Researching my PhD about the Actresses' Franchise League and their work has been and remains wonderful - there's been so much to find and it's a treat to look for it. I've discovered that I love tracking things down! The absence of archives or papers for the most longstanding and active members of the League has been the most frustrating part, although of course it's always worth being optimistic about the future.
Then there are the near misses... here are two that I've experienced that are to do with the actress Adeline Bourne.
There isn't a lot "out there" about Adeline Bourne - a shame, as she was the most fantastic woman! I wrote a bit about her as a guest blogger for actress and writer Kate Willoughby a year ago - you can read it here. After WW1, Bourne worked tirelessly for feminist campaigns and good causes until her death in 1965 at the age of 93, and the research I've been doing into the work of the Actresses' Franchise League in the decades after the First World War has thrown up surprises at every turn, most of them with her name somewhere on the headed notepaper.
Driving back from the Latitude Festival a couple of week ago
- where I'd been speaking as part of the this event - I decided to take a detour to visit the Suffolk village where Bourne lived in her 90s. I knew that her house no longer existed and that the road name had been changed, so it was a whimsical decision rather than a determined pilgrimage. Arriving near the place where she had lived - all fields now - I got chatting with a woman who lives nearby and, amazingly, knew Bourne's name. Apparently the cottage where Bourne had lived had caught fire some years after she died, and some of her rescued papers had ended up in this near neighbour's garage. She had read through them, and remembered photos, letters about the suffrage campaign and even some suffrage regalia. As I'm sure you can imagine, I was incredibly excited! Did these items still exist?
The papers, regalia and photos had escaped one fire, but ended up in another - and one deliberately started by the neighbour's nephew. Not interested in the papers and disliking their visible age, he burnt them all - just last year - when she was ill.
She asked for my card and said if anything had survived, she'd be in touch... and I've been keeping my fingers crossed ever since. If only I'd gone there before! But, having looked up the address and seen that there was nothing physically left of the building the childless Bourne lived in over fifty years ago, I didn't think there would be any reason to go. I've been fantasising about what may have been lost - and it makes me more grateful for what I've found so far.
The whole experience reminded me of another Adeline Bourne research quest...
I discovered that Bourne had been interviewed on television the year before she died by journalist Daniel Farson in a 30 minute programme made by Associated Rediffusion.
The programme was called Something To Say and was broadcast on Monday 13th January 1964.
As soon as I found out about it, I was of course keen to track it down if possible, thinking that there might be a copy somewhere. Luckily the BFI had one - but unfortunately and unusually, the audio track for the programme had gone missing. They had no record of it as detached in the archive or any indication on their paperwork of it being taken away... it just wasn't and isn't there and they had no idea where I might find it - or another copy of the programme. Odd.
Disappointed but still very pleased to have the opportunity to see something of the interview, I arranged a viewing anyway and persuaded two friends to come along with me - having made a cunning plan! I hoped it might be possible to lip-read some of the interview and so asked the actor Jacob Casselden, who is profoundly deaf and a fantastic lip-reader to see if he could glean anything that might be useful. My friend Emma, an avid theatre-goer and professional sign language interpreter came along too.
The experience was tantalising, frustrating and hilarious - it became obvious as we watched the recording that there was no way anyone, even Jacob, could lip-read the interview. Adeline Bourne was wearing dentures, the camera angles were nowhere near good enough or the picture sharp enough to provide a clear view of her mouth and the reaction cut away shots of the interviewer nodding while she was speaking meant that we could only catch a few words at best. What was great to see was how passionate she was though - how lively and bright and intense, despite her age. The person on screen matched utterly my mental image of her - her energy shone through.
We left in good spirits and I felt that at least we had tried!
As my research has progressed the loss of that audio track has continued to prey on my mind and I've tried a number of ways to find it, all unsuccessfully so far. If anyone happens to have one please let me know, especially if it is in your garage and you have a pyromaniac nephew...
What to take from these two research experiences? There is never going to be a complete archive, just scraps that add pieces to a vast and multi-layered history. Part of my impetus to keep talking about the AFL is that things might come to light, that new pieces of information will help me to map the League's work back on to both the suffrage and theatre history they have seem to have fallen between. It's good to know that the papers from her house did exist, that they had survived and someone had taken care of them, at least for a while. The tv interview shows that her work was recognised - even though now it is forgotten - and that the public and press were inspired by what she had to say. A Mrs. Marjorie Cunningham wrote to the TV Times two weeks after Something To Say was broadcast:
"They say wisdom grows with age and she certainly had this - beside tolerance and humour -
and was most up to date in her views"
Lucky Mrs. Marjorie Cunningham - I hope one day, somehow, to hear the interview she so enjoyed! In the meantime, please keep your fingers crossed for that Suffolk garage... you just never know what's waiting to be found...
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research