitation. But the members were informed unexpectedly, that Mr. Buchanan and his sister-in-law took slight notice of social usages. They requested Mr. Buchanan, in consequence, not to appear before their society.”
Buchanan and Jay wrote one more play while they were in America, Fascination, which Buchanan offered to Augustin Daly. Eventually, it would be bought by Col. Sinn, and would become a second major hit for Cora Tanner, and again, Harriett Jay’s name would not appear as co-writer.
‘“Do you know much about Buchanan?” Adding, when I asked him about B.’s “genius.” “I don’t know. Buchanan has a great idea of making money—has written plays, novels. He lost a wife of whom he was very fond: it was a great change for him. She left him a niece—a fine young girl, Harriet Gay, who afterwards went on the stage. It is for her Browning writes plays—makes a part for her—to fit her. She has been here a couple of times—has grown up a handsome, bright girl. Although decidedly girlish, crude, youthful, now—she is of the Byron kind: I should not be surprised any morning to wake up and find her famous. Yes—I have seen Buchanan, too—twice, if I remember right—he has been here. He is a typical John Bull—short, thick, ruddy, assertive, brusque—thick-necked. He came once—I think I have told you —we sat down-stairs—in the sitting-room —the room underneath this. It was a cold day—I found it difficult to get comfortable even with a fire—was hustling up the fire. Buchanan came in a carriage—jumped out and came indoors. After he had been in some time—a half hour at least, he said something about the carriage and some one he had left in it—and when I inquired who he told me Harriet Gay, the wife’s niece. I asked, ‘What, and you have left her there and in the cold all this time? Go out this instant and bring her in: she must be frozen to death.’ And he did so—I not keeping her in the parlor but sending her back in the kitchen, where it was warmer and where Mrs. Davis gave her a cup of tea to thaw her out.” He told this story with great vehemence and then said, “But of course Buchanan is more than that—has a comradeship side to him,” though “these human derelictions a man don’t altogether get over.”’
With what appeared to be a surefire hit in Alone in London, Harriett Jay left America to begin the process of bringing it to the English stage. Buchanan followed soon after, and at the end of June, 1885 was back with his mother in Southend. Alone in London was put on at the Olympic Theatre under the management of Mrs. Anna Conover, although Buchanan involved himself in the production, spending so much money on the elaborate scenery and stage-effects to the point where the play would not have turned a profit even if it played every night to a full house. Harriett Jay reprised her role as Cecil Brookfield in a revival of Lady Clare at the Pavilion Theatre, London, which opened on 24th August before changing into Tom Chickweed’s trousers for the London premiere of Alone in London on 2nd November 1885. The critical response to the play was mixed. It was, after all, merely a melodrama. The Times summed it up as:
“Alone in London is a sound and vigorous play of the type which has been popularized at Drury-lane and the Adelphi. It is acted by a superior company, and it is placed upon the stage with all the advantages of scenic effect to be derived from whirling scenery and the other appliances of modern stage management. The public who may have come to scoff, as they did at the unfortunate interpolation of a nigger minstrel scene in the first act, remain to applaud; and if there is perhaps too much sordid realism in the scenes of low London life for the taste of the superfine playgoer, there runs through the play a healthy vein of dramatic interest, well calculated to arrest and to hold the attention of a popular audience.”
Whereas The Stage had this to say of Tom Chickweed:
“We have had quite enough poor Jo on the stage and to spare, and Gipsy Tom alias Tom Chickweed might easily be dispensed with, so far as the play is concerned, and greatly to its improvement. There is no use in making a character of this sort so prominent, even supposing it to be at all necessary, which we very much doubt, and even granted that it is well acted. In the hands of Miss Harriett Jay the part becomes tiresome, for the lady is not sympathetic, and she is distinctly not suited to the character, for she is “more than common tall for a woman” on the stage.”
On December 3rd, Amy Roselle, who had been contracted to play the heroine, Annie Meadows, at a salary of £30 a week, was fired. The play was losing £200 a week and the actors had been asked to take a 50 percent wage cut, which Amy Roselle had refused to do. Harriett Jay took over as Annie Meadows for the remainder of the run at a salary of £10 a week. On 15th January, 1886, Mrs. Conover handed over the management of the Olympic Theatre to Robert Buchanan and the play limped along to its 100th performance on 12th February. The play finally closed on 20th February and was then taken on a provincial tour by Harriett Jay, starting in Liverpool on 22nd February.
. . . Harriet Jay will be there, it is rumored, if her engagements will permit.
Alone in London, despite its American reception, was not the great success Buchanan had hoped for. He had lost money on the Olympic run and it had also spawned two court actions from Amy Roselle, one for unfair dismissal, the other for slander against himself. He was also bothered about becoming known as a writer of mere melodramas. The truth of the matter was that the play was not that popular with London critics or sophisticated audiences, but Buchanan failed to see this and sold the provincial rights to the play to J. F. Elliston who successfully toured the play around the theatres of Britain for at least the next sixteen years. In Chapter 24 of Robert Buchanan Harriett Jay writes the following:
“But the play which made the most money was ‘Alone in London,’ the very one for which he cared the least; indeed, he could never bring himself to speak of it with anything but contempt. However, it has never failed to make money for everybody connected with it, but the money so earned brought him no satisfaction, for he was always ashamed of the source from which it sprang, and so, taking my consent for granted, he sold the piece for an absurdly small sum to Messrs. Miller and Elliston, and so parted with the goose which laid the golden eggs.”
And the same point is made by Henry Murray in Chapter 26:
“If he took a theatre he invariably lost by hundreds and sometimes by thousands, and that too on the very plays which founded the fortunes of others, as, for instance, when he sold ‘Alone in London’ for a mere song, to see it patrol the provinces year in year out, reaping a golden harvest for its lucky purchasers, who confessed that within ten years they had amassed £14,000 clear profit by the transaction.”
Harriett Jay’s annoyance, particularly considering what was to happen in 1894, is understandable, but by April, 1886, Buchanan had a legitimate theatrical success on his hands with Sophia, his adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Sophia opened at the Vaudeville Theatre on 12 April 1886 and ran for over 350 performances. This began a more settled period for the Buchanan household, where, instead of boarding houses, they were living in comparative luxury, at first in Southend (at Hamlet Court and Byculla House) before moving to 25 Maresfield Gardens, South Hampstead.