Christopher St. John, or Christabel Marshall as she was known until her conversion to Catholicism in 1912, should be more widely recognised that she in fact is. Although best remembered for her association with the renowned stage actress Dame Ellen Terry (after Terry’s death in 1928, she edited Terry’s correspondence with George Bernard-Shaw in 1931, and her Memoirs in 1933), St. John was much more besides. Not only a writer of some talent, she also openly embraced her sexuality, and refused to succumb to external pressures to lead a more orthodox life as many other lesbian women did at that time. By all accounts, St. John revelled in her love for her own sex and believed it should be celebrated.
Above: A sound recording of Ellen Terry in Romeo and Juliet (1911)
The daughter of the prolific children’s author, Emma Marshall, St. John was born in Exeter in 1871. Academically gifted from an early age, St. John read History at Somerville College, Oxford, before taking up a position as Secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill and less frequently, to her son Winston. It was through her keen interest in drama that she made her association with Ellen Terry, also becoming her sometime secretary. In addition, St. John’s involvement with Terry was to lead to the most significant meeting of her life. In 1896, she met Edith Craig, Terry’s illegitimate daughter by the architect Edward William Godwin. For St. John the attraction was instant and overwhelming. Craig, who apparently considered herself bisexual, readily reciprocated; and the two made no attempt to hide the true nature of their relationship. By 1899 they had already been living together in Smith Square in Westminster, before a decision, presumably based on Craig’s closeness to her actress mother and her own career as a theatre director and producer with the Lyceum Theatre Company prompted a move to the more convenient Covent Garden.
In 1903, the relationship between the two women was severely shaken. Craig, who still claimed to also be interested in men, had accepted a marriage proposal from the composer Martin Shaw. Craig had met Shaw through her brother, the theatre director and actor Edward Gordon Craig, with whom Shaw had co-founded the Purcell Operatic Society. Upon learning of Craig’s acceptance of the proposal, St. John was devastated. No union ever took place though, after Ellen Terry, who was supportive of Craig and St. John’s relationship, managed to persuade her daughter against the marriage. St. John would later fictionalise the incident with Shaw, in her novel, Hungerheart: The Story of a Soul. The novel’s main protagonist is Joanna Montolivet, an androgynous girl known within the story as John-Baptist, who falls in love with a character called Sally; their relationship being of a kind in which it was hard to determine, ‘which was the husband and which was the wife in the ménage!!’ John-Baptist is shattered when Sally later embarks upon a relationship with a man, describing the pain of Sally’s betrayal as a, ‘bomb hurtling through the serene air of my Paradise.’
St. John had begun work on Hungerheart back in 1899, the year she began living with Craig. The following year led to the publishing of St John’s first novel, The Crimson Weed. Through Craig’s involvement with the Suffrage Movement, St. John also became attracted to the cause, although the latter did not join the WSPU until 1909. Having done so, St. John adapted the suffragist Cicely Hamilton’s How the Vote Was Won, for the stage that very same year. The play not only proved popular with women but also received critical acclaim. Other successful works followed including St. John’s own play The First Actress, which was performed by Edith Craig’s society the Pioneer Players in 1911.
Hungerheart was finally published in 1915. Although not explicitly autobiographical, through the character of John-Baptist, St. John nevertheless chronicled her relationship with Craig and her involvement with the Suffrage Movement. Clare L. Taylor has noted in Women, Writing, and Fetishism 1890-1950: Female Cross-Gendering, that the novel is a highly erotically charged work. Even, ‘the touch of a hand would penetrate to my soul,’ reflects John-Baptist, ‘when words left me unmoved.’ As Nina Auerbach has also observed, Hungerheart blurs the boundaries between the sexes, with John-Baptist believing that her love of women must mean that she possesses a man’s soul; something that would later be explored by Virginia Woolf when she came to write Orlando. Whilst the book has now largely fallen into obscurity, its content was both brave and honest considering it came to be written at a time when such relationships as St. John and Craig’s, were not commonly accepted.
In 1916 St. John and Craig met the painter, Clare “Tony” Atwood, who trained at the Slade and was a member of an artist’s group called the Friday Club, which had been founded by Vanessa Bell in 1905. Atwood moved into their home in Covent Garden, and the three women would continue to live together for the rest of their lives. St. John would later recall after Craig’s death, ‘Different as were our antecedents, our characters, our temperaments, our talents, we belonged to the same world, the artist’s world. That established a camaraderie which was perfectly easy, unguarded and spontaneous.’ St. John also believed that, ‘The bond between Edy and me was strengthened not weakened by Tony’s association with us… Tony told me years later that when it was being arranged, Edy said, “I must warn you that if Chris does not like your being here… out you go.” ’
After Ellen Terry’s death, the trio moved to Priest’s House in Smallhythe, Kent. In the grounds of Smallyhthe Place, Terry’s former home, they founded the Barn Theatre which still holds productions to this day.
In the History of Homosexuality In Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939 (Volume 1), Florence Tamagne reveals that following their move to Priest’s House, St. John, Craig and Atwood frequently had guests to stay. These included Radcylle Hall, whose 1928 novel about lesbian love The Well of Loneliness sparked much controversy, and Una Troubridge; as well as Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West’s biographer, Victoria Glendinning, has noted that by 1932 St. John had fallen for the charismatic Vita, although apart from one night spent together St. John’s affections were not quite so ardently returned. Glendinning notes further that Woolf was most indignant with regard to St. John’s devotion, calling her ‘that mule-faced harridan of yours’ to Sackville-West.
Edith Craig died in 1947, and St. John and Atwood continued to live together at Priest’s House until St. John’s own death in 1960. Atwood would only outlive her by two years. In 2011, Ann Rachlin published Edy was a Lady, which contained Craig’s lost memoirs. In doing so Rachlin revealed that after Craig’s death and cremation, her ashes were somehow misplaced. Found years later, these were scattered alongside the remains of St. John and Atwood, who lie side by side in the grounds of Priest’s House.
In St. John’s obituary in The Times, it was claimed that George Bernard-Shaw had once remarked to her, in reference to the enduring bond between Craig, Atwood and herself, ‘You ought to write a history of that ménage a trois.’ St. John never did so, choosing instead to destroy her own personal papers following Craig’s death, according to Craig’s biographer, Katherine Cockin. Evidently, St. John did not want the intimate details of the life she shared with Craig and Atwood to be publicly known.
After her death, Vita Sackville-West stated of St. John’s that her ‘courage’ should ‘be set on record.’ While for Dame Sybil Thorndike even though those who loved her would, ‘miss this lively, extreme, and forceful personality’, St. John was simply, ‘too much an individual in her life and work to be one of the most popular.’ Nevertheless it is precisely her individuality that made Christopher St. John such a remarkable woman, whose current standing regrettably belies both her literary and cultural significance.
Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time – Nina Auerbach (1997)
Edith Craig (1869-1947): Dramatic Lives – Katherine Cockin (1998)
Women, Writing, and Fetishism, 1890-1950: Female Cross-gendering – Clare. L. Taylor (2003)
Vita: The Life of Sackville-West – Victoria Glendinning (2005)
Edy Was a Lady – Ann Rachlin (2011)