A prestigious memorial eroded by time betrays the memory of an iconic Victorian woman.
Her fine contralto voice was often used to excellent effect in imitating male tenors of the day and she was a master of comedy performance. But Mrs Howard Paul followed the pattern of women adopting their husbands name professionally. Four years ago I found one such woman, whose name is chained to that of her partner. I went to try and find her grave, which was as eroded as her memory in modern public conciousness.
So let us pick up where her knackered monument has entirely failed and bring to the forefont Isabella Hill, more professionally known as Mrs. Howard Paul.
A Dartford Girl
Isabella was the daughter of a Dartford-based leather merchant and born in 1833. From a young age was regarded highly for the natural talent she had with her singing voice. Encouraged to train and study in France and Italy, she soon made professional appearances in the West End in the early 1850’s as a member of the Strand Theatre Company, by which point she was using the name Isabella Featherstone.
Her earliest roles included a ‘breeches’ part in ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ in which she played Captain Macheath, the womanising leader of a gang of thieves. Women at this time were visibly portraying opposite genders on stage and the Captain’s character was likely base don 18th century rascal Jack Sheppard. Continuing this gender subversion for the stage, actors Mary Anne Keeley and Nellie Farren would later play Sheppard: Keeley was a contemporary of Paul.
In July 1854 Isabelle married American actor and writer Henry Howard Paul, whom she’d likely been dating since the late 1840s. A new start for them both culminated in Henry making his own stage debut, likely inspired by Isabella’s success in a vaudeville piece entitled ‘My Neighbour Opposite‘ in Bath, Somerset the very same year.
Thus began an entertainment double act I’d liken to a 19th century Sonny and Cher. However, even from obituaries published after her death in 1879, it is clear she may have had a more successful career without him.
As A Performer
One of their popular pieces as a couple was ‘Patchwork‘: a touring production that showcased 14 characters played by Isabelle in a vehicle not unlike a modern day sketch show, with music. A popular song Isabella would end on was Tennyson’s 1857 poem ‘Come Into the Garden Maud’, which is an 1850s equivalent of Adele’s ‘I Drink Wine’.
By essentially emulating what many music hall performers were doing in the 1860s, this showcased her comic versatility and also reveals a possible insight into her own beliefs. One of her songs was an early suffragette anthem entitled ‘Don’t Bother the Men’, where she played an intellectual woman called Miss Grym, although from this V and A blog (and the lack of a copy being available to read online) I’m not entirely sure if she was singing for women’s rights, or if she was lampooning them.
Around this time Isabelle also became known for her excellent mimicry: particularly of English male tenors. She was able to fool an audience in Scarborough by cross-dressing and pretending to be eminent tenor Herbert Sims Reeve, who at the last minute pulled out of a scheduled appearance. The audience gave a rapturous applause and fully believed they had seen Reeves perform, completely unaware that they had in fact seen a very talented woman in drag.
Her last big role was the one that defined her career. Up until 1877 her portrayal as Lady Macbeth won her wide acclaim but it was under Gilbert and Sullivan’s third comic-opera ‘The Sorcerer’ where the role of Lady Sangazure was written for her. (The overture for which is just….phenomenal). But the estrangement from her husband weighed heavily on her and subsequent involvement in HMS Pinafore was cut as her voice, and her health, began to falter.
Her husband, in my view, was likely the main reason why she died at the early age of 46. He had been having an affair with a woman by the name of Letty Lind, who was ten years old when she started performing with Pauls, although when Letty became old enough to take the role of mistress I’ve not been able to find out. Isabelle would leave Henry in 1877 but still retain the name of ‘Mrs Howard Paul’: a divorce would have been scandlous and impacted her career. A year later the first of two children were born between Letty and Henry. What Isabelle must have made of this, we can only imagine.
Isabelle died at her home at 17 The Avenue, Turnham Green, after returning from an engagement in Birmingham. Her funeral attracted a puzzling scene where shortly after the coffin had been placed into the grave, a well-dressed woman in her sixties threw a posie of flowers into the grave, paused for a moment, and walked off. Who this woman was was never discovered.
Various articles and biographies have made comment regarding where her grave is and if she even has one. The promise her heartbroken (who was now the father of two small children with Letty) husband made – to erect a monument befitting her memory was likely promised out of guilt, or to give the illusion their marriage was solid. With a bit of sleuthing and help from some followers on Twitter however, it seems he did make good on his promise – a monument sculpted by John A. Ruemaekers, a Belgian artist of whom I can only find scant reference to online.
The monument itself is in bad condition and very little would say to you that beneath this stone lies a remarkable performer. Its current state explains why people may have not been able to find it, although traces of a carved wreath which would have once held a ‘medallion portrait’ are just about visible. Henry would later die in 1905 and is buried elsewhere. A year later after his wife’s death he’s found on a train telling a policeman to watch his language in mind of the women in the carriage. Where was that concern for poor Isabella, I wonder.
Of course as a resident of the 21st century, I can lament how she continued to use her husbands name. She had little choice – divorces were expensive and as a performer such proceedings would have been disastrous to a woman. Particularly in an era where acting and performing was seen by many in the same light as prostitiution.
There is a very real sense that she never attained the status she ought to have done, despite her many successes on the stage. So as Women’s History Month 2022 kicks off, I very firmly disregard ‘Mrs Howard Paul’ and celebrate the cultural contribution Isabella Hill made to theatre and the arts in the mid 19th century.
3 responses to “Bother the Men! The Grave of Mrs Howard Paul”
Well done Sheldon. You are so good at digging up the past, keep it up.
Very interesting! Thank you for sharing
Great work – hoorah for Isabella Hill!