A Monstrous Achievement

Michael Holroyd is my friend and, since 1972 (senior) partner in literary crime, when we were appointed co-literary executors of the Strachey estate by Alix, the widow of James Strachey, who was the last surviving sibling of Lytton. I plead my special interest here because I have hugely relished his new book, A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families (Chatto £25; Farrar Strauss Giroux publish it in early March at $40). It's a remarkable achievement, because it's both a group biography, the stories of the lives of a complicated bunch, mostly related by blood, but all with ties to the theatre, and a deft, compressed history of the British theatre from almost the century 1830-1930.

Alice Ellen Terry was born into a theatrical family on 27 February 1847 and died in 1928, a Dame of the British Empire and England's best-known actress. Though she got through a fair number of men, she had her profession's cavalier attitude to marriage, and most definitely did not share the conventional feelings of her day when it came to love and marriage. She married (and eventually divorced) the much older painter, G.F. Watts, leaving him for a man of the theatre, Edward William Godwin, by whom she had two monstrously gifted illegitimate children, Ted and Edy, who metamorphosed into Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) and Edith Gordon Craig (1869-1947).

Then there is John Henry Broadribb, born on 6 February 1838, who was Sir Henry Irving when he died in 1905, and buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Only he wasn't - at least not his body. The elaborate coffin that had been carried through the streets of London, and its pall made from thousands of green leaves stitched together by two dozen florists, paid for by his last mistress, the Sephardic Jewish Mrs Aria, and the 14 pall-bearers that included his manager, Bram Stoker (author of "Dracula"), Beerbohm Tree, Forbes-Robertson, Pinero and Alma-Tadema, did not contain the body of England's greatest actor. His son Laurence had secretly taken the cadaver to Golders Green Crematorium the day before, as he'd been told that there was no longer room to inter a corpse in Westminster Abbey. It was all theatrical flim-flam, smoke and mirrors.

Irving and Terry were lovers as well as history's peerless theatrical partnership, but the closer relationship really lasted only long enough to ensure that her two children regarded him as their teacher and, in Ted's case, "Master." As Holroyd juggles his characters, the reader's feelings about them change - we are ourselves in the hands of the master of the narrative. Ellen Terry grows more and more fascinating, until she ends her days living in the midst of a coterie of preposterous lesbian ladies, which has formed around her daughter Edy. The description of this household is a succession of set pieces, each more subtly funny than the last. I don't think I'd quite grasped the lesbian subculture that flourished between the Wars - or its extent: Edy and her party, Christopher St. John (née Christabel Marshall), Tony Atwood (née Clare); Radclyffe Hall (née "Marguerite, but now known as John"), her companion Una Troubridge; the composer Dame Ethel Smyth; Evelyn Irons; Vita Sackville-West - and Virginia Woolf for good measure.

One thing lacking in this beautifully illustrated volume (colour plates, no less - making it a bargain) is family trees. I desperately needed one merely to keep track of Edward Gordon Craig's offspring, only two of whom were born in wedlock. I think I counted about a dozen. But then there was the daughter, born on the 22nd of the month to one of his "secretaries," Daphne (who was delivered of her when she went to the doctor complaining only of feeling a little unwell), and always called "Two-two."

Gordon Craig was a thorough villain, perfectly foul to his mother (Ellen Terry if you've already forgotten), to all his women, who included Isadora Duncan and to his myriad children. He was completely unreliable about money; had a soft spot for Mussolini, was so jealous of Max Reinhardt that when Hitler drove him out of the German theatre, he even expressed anti-Semitic sentiments; and lived in his later years by selling his same books and papers over and over to different buyers. He was the charmless charmer of all time.

Incidentally, I should probably say that I am thanked in the acknowledgements; though I have no idea what I could possibly have contributed to this volume. Unless?... the only mistake I have spotted in the entire book comes on p.462, where by "Paul Singer," Sir Michael intends a reference to Isadora Duncan's wealthy husband, Paris Singer. Singer is indeed the name of my maternal forbears, but despite an ancient family joke, I do not think we are genuinely related to the sewing machine heirs.

January 13, 2009 7:05 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on January 13, 2009 7:05 PM.

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