Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Mary Ansell's Deception and J. M. Barrie's play, Rosalind

In my book 'It Might Have Been Raining', which I published in 2005, I revealed for the first time that official records showed that the Victorian London stage actress Mary Ansell continually deceived people, perhaps even her husband, author and playwright J. M. Barrie, about her age.

I also indicated briefly how Barrie made use of this deception in the writing of his play Rosalind within three years of his divorce from Mary.

Now, the recent release of the England census for 1911 has enabled me to augment the details of Mary's deception, and has prompted me to write this piece.

First, a background by way of a Mary Ansell timeline:

1861, March 1: Mary Ansell is born*. Here is her birth certificate:

1861 census: Mary's age correctly stated as one month.

1871 census: Mary's age correctly stated as 10 years.

1881 census: Mary's age correctly stated as 20 years.

1891 census: (I couldn't find an entry for Mary).

1891: Mary meets J. M. Barrie. Her real age is 31.

1892: Mary is given her first part in one of Barrie's, Walker, London.

1894, July 9: Mary marries J. M. Barrie. Marriage certificate incorrectly states her age as 27. Her real age is 33. (Difference: 6 years).

1901 census: Mary's age incorrectly stated as 34. Her real age is 40. (Difference: 6 years).

1908, August: Mary meets Gilbert Cannan, an aspiring young writer, appointed as secretary to Barrie's Committee campaigning for the abolition of the Censor.

1909, October 13: Mary and J. M. Barrie divorce hearing; Decree nisi granted as a result of Mary's adultery with Cannan. (Decree absolute granted in April 1910).

1910, April 28: Mary marries Gilbert Cannan. Marriage certificate states her age as 41. Her real age is 49. (Difference: 8 years).

From this information we can see that, in common with many actresses, at some time during her twenties or early thirties Mary Ansell had decided to 'reduce' her age so as to remain in her twenties for as long as possible in order to prolong her prospects of securing acting roles on the stage. Further, we may conclude that, having possibly deceived Barrie from the time of their meeting in 1892 to the time of their marriage - and presumably having successfully deceived Barrie's minister uncle, David Ogilvy, who officiated at the marriage - Mary chose to maintain the 6-year difference throughout their marriage.

Many biographies of Barrie, and articles, talk about him falling for, and marrying, the lovely young actress, implying that everybody believed that Mary was at least a few years younger than him, but, with Barrie having been born on 9th May, 1860, the age difference was actually only nine months (as was known at least by Barrie's friend and biographer, Denis Mackail).

Their marriage ended in divorce in October 1909 following the discovery of Mary's adultery with Gilbert Cannan, a man who had come into the Barries' life in 1908 when aged just 23.

The occasion of her second marriage gave Mary an opportunity to shed a couple more years, although her reason for doing this seems unclear, for she had given up the stage upon marrying Barrie sixteen years earlier. In my book, I suggested that she may have done this to deceive Cannan into believing that there was a prospect of their having at least one child, for Cannan was only 25 when they married.

And, now, an addition to Mary's timeline:

1911 census: Mary's age incorrectly stated as 40. Her real age is 50. (Difference: 10 years).

It will be another ten years before the 1921 census will show whether Mary continued to shed years, but time may have caught up with her, and we know that Mary bore Cannan no children, and that she divorced him in 1918 following his adultery with Gwen Wilson.

I contend that J. M. Barrie either knew Mary's real age from the outset - in which case he must have been content to allow false information to be entered on their marriage certificate as well as on the 1901 census return - or, more likely in my view, he discovered it at some stage during their marriage, or soon afterwards.

It is well-known that Barrie frequently used personal knowledge or experience of events close to him as the inspiration for his fictional works, and, with the benefit of hindsight and research, we can identify people in his life veiled in some of his fictional characters. In 1912 it seems he put both Mary's age deception and her relationship with Cannan to good use when he wrote his play Rosalind. I am not aware of anybody else coming to this conclusion but there clues are there:

In the lead role, Mrs Beatrice Page, a woman of London well into her forties and an actress, is lodging at a seaside cottage and is about to be asked to return to London to play once more the part of Rosalind, a young woman, in Shakespeare's As You Like It. There are numerous references to middle-age, and Mrs Page makes various comments concerning age, such as: "... you should never, never ask an actress's age", and "Have you noticed there are no parts in them (plays) for middle-aged ladies?"

Charles Roche, a well-educated young man, aged - yes - 23, calls at the cottage quite by chance and recognizes a picture of a young-looking woman, a woman by whom he had been recently smitten. The woman is Beatrice, made-up and in her performance as Rosalind. Charles is initially led to believe that Mrs Page is Beatrice's mother, and Mrs Page speaks to him as if she were, but, after having actresses' age deceptions explained to him, as in these telling lines: -
"There is nothing for them between the ages of twenty-nine and sixty. Occasionally one of the less experienced dramatists may write such a part, but with a little coaxing we can always make him say, 'She needn't be more than twenty-nine.' And so, dear Charles, we have succeeded in keeping middle-age for women off the stage. Why, even Father Time doesn't let on about us. He waits at the wings with a dark cloth for us, just as our dressers wait with dust-sheets to fling over our expensive frocks; but but we have a way with us that makes even Father Time reluctant to cast his cloak; perhaps it is the coquettish imploring look we give him as we dodge him; perhaps though he is an old fellow he can't resist the powder on our pretty noses. And so he says, 'The enchanting baggage, I'll give her another year.' When you come to write my epitaph, Charles, let it be in these delicious words, 'She had a long twenty-nine.'" - Charles comes to accept that Mrs Page and Beatrice are really one and the same person, falls in love with her, proposes to her, and the two go off happily to London.

In real life, in August 1908, on the day after he had met Mary Barrie, and at age 23, Gilbert Cannan had written to sculptress Kathleen Bruce: '... Mrs Barrie suddenly began to talk to me like a mother. She really is a dear thing, and she seems to need a good deal of me - I feel the need and give - gladly.'

It is surely no coincidence, either, that Barrie chose Beatrice as the name of the character in his play, for, in the light of his play and his knowledge of his former wife, it is interesting to compare and contrast the characters of Shakespeare's comedic heroines: Rosalind, in As You Like It, and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. (See here, for example)

Barrie's Rosalind is doubly interesting because not only does the play seem to reveal that, by the time of its creation, the playwright knew that Mary had deceived both him and Cannan over her age, but also it was amazingly prophetic: At one point in the play we are told that Beatrice is at Monte Carlo, “a place where people gamble,” and later we learn that she was supposed to be spending a month in Biarritz. How strange that in February 1921, nine years after the play was written, D. H. Lawrence* should write to Mary Cannan, by then his friend of about five years, expressing disapproval of her gambling and advising her that she should not let it become a habit. Strange, also, that some time around 1925 Mary should leave England permanently to live the rest of her life in Biarritz!

Finally, it seems Mary deceived the authorities even in death. She died in Biarritz on 30th June, 1950. Her death certificate** gives the year of her birth incorrectly as 1st March 1869, not 1861. She had evidently continued to live the lie and had deceived those close to her late in her life, for Barrie had long predeceased her, Cannan had had a mental breakdown in 1923 and had spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals, and no adult contact with her three brothers seems to have been evident.

* Nottingham University's collection of D. H. Lawrence letters has reference to Mary Cannan's birth year erroneously as 1867, seemingly matching Mary's 6-year age discrepancy throughout the duration of her marriage to J. M. Barrie. My attempts to persuade Nottingham University to correct their mistake have failed.

** A scan of Mary Cannan's death certificate was kindly supplied by my friend Céline-Albin Faivre, leading French authority on J. M. Barrie and published translator of Barrie's The Little White Bird: Le Petit Oiseau blanc (Terre de Brume, 2006), website:

I gratefully acknowledge reference to the mine of information that is Andrew Birkin's exhaustive study of J. M. Barrie: J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (Constable and Company, 1979; Yale University Press, 2003), and his splendid website:
Also Denis Mackail's The Story of J.M.B. (Peter Davies, 1941).