JENNIE LEE (c.1849 - 1930)
By
Jennifer Carnell

Jennie Lee as Jo in 1876.

The picture above shows the Victorian actress Jennie Lee in her most famous role: Jo the crossing sweeper in an adaptation of Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens. The adaptation of Jo was by Jennie Lee's husband J.P. Burnett (born c.1846) and was first performed in London at the Globe Theatre in 1876, with Jennie as Jo and a rather young Louise Hibbert (age twenty one) as Lady Dedlock. Jennie Lee continued to play the role for many years in the United Kingdom and other countries. There were several play versions of Bleak House, one of which (Lady Dedlock's Secret) made Lady Dedlock the central character, and Jo moved audiences with, as one critic remarked, 'a realism and a pathos difficult to surpass'.

Jennie Lee's real name was Emily Lee and she was the daughter of the artist Edwin George Lee. She was born in London and went on the stage after her father died, making her debut at the Lyceum Theatre in a small role as a page. In 1870 she was engaged by Mrs. Swanborough at the Strand Theatre, and played leading roles in burlesque comedies for two years.

She was then employed by E.A. Sothern who took her to New York where she appeared in the part of Mary Meridith in Our American Cousin at Niblo's Theatre. She remained in America for at least two years. It was while in San Francisco that Jennie's husband, John Pringle Burnett a theatre manager born in Edinburgh, wrote the play Jo and the role was associated with her for the rest of her career.

In 1875 Jennie and John returned to Britain and John became the lessee of the Globe Theatre in 1876. Jo was performed at the Globe on 22 February 1876. In 1879 Jennie and John had a daughter called Joan, and in 1880 a son called John. In the early 1900s Joan was working as an actress and appeared in Peter Pan - she died shortly after.

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