A Strange Eventful History -- the Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry,
Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families
By Michael Holroyd
Chatto and Windus £25
Dateline: 28th September, 2008
It is rather embarrassing to have to admit that this is the first biography
by Michael Holroyd that the reviewer has read. This distinguished writer
is pretty much the best in the business, having written large scale
biographies of Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey and Augustus John.
This means that he is well qualified to pen a volume about two of the
most colourful families in theatrical history. One suspects that, having
decided that rather than a single biography he would write primarily
about two generations of two families, Holroyd may well have come to
regret his ambition, as he discovered more and more sources of information,
many previously unpublished.
It is very much to his credit that he has condensed years of research
into only around 600 pages and, from start to finish, keeps his readers
fascinated and eager to turn the pages.
Henry Irving alone is a remarkable enough figure to be deserving of
another biography. Although a loner who was far from handsome, he was
indisputably the greatest actor of his day and did his best to manage
theatres, primarily the Lyceum.
As so many others have found to their cost subsequently, it is very
hard to maintain profitability in the theatre and without lengthy tours
around Britain and the United States, he would probably have run out
of money long before his businesses eventually did so and he was forced
to sell out.
His leading lady for so many years - and, it is suggested his lover
- Ellen Terry was as gregarious as he was cold, coming from a large
theatrical family of rare talent.
Together, they became the stars of the age, wowing delighted audiences
for two generations. They also made each other happy as no one else
could despite numerous attempts on both of their parts to find true
love with others.
When little more than a child, Ellen Terry married the Pre-Raphaelite
painter G. F. Watts, an ugly man almost three times her age. Unsurprisingly,
this very quickly turned into a disaster for which neither was really
In a Victorian age when it was not done, she then entered a series
of common-law marriages and had two children, Ted and Edy, out of wedlock.
All the time though Ellen Terry was still the darling of London thanks
to her performances on stage.
Irving did little better on the marriage front, remaining wedded for
a very long period but to a wife, Florence, from whom he had split up
early on and who grew to hate him at a distance. Sadly, both of their
children, Harry and Laurence, were to die early, although another Laurence,
his grandson, became the actor's best-known biographer.
Miss Terry's children, both eccentric in the extreme, went on to live
long and eventful lives. Ted became the theatrical designer Edward Gordon
Craig. who was born generations ahead of his time and felt far happier
in foreign climes, far away not only from his fellow countrymen but
his family too.
His fecundity has rarely been equalled, since this reader literally
lost count of the number of women by whom he had his dozen or so children.
The final count is probably eight, including his soulmate, the legendary
dancer Isadora Duncan.
Even more notable is the fact that several of these discarded loves
were devoted to him even when they discovered his infidelities; and
would work without pay or even provide cash in order to be allowed to
remain within his circle.
Edy specialised in costumes and, rather than marrying, entered a relationship
with another woman who designated herself as Christopher St John. Their
solution when the relationship foundered was to invite a third lady
into the house, which sorted out the problem nicely.
This is no ordinary biography, beautifully written, well researched
and endlessly enjoyable with its re-creation of life on the stage a
century and more ago. Add in an array of wild Bohemians and A Strange
Eventful History becomes an ideal Christmas (or birthday) gift for
anyone who enjoys books about actors or, for that matter, written lives
as a genre.
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