A Strange, Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families, by Michael Holroyd
It is rare today to come across a non-fiction book that does not include in its title or subtitle the assertion that the tale it tells is ‘remarkable’, ‘extraordinary’, or ‘fas- cinating’, publishers presumably having decided that we readers are unlikely to guess that a book might be interesting unless it says so on the cover. Inevitably, these claims have become devalued. Michael Holroyd, perhaps in ironic homage to this trend, puts no less than four appetite-whetting adjectives on his menu, with the original twist that the feast they advertise actually satisfies them all.
Any one of the lives told here would make resonant reading; related together they enrich and make sense of each other, providing mutual contexts. The alliance, which spanned a quarter of a century, between Ellen Terry (three husbands, two illegitimate children) and Henry Irving (one wife, two children, estranged from all three) elevated the status of the theatre to a degree which would have been unimaginable when they first played opposite each other in 1867.
Despite the fact that both Irving and Terry discouraged their children from entering the profession, all four were destined for the theatre, the three boys rejecting more respectable careers and Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, who Terry hoped would study at Girton, ‘had her own ideas and easily succeeded in failing the entrance exam’. Her life, and the life of her brother, Edward Gordon Craig, could not, aside from their shared devotion to theatre production, have been more different: Edith lived with another woman for nearly 50 years, while Edward left a long trail of illegitimate children and abandoned women in his wake, as well as his wife — each time he tried to leave her he merely left her pregnant again — and their four children.
Holroyd’s art is in marshalling a bewildering, often uncurated and vast array of sources to bring us a tale which appears to be told with so little effort. The result is what one desires in great biography: the product of infinite labour on the biographer’s part, without its evidence. While we know the narrative is not authorless, Holroyd manages to interpret and analyse without ever becoming a voice that is louder than his subjects’. Subtle as an assassin, he lets his characters express themselves at every available opportunity, never suggesting a line of thought that is outside or inconsistent with the evidence he presents. Above all, he never wonders — that is our job.
Academics will baulk at Holroyd’s decision not to give footnotes. (He of course lists his sources, but anyone should pity the poor scholar attempting to track down an individual quote.) Yet, given his suggestion that he could never have finished the book had he had to justify each sentence, one cannot wish the book away. (The smoothness of the text is just one of the subtle ways in which Holroyd seduces the reader, manipulating our experience of his narrative. Because, although his presence is unobtrusive, it is the presence of the puppet-master: unseen, but controlling. His use of names provides a clear example. He gives us Henry Irving almost always as ‘Irving’ — The Irving, the great actor — whereas Ellen Terry is universally ‘Ellen’ — Our Ellen, the great actress. Similarly, Terry’s daughter, Edith Craig, is always ‘Edy’ as her family and friends called her, whereas her son, Edward Gordon Craig, is sometimes ‘Ted’ for the same reason, but more usually ‘Gordon Craig’, usages which reflect Edy’s relatively modest view of her own significance and Gordon Craig’s perception of his own immense importance. As readers we feel more intimate and comfortable with Edy, and rather more diffident about Gordon, whose powers we feel we should appreciate.
Names are of course important. Terry’s children always called Irving ‘Henry’ (except in the theatre), whereas his own sons, living with Irving’s estranged wife, Florence, called him ‘Irving’ and Florence chillingly spoke of him to the boys as ‘Mr Irving’. Edy and Gordon Craig had the best of ‘Henry’, sharing much of the time he spent with their mother, but while he was a father-figure to them, he was largely absent from his own sons’ lives.
Holroyd often similarly absents himself from the story. One brief example must serve. Irving’s sons, although eventually reconciled as adults with their father, viewed both him and Terry through the prism of their mother’s unrelieved bitterness towards Irving, and concomitantly the theatre and its liberal social conventions. The effect this had on the boys’ world-view is painfully evident in an almost throwaway reference by Lawrence (the older of the two) to Oscar Wilde’s conviction at the Old Bailey, which occurred on the same day it was announced that Irving would receive a knighthood. Incapable of appreciating the honour done to his father, Lawrence uses Wilde as a serviceable substitute for the punishment he wishes on Irving: ‘Wilde is in the dust. Retribution has certainly overtaken him,’ he wrote to his mother. ‘I think old Queensberry’s a brick.’ Holroyd does not need to add a word to fill out the picture. Just as he has no need to spell out his reading of the evidence, Holroyd never needs to announce — allowing as he so often does the facts to reveal themselves — a central anomaly in this story:that it is a tale of families, but families without fathers, and the consequent repercussions of this down the generations.
When we are aware of Holroyd’s voice it is that of a perspicacious and often amused bystander. There are one-liners which nail down the evidence and would stand up in a court of law (of Ellen Terry and Gordon Craig he efficiently articulates what we have begun to surmise: ‘neither mother nor son could sustain emotion’); on other occasions he just shares with us the pleasure he has found in a detail, such as in his description of the horse acquired to play the emaciated Rozinante in Irving’s production of Don Quixote. (An ‘almost dead animal’ arrived at Euston station, only to be ‘arrested by the police and escorted to the knacker’s yard’. A fitter specimen, though given to flatulence, stepped into the breach, inspiring confidence because it ‘had acted with Beerbohm Tree’.)
The book is not a narrative of consecutive events; while it moves generally forward in time the chapters are organised around themes: hence a chapter about Terry and a chapter about Edy may cover the same time period, approaching the family from different angles. A major character in one scene is a walk-on in the next, as in the Ayckbourn plays where simultaneous action is represented, viewed from different locations in the same house. This gives much more of a sense of the way in which families — and histories — really are: in life things overlap and converge and are viewed from disparate points. This strategy adds to the book’s seamlessness and the sense in which it is layered rather than sequential.
To call this book a tour de force too forcibly recalls the clichés with which we began. Holroyd has upped the game of the joint or multiple biography. In his hands it has become an opportunity to open many windows on one world. His book is an unalloyed treat.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 18, 2008