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Lilian Adelaide Neilson (3 March 1848 – 15 August 1880), born Elizabeth Ann Brown, was an English stage actress.
Neilson was the daughter of a strolling actress, named Brown, and was born, out of wedlock, at 35 St Peters Square Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In childhood she was known as Elizabeth Anne Bland, her mother having subsequently married a mechanic and house decorator named Samuel Bland. Her childhood was passed in the town of Guiseley (near Leeds), where she worked in a factory and as a nursery maid.
When she became well known as an actress it was said that she was the child of a Spanish father and an English mother; born at Zaragoza, reared in affluence; educated in France and Italy; taught seven languages; and had embarked on a theatrical career, because of impoverished fortune combined with irrepressible genius. Such stories were completely untrue.
When she was about 15 years old Neilson left her home and made her way to London. Soon after she reached London, she obtained employment because of her beauty, as a member of the ballet at one of the theatres, and in that way she began her professional career. Various romantic tales were printed concerning her way of life at that time.
In Spring 1865, after having received some instruction from the veteran actor, John Ryder, she appeared at Sarah Thorne's Theatre Royal (Margate), long a training-school for novices, where she made a favourable impression. In 1865, at Theatre Royal (Margate), she appeared as Julia in The Hunchback, a character with which her name was long to be associated.
For the next few years, she played at London and provincial theatres in various roles, including Rosalind, Amy Robsart and Rebecca (in Ivanhoe), Beatrice, Viola and Isabella (in Measure for Measure). In July 1865 she was brought out at the New Royalty Theatre, London, in the character of Juliet. Her achievement was not considered extraordinary, but it attracted some favourable attention, and she was able to continue with acting.
She was a part of a production of The Hugenot Captain by Watts Phillips given by the Princess Theatre on 2 July 1866. Neilson played the role of the heroine Gabrielle de Savigny. In November 1866 she received favourable reviews for her portrayal of Victorine, another character in The Hugenot Captain. This time the play was performed at the Adelphi Theatre. She also played Nelly Armroyd, in Lost in London. Phillips was pleased with her acting; so was the critic Joseph Knight and the dramatist John Westland Marston; and all of them promote her career.
In 1868 she had become an experimental travelling star, acting Rosalind, Bulwer's Pauline, and Knowles' Julia; but she was not successful at first, and during the next three or four years she took a variety of jobs, sometimes acting in metropolitan stock companies, and sometimes taking better positions. One of the expedients that she early adopted was that of a dramatic recital, given at St. James' Hall, London. Long afterwards she repeated that recital in America, with brilliant effect. Some of the parts that she played, at various London theatres, were: Lillian, in Dr Marston's Life for Life; Madame Vidal, in A Life Chase, by John Oxenford and Horace Wigan; and Mary Belton, in Uncle Dick's Darling. In 1870 she gained a conspicuous success as Amy Robsart, a part that suited her well, in a play based on Sir Walter Scott's novel Kenilworth; and in 1871 she obtained critical admiration as Rebecca, in a play based on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.
By 1872 she was hugely popular and, after making a successful tour of British cities and giving a series of farewell performances in London, she came to America, where her agent was Edwin F. De Nyse. She made her first American appearance on 18 November 1872, at Booth's Theatre, New York City, as Juliet. She was praised by American critics who echoed the acclaim she had received from London theatrical audiences. She made subsequent American tours throughout the 1870s. She played Amy Robsart, heroine of Sir Walter Scott, in May 1873. She is noted for a fine engagement staged in Brooklyn, New York the same year. Her farewell at Booth's Theatre came on 2 May 1874. Neilson accepted an engagement at the Lyceum in the autumn that year. She performed in Cymbeline by William Shakespeare at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York on 14 May 1877. She not only achieved distinction on the American stage, but accumulated a considerable fortune. The parts that she acted in America included Juliet, Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice, Imogen and Isabella, from Shakespeare and Amy Robsart, Julia, Pauline and Lady Teazle, from other authors.
In 1877 she obtained a divorce from her husband and did not marry again. The story told some time later of her marriage to Edward Compton, an English actor, proved to be untrue.
Neilson was on the stage for about 15 years. She died suddenly whilst riding in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, France on 15 August 1880, aged 32. A subsequent post-mortem stated death was caused by blood loss due to a rupture in the broad ligament near the left fallopian tube. She is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London, where a sculptured cross of white marble bearing the inscription "Gifted and Beautiful—Resting." marks her grave.
In a scene in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920), Newland Archer, standing on a corner with Madame Olenska, recalls that Reggie Chivers is taking a large party of friends to see Adelaide Neilson in Romeo & Juliet on a winter's night in New York.
- "Edward F. De Nyse Dead," Brooklyn Daily Eagle (12 May 1896), p. 1.
- Marston, Our Recent Actors (London, 1890)
- Scott, The Drama of Yesterday and To-Day (London, 1899)
- Winter, in Other Days (New York, 1908)
- Winter, The Wallet of Time (volume i, New York, 1913)
- Laura C Holloway, Adelaide Neilson A Souvenir (New York 1885)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- "A Celebrated Actress Gone", New York Times, 16 August 1880.
- Adelaide Neilson at Find-a-grave
- Adelaide Neilson papers, 1870-1911, held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts