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Jean Margaret Davenport

This is the second week of a year-long blogging project. I’m proposing to blog on a different child actor for 52 weeks. See here for more details. Today I turn my attention towards the performer who first piqued my interest in child actors and actresses, Jean Margaret Davenport, and the scrapbooks documenting her colonial travels.

Born in Wolverhampton, England in 1829, Jean Margaret Davenport made her stage debut in at the age of seven in the Richmond (Surrey) Theatre, where the celebrated Romantic actor Edmund Kean had once played.[1] With her parent’s support, she quickly mastered a broad repertoire, playing such roles as Lady Teazle, Juliet, Richard III, Shylock, and the Scottish hero Rob Roy. Her father, Thomas, a former lawyer who both managed and acted alongside his daughter, developed a suite of publicity tactics, frequently billing her as the “astonishing Juvenile Actress” and the “First Juvenile Actress of the Day.”[2] And although she fiercely denied the association later in life, Jean Davenport was widely rumored to have inspired Charles Dickens to create the character of Ninetta Crummles, the falsely advertised “Infant Phenomenon,” in Nicholas Nickleby.[3]

Illustration of Dicken's Ninetta Crummles, the "Infant Phenomenon"
George Alfred Williams’ illustration of Dicken’s Ninetta Crummles, the “Infant Phenomenon.” Courtesy of Ten Girls from Dickens.

Like other child actresses of the early nineteenth century, a high point in the history of child acting, Jean Davenport not only demonstrated her emotional vulnerability in tragic male roles, but also showcased her flexibility and range in flashy afterpieces such as An Actress of All Work and The Manager’s Daughter, portraying a rapid succession of different character types. Reviews of Davenport’s performances suggest that while part of her appeal may have been the novelty of seeing a young child trod the boards as Shylock or Richard III, she also possessed an uncanny ability to move audiences emotionally. Commenting on her portrayal of Shylock when he “finds himself thwarted in his revenge,” a critic in Kingston, Jamaica remarked that, “nothing could excel the haggard look, the horror stricken mind, depicted by Miss Davenport in the scene.”[4] Another observed that, with the exception of Edmund Kean, the young girl’s Shylock “far surpassed those who have made it the study of their lives to excel in this great creation of the Poet.” For this writer, Davenport’s depiction of Shylock’s “utter prostration, both mentally and bodily” upon realizing his ruin was “altogether astonishing in so young a person, and so inexperienced in those violent passions and emotions which rack so terribly the human mind.”[5]

After success in England, including a debut at Drury Lane, Jean Davenport and her family embarked on several tours of the provinces and colonies. They visited North America in the late fall of 1838 and remained on the continent for close to a year, with stops in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, Kingston (Upper Canada), and Montreal. The tour was successful and so in the summer of 1840, the Davenports undertook a second lengthy tour of the colonies, this time with additional stops in the Caribbean and the Maritime colonies. The Davenports documented the company’s travels in scrapbooks of varying sizes and shapes, many of which exist today in the Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress.

On scrapbooks

Page from scrapbook documenting Jean Margaret Davenport’s travels through the British colonies. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Scrapbooks defy straightforward classification: historians have described them variously as “filing systems,”[6] “diaries of sorts,”[7] “multilayered expression[s] of individual sentiment enunciated through objects that carry an emotional association,” “material artifact[s] [that] symboliz[e] both personal and cultural identity,”[8] and “paper museum[s]” built by “otherwise anonymous individuals who extracted mass-produced items from one context and provided them with a new different setting.”[9] Varying in size and content, scrapbooks are best understood as books that invite their owners to assemble and paste newspaper clippings, cards, images, and other small objects onto their blank pages.

Scrapbooks first gained popularity in the early-nineteenth century as a variation on the commonplace book, a form of life writing that generally included selections of poetry and passages from the owner’s favorite sermons, novels, and related texts.[10] By mid-century most scrapbooks fell into one of two categories: books bursting with “brightly colored chromolithographed images known as scraps” and keepsake albums filled with a mix of texts and engravings.[11] The proliferation of print media in the mid- to-late nineteenth century fueled the craze for clipping and pasting printed text and attractive images into personal scrapbooks. In this respect, cultural historian Ellen Gruber Garvey argues, “[s]crapbooks merge the practice of saving with the record of saving.”[12] Through scrapbooking, men and women not only participated in the production, consumption, circulation, and preservation of print culture but also used the form to tell histories about themselves. The scrapbook can thus be understood as a unique form of life writing, different from but comparable to the diary or memoir in that they “materialize the collector’s vision of herself.” [13]   

In a recent Theatre Survey article, Sharon Marcus insists on the importance of the theatrical scrapbook, a unique sub-genre of the scrapbook form. Theatrical scrapbooks, Marcus writes, have much to “teach us about the history of performance” including the “economics, geography, and sociology of theatre spectatorship” as well as insight into historical enactments of gender, race, sexuality, and nationality.[14] Scrapbooks created by theatrical performers likewise offer important lessons in the cultural politics and professional dynamics of a given period. Garvey identifies actors and actresses as “particularly avid scrapbook makers.” Alert to the form’s promotional capacity, many nineteenth century performers pasted reviews, playbills, and related ephemera into personal scrapbooks, which they occasionally used “as a job-hunting aid to show to theater managers.”[15]

Inside Jean Davenport's scrapbook. The playbill on the left is in Spanish. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Inside Jean Davenport’s scrapbook. The playbill on the left is in Spanish and announces Davenport’s forthcoming performance as Ricardo Tercero (Richard III). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Like most scrapbooks, Jean Davenport’s books includes dozens of carefully clipped and pasted newspaper articles arranged into two or three columns on each page. In cases where an article extends beyond the edge of the scrapbook, the creator has carefully folded the clipping to prevent ripping. The length and content of the articles vary, giving each page its own distinctive look. Some pages present a uniform appearance, with three columns of neatly clipped articles, while others adopt a more haphazard look, with groups of short clippings more-or-less aligned in a row or arranged in a geometric pattern. On many of the pages, brief notes written on horizontal strips of white paper provide context for the articles that follow. Most of the articles are reviews of Davenport’s performances, but editorials attacking the young actress and her father are prominent exceptions, as are several “Letters to the Editor” written by Thomas Davenport himself.

Reading through the scrapbook, the contemporary reader tracks Jean Davenport and her family from Spanishtown to Kingston, eventually to Montego Bay and back to Kingston; later pages take the reader forward in time to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Dover, and the Hague. The scrapbook’s structure and organization script the reader’s movement through its pages, supporting a linear temporal journey. “In a scrapbook, the order of the materials on the page remains the same and uses the language of juxtaposition,” Garvey writes.[16] Working with Robin Bernstein’s concept of the “scriptive thing,” Garvey distinguishes scrapbooks from newspapers or clippings files: “Scrapbooks declare that they are something other than files of clippings; the framework and arrangement of materials they embody are works in themselves.”[17] Readers cannot reorder the clippings in the scrapbook without destroying the book itself and must therefore follow its organizational structure and the path laid out by its creator (though, of course, a reader might choose to flip ahead). Put differently, scrapbooks make manifest the collector’s point of view and work on behalf of that collector to promote a particular interpretation of the material pasted within.[18]

This drawing of the New Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica appeared in Jean Davenport's scrapbook. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
This drawing of the New Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica appears in Jean Davenport’s scrapbook. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I’ll conclude with a brief description of the only image that appears in Scrap Book #2: a drawing of the new Kingston (Jamaica) Theatre in created by a juvenile hand, possibly Jean Davenport’s. Pasted sideways into the scrapbook, it records the new theatre’s impressive façade, its prominent front steps, support columns, large windows, and balcony. Although the artist’s skills are limited (a sign of her youth?), s/he has made an obvious attempt to document the new theatre in as much detail as possible, as though aware that by passing through its doors she is making history and will need to remember her time in that building.[19] From its pasted place on the page, the drawing folds time, joining past and present, actress and historian. I turn the book to get a better look at the drawing, directed by its sideways placement. I take a photo. I take another photo, and another, trying to capture the drawing’s simplicity and beauty. These are the moments I live for as an historian.


[1] Jean Margaret (Davenport) Lander. Letter to Shakespeareana. Y.c.736 (1 a-c), Folger Shakespeare Library.

[2] Qtd. in Robert Simpson McLean, “How ‘the Infant Phenomenon’ Began the World: the Managing of Jean Margaret Davenport (182?-1903), Dickensian 88.3 (1993): 133,43, at 146.

[3] Lander, Letter to Shakespeareana.

[4] “Theatricals.” St. Iago Gazette (?)13 June 1840, clipping, Scrap Book #2.

[5] “Theatre.” Kingston Dispatch 11 Sept. 1840, clipping, Scrap Book #2.

[6] Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford UP: 2012 [online 2013]), 4.

[7] Garvey, Writing with Scissors, 15.

[8] Buckler and Leeper, “An Antebellum Woman’s,” 1.

[9] Garvey, 116.

[10] Garvey, 15.

[11] Sharon Marcus, “The Theatrical Scrapbook.” Theatre Survey 54.2 (May 2013), 287.

[12] Garvey, 29.

[13] Garvey, 207.

[14] Marcus, 297.

[15] Garvey, 10.

[16] Garvey, 207.

[17] Garvey, 208.

[18] Garvey, 208. Of course, this is not to suggest that readers cannot read against the grain or refuse to follow the scrapbook’s script. As Bernstein points out, the idea of “script” is flexible enough to account for reader agency. It is nevertheless extremely helpful for thinking about how human interactions are molded by the objects we encounter. See Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 27.4 (2004): 67-94.

[19] This drawing is the only drawing I’ve come across in any of the Davenport scrapbooks, which suggests that the scrapbook collector also considered it important.