The Academy of Dramatic Art
By the end of the War, life at the Eastbourne Vicarage had changed
irrevocably. Ruth was concentrating on her career as an art teacher;
Bill, who had been wounded in the war, was going to Cambridge;
and Barbara was getting married. Noel had also made up her mind
what she wanted to do: she was going to be an actress.
William, although undoubtedly shocked, was supportive, and arranged
for Noel to study at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She
was accepted as a student for the term beginning in January 1919,
at the age of 23. She decided to adopt the stage name "Noelle
Although by no means one of the star pupils, Noel did win the
"Good Studentship" prize at the end of 1919. However,
she did not get good parts in the Public Show - to which theatrical
managers, agents and critics were invited - and she left the Academy
in April 1920 with no firm job prospects.
The Charles Doran Company
Desperate for any kind of work, Noel took a five week job as
a chorus girl in a musical comedy.
this, however, she had the extraordinary good fortune to
obtain a place in a new Shakespearean touring company. The
company had been started by Charles Doran, an Irish actor,
and some of the other members were to become very well known
in the theatre - Ralph Richardson, Norman Shelley, Donald
Wolfit, Cecil Parker and Edith Sharpe. Noel enjoyed working
with the company, and it was at this stage that she developed
the love of Shakespeare that permeates so many of her works.
Noel was with the company for two happy years, but at the
end of 1922 she left following a dispute in which she had
taken the side of the actors' union, Equity, against Charles
Noel as Titania
Angela Bull suggests
that Noel's two years with the company was the high point of her
stage career, and that "For the next seven years it gradually
ran downhill, and although there were occasional upturns, she
never again had the challenging range of parts or the intellectual
stimulus that the Doran company had given her" (1984:80).
After leaving the company, Noel briefly worked in a melodrama
in Portsmouth, and then gained a part in a new London production,
The Insect Play, opposite John Gielgud in his first professional
appearance. The play was not successful, and Noel moved on to
a series of productions at the Kingsway Theatre, in London, of
which the most successful was Yoicks, a light revue which
ran for a year. Bull feels
that at this time Noel lost her ambitions to be a serious actress,
and concentrated more on having an active social life. To support
this social life, she took on modelling jobs, in addition to her
When Yoicks finished, Noel found it difficult to get
further work. Telling her agent that she would consider any part,
anywhere, Noel was offered the Fairy Heartsease in a pantomime
Mother Goose in Newcastle upon Tyne. This two months'
job must have seemed dead-end to Noel, but in fact it had two
important results. The pantomime company included a troupe of
child dancers, not unlike Lila Field's Little Wonders, and Noel
was finally able to find out what the life of a child performer
was like. This was to prove invaluable for her future writing
career. More immediately, someone who saw the pantomime recommended
her to Arthur Bouchier, a well known theatre figure.
The Arthur Bourchier Company
Arthur Bourchier was planning to tour with a production of A.
E. W. Mason's At the Villa Rose, and he wanted Noel for
the heroine. The tour went well, and Noel enjoyed herself, so
when Bourchier decided to take At the Villa Rose, and
a number of other productions, to South Africa, Noel leaped at
Sadly, discord within the company made the South African tour
something of a nightmare for Noel. The sitution reached rock bottom
in Johannesberg, when Bourchier unexpectedly died. Needing the
money, Noel fought to have the tour continue - others of the company
wanted to abandon it - but without Bourchier it was not a success.
Noel arrived home "knowing that all the old magic of the
theatre had gone. She had lost her ambitions, and was beginning
to admit secretly to herself that she would be glad of an excuse
to abandon her career" (Bull,
1984:98). She continued working with a series of short engagements,
but the fun was gone. While "resting" at Eastbourne,
she enrolled for a correspondence course in writing. At her mother's
suggestion, she sent one of her stories (about a magician who
turns his daughter into a rabbit, and forgets the spell to turn
her back) to a children's magazine. The magazine paid her two
guineas, and suggested that she might try a full length children's
book. However, she had no time for this, as she had been engaged
for an Australian tour of a play called The Wrecker by
Donald Calthrop. Just before she left, her parents told her that
William was going to be made the Bishop of Lewes.
Touring in Australia
On the boat to Australia, Noel met Daphne Ionides, the English
daughter of a wealthy art connoisseur, with whom she formed a
very close friendship. Angela
Bull notes that this friendship - and Noel's later friendship
with Margot Grey and perhaps Theodora Newbold - appear to have
been deeper and more passionate than anything Noel ever felt for
someone of the opposite sex. Although there is nothing to suggest
that any of these friendships became physical, it does appear
that Noel's strongest relationships were with women, rather than
Noel started keeping a diary at this time - possibly with the
idea of developing her writing skills - and later in the tour
attempted to write two novels, Marge and Bluebell
Bloggs, neither of which were ever published.
In December, William's appointment as Bishop was made official,
but less than two months later - on 17 February, 1929 - he died
of a heart attack. Unable to return for the funeral, Noel completed
the Australian tour "like a zombie" (quoted in Bull,
1984: 108), unable even to write in her diary for a month. "She
had sometimes gone against [her father's] wishes, frequently flouted
his moral standard, and abandoned the religious practices he had
taught her; but he was always the person she loved and respected
most" (Bull, 1984:108).
When the tour ended, Noel decided to give up the theatre altogether,
and start a new career as a novelist.