In some ways, the story of Teresa Harris, the youngest member in one of London’s first pioneer families, dovetails with that of Penn Kemp.
“I see a direct parallel with my own life. Things have changed so much. When I was growing up, London was so white-bred, and, I felt, so colonial, with its military history. There was more similarity between my upbringing in 1950s London and her upbringing in 1850s colonial London, than there would be now. Things have changed that much; I identified with her very much,” said Kemp, the first Poet Laureate of London and former Writer-in-Residence at Western.
Local history remembers Teresa Harris as a free-spirited, adventurous Victorian woman who went on to become one of the greatest explorers of her time. The connection Kemp felt with her was among the driving forces behind her 2013 processional play, The Dream Life of Teresa Harris. And this year, to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary, Kemp reunited with Teresa, writing a full-length play, The Triumph of Teresa Harris, which will be performed at The Palace Theatre in March.
“The board chair of Eldon House loved The Dream Life of Teresa Harris. She wanted me to continue it to celebrate the sesquicentennial, and the London Arts Council gave me a lovely grant to write it,” said Kemp, BA’66, CertEd’68, noting the production has been a true community effort.
In addition to support from Eldon House and the arts council, Dianne Haggerty of The Palace Theatre came on board as director, while Western students from English professor Manina Jones’ Community Engaged Learning course, Canadian Literature, Creativity and the Local, worked with Kemp to promote the play by maintaining a blog, designing a CD and even editing copy.
The Triumph of Teresa Harris, Kemp noted, is a great way for London to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary as it focuses on a local Victorian woman remembered for being “plucky” and a great explorer of the era.
“Hers is a triumph because she overcame, to some extent, the colonial inhibitions of her age,” Kemp said.
The youngest of the Harris clan, Harris was born at Eldon House in 1839 and spent her childhood in the Forest City. While she was reluctant to marry young, she married her first husband, John Scott, in 1859. The two travelled together until his death on a journey to India. Harris remarried in 1877. With her new husband, a hunter named St. George Littledale, she travelled extensively around the world. The pair even worked together as spies for England, documenting the people, plants and animals they encountered.
“She was always babied. She was sickly, and she was a reader. She lived through her imagination and when her first husband proposed, he took her off to great foreign fields like Japan and Kashmir – exotic places. And from the sickly little girl, the youngest of 12, she became this amazingly plucky helpmate to her husbands,” Kemp said.
Teresa’s father, John Harris, was a surveyor and Amelia Harris, his young wife, accompanied him and helped him survey the Great Lakes regions. Here, Kemp saw a potential connection to the legacy of Teresa and Littledale, her second husband.
“St. George Littledale and Teresa, later on in the late 1890s, early 1900s, surveyed all this disputed territory on the borders of China and Russia for the British empire and for King Edward. My theory is, and I’ve put it in the play, is Teresa taught St. George how to survey; it is known that Amelia and her father taught the kids how to survey,” she explained.
A woman from colonial London, Harris broke the mould of the time, Kemp added.
“Her most famous line to me is, ‘I believe I have a bit of the Bedouin Arab in me.’ And the picture of her on the camel says it all. Here she is, in full Victorian 1870 dress, with the great crinoline and that hoop – and over top of that, overlaid like a palimpsest, is this Arab garb. She’s looking as proud and haughty as the camel. If you look at the guide, he’s what? Surly? Is he oppressed? That look is so telling of the hierarchy of things in those days.”
ENJOY THE SHOW
The Triumph of Teresa Harris by Penn Kemp, BA’66, CertEd’68, will be performed at The Palace Theatre in late March, with a teaser date set for March 4. For more information and for performance dates, visit the play’s blog at teresaharrisdreamlife.wordpress.com.