Lewisham’s famous women: Clemence Dane (1888-1965)

Clemence Dane was born Winifred Ashton on 21 February 1888 in Westcombe Park Road, Blackheath. In 1897 the family moved to 22 Westwood Hill, Sydenham where they stayed until 1901. During this period young Winifred attended Sydenham High School. Her family then moved out of Lewisham but she returned to the area in about 1913 to live with an old school friend at The Cottage, The Mount (now Mount Gardens), Sydenham and remained there until 1919.

A gifted student, she was educated in a variety of private schools and, at age 16, was hired to teach French in Geneva, Switzerland. A year later she returned to England and studied art for three years in London, and another year in Dresden, Germany, and showed promise as a portrait painter. However, she gave up her art career to accept a position as a teacher in Ireland. In 1913 she left that position for a career as a stage actress. She appeared at the Criterion Theatre on 12 February, 1913, as Vera Lawrence in Eliza Comes to Stay. In those days she was known as Diana Cortis. She was an actress for several years until World War I broke out.

She plunged into war work and drove herself so relentlessly that her health suffered. After the war she taught at a girls’ school, and began writing. Her first play Regiment of Women, written in 1917, was a study of life in a girls’ school. It’s gained notoriety due to its more or less veiled treatment of lesbian relationships inside and outside a school setting.

She wrote it under the pseudonym Clemence Dane, a name she picked in honour of the famous London church of St Clement Danes (later gutted in a German bombing raid in 1940).

Regiment of Women was very successful. Her next novel, Legend, produced in 1921, was also successful, and several reviewers suggested that it should be turned into a play. She followed their advice, and the play, now called A Bill of Divorcement, had a successful run on Broadway and the London stage with Katharine Cornell, and was made into a film several times, most notably with Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore. (A Bill of Divorcement 1932).

Many more novels and plays followed and she also wrote film scripts, sometimes with collaborators, including Anna Karenina for Greta Garbo and St Martin’s Lane for Charles Laughton. She was very interested in the theatre and theatrical history, both of which are used as background for her novels, Broom Stages (1931) and The Flower Girls (1954).

Much of her work for radio was also on historical themes and in 1958 she wrote a play for BBC television commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne.

Clemence Dane won an Oscar as scriptwriter of Vacation from marriage in 1946. She was the first British woman screenwriter to have ever achieved that award. In 1953 she was awarded the CBE.

In private life she was unmarried but kept open house for friends and was noted for her generous, outgoing character.

She was described by her great friend Noel Coward as “a wonderful unique mixture of artist, writer, games mistress, poet and egomaniac.”

She was the inspiration for the character of eccentric medium Madame Arcati in Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, committed most memorably to the screen by the legendary Margaret Rutherford, and most recently interpreted on stage by the equally legendary Angela Lansbury.

In Britannia’s Glory: A History of Twentieth Century Lesbians, author Emily Hamer posits that Clemence Dane was a lesbian who went to great lengths to keep her private life private. Based on Dane’s will, Hamer surmises that Dane had been in a relationship with long time house companion Elsie Arnold but that the relationship ended and Dane became involved with Olwen Bowen-Davies. This book also details the lengths Dane went to ensure her written communications that didn’t relate to her literary work, were destroyed.

By the time of her death on 28 March 1965, Dane had written more than thirty plays and sixteen novels.


Famous Women of Lewisham
Clemence Dane: The real ‘Madame Arcati’
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