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A Strange Eventful History

The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families

Michael Holroyd


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ISBN10: 0312429495
ISBN13: 9780312429492

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656 Pages


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Deemed "a prodigy among biographers" by The New York Times Book Review, Michael Holroyd transformed biography into an art. Now he turns his keen observation, humane insight, and epic scope on an ensemble cast, a remarkable dynasty that presided over the golden age of theater.

Ellen Terry was an ethereal beauty, the child bride of a Pre-Raphaelite painter who made her the face of the age. George Bernard Shaw was so besotted by her gifts that he could not bear to meet her, lest the spell she cast from the stage be broken. Henry Irving was an ambitious, harsh-voiced merchant's clerk, but once he painted his face and spoke the lines of Shakespeare, his stammer fell away to reveal a magnetic presence. He would become one of the greatest actor-managers in the history of the theater. Together, Terry and Irving created a powerhouse of the arts in London's Lyceum Theatre, with Bram Stoker—who would go on to write Dracula—as manager. Celebrities whose scandalous private lives commanded global attention, they took America by storm in wildly popular national tours.

Their all-consuming professional lives left little room for their brilliant but troubled children. Henry's boys followed their father into the theater but could not escape the shadow of his fame. Ellen's feminist daughter, Edy, founded an avant-garde theater and a largely lesbian community at her mother's country home. But it was Edy's son, the revolutionary theatrical designer Edward Gordon Craig, who possessed the most remarkable gifts and the most perplexing inability to realize them. A now forgotten modernist visionary, he collaborated with the Russian director Stanislavski on a production of Hamlet that forever changed the way theater was staged. Maddeningly self-absorbed, he inherited his mother's potent charm and fathered thirteen children by eight women, including a daughter with the dancer Isadora Duncan.

An epic story spanning a century of cultural change, A Strange Eventful History finds space for the intimate moments of daily existence as well as the bewitching fantasies played out by its subjects. Bursting with charismatic life, it is an incisive portrait of two families who defied the strictures of their time. It will be swiftly recognized as a classic.


Praise for A Strange Eventful History

"There have been several excellent books about Irving and Terry individually, including Terry's own charming, if highly unreliable, memoir, The Story of My Life. What Holroyd adds to the picture is an extended dual focus, as well as lively and entertaining writing—among contemporary biographers he is almost without peer as a stylist—and an unparalleled knowledge of the period. (Who but Holroyd, for example, would know about Irving's travails in finding a suitable Rozinante for a one-acter about Don Quixote? . . . As the title suggests, Holroyd frames his book almost like a melodrama, and it unspools with great narrative energy . . . Physically, A Strange Eventful History is an exceptionally handsome volume, with pages of color photographs and many of Gordon Craig's original woodcuts."—Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

"Their personalities, the interactions among them, and their relations with their society form the subject of Michael Holroyd's enthralling new study. One of the themes to emerge from this book is the rise in social status of the theatrical profession during the later nineteenth century . . . Holroyd's preeminence as a biographer of writers and artists working between the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth centuries—Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, Lytton Strachey—rests partly on the thoroughness of his archival research, fully witnessed by the 'Outline of Sources' listed here, and on his mastery of the historical background. He has superb organizational skills, evinced by the unfailingly lucid intertwining of diverse narratives in this book. He possesses to an unusual degree the quality, difficult to define but so welcome when it occurs, of readability. His sentences flow with easy, rhythmical grace. Unlabored stylistic felicities abound, and Holroyd has a novelist's eye for significant detail . . . A Strange Eventful History crowns, but we must hope does not conclude, the career of a great biographer."—Stanley Wells, The New York Review of Books
"Holroyd's sweeping group biography traces the lives of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, two stars of the Victorian theatre, and their descendants. Terry was 'embodied sunshine,' beloved for her naturalness and grace onstage. In 1878, when she was thirty-one, she began a professional (and perhaps amorous) partnership with Irving, the despotic actor-manager of the Lyceum Theatre, in London, a stutterer 'of strange countenance and with crablike gait,' whose power lay in creating an 'awful sense of apprehension' in the audience. The pair rose to international fame performing melodramas and Shakespeare abridgments. Both had children who attempted careers in the theatre, and the second half of the book dwells on their struggles amid their parents' decline. Holroyd proceeds at a furious pace, and, in less expert hands, the detail packed onto the page might bewilder; instead, the effect is of an epic, perfectly balanced by intimacies of setting and character."—The New Yorker

"In this group biography of Terry, Irving and their families, Michael Holroyd—well known for his lives of Lytton Strachey and Shaw—has produced the most completely delicious, the most civilized and the most wickedly entertaining work of nonfiction anyone could ask for. I have no particular interest in theatrical history, but Holroyd's verve—his dramatic sense for the comic and the tragic—is irresistible. The book's chapters are pleasingly short, its prose crisp and fast-moving, and every page is packed with bizarre doings, eccentric characters, surprising factoids and a stream of lively and scandalous anecdotes . . . A Strange Eventful History is a wonderful book, deserving applause, bouquets and a rave review in this morning's paper."—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

"When Michael Holroyd takes on a subject, you know his sweep will be wide. This is not to say that he forfeits depth—far from it—but rather that he puts things in the fullest possible context. His groundbreaking biography of Lytton Strachey more than 40 years ago not only established him as a first-rate practitioner of the art but also blew the lid off the Bloomsbury group with his revelations of their hitherto discreetly covered-up antics. Indeed, he is both forefather and godfather to the hundreds of works exploring the lives, loves and libidos of that fascinating crowd . . . So it is not surprising that A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families is not just a life of the great Victorian actress but includes her leading man (and presiding genius, along with Terry and their manager Bram Stoker, of London's landmark Lyceum Theatre) as well as both their families."—Martin Rubin, Los Angeles Times

"Michael Holroyd opens A Strange Eventful History like one of those Victorian thrillers known as a penny dreadful. The year is 1868, and a 21-year-old actress leaves a London theater after the curtain has come down, then she vanishes into the city's dark streets. Her parents, with whom she has been living, know that she has been unhappy, and when the body of a golden-haired young girl is discovered floating in the Thames a few days later, the actress's father identifies the corpse as hers. But it is not: Hearing the news of her supposed death, the young woman rushes home. In her memoirs, Mr. Holroyd reports, she will omit mention that she had left this two-word note in her bedroom before disappearing: 'Found Drowned.' As we later learn, the memoir also forgets to note that she had disappeared in the company of a man with whom, to use the vernacular of the time, she had been living in sin. The actress with the dramatic offstage life, Ellen Terry, is the sun around whom the other characters revolve in Mr. Holroyd's magnificent A Strange Eventful History. All were famous (or infamous) in their time. Together, Terry and her frequent co-star Henry Irving—a world-famous actor-manager and the other major figure in Mr. Holroyd's account—changed the face of Victorian theater. Their stories alone would be more than enough for a book, but Mr. Holroyd's wide-ranging story also traces the difficult lives of Terry's two illegitimate children and Irving's two sons from an unhappy marriage. The most tragic were Irving's boys, who followed him into the theater but could never escape their father's shadow. The father of Terry's children was Edward Godwin, the stage designer with whom she had so scandalously disappeared . . . As Mr. Holroyd demonstrated with his books on Lytton Strachey and (in four volumes) George Bernard Shaw, he is that rare biographer who has a masterly sense of both serious scholarship and spicy detail. In A Strange Eventful History, he conveys a staggering amount of information with seemingly effortless prose, observing the tangled lives of his protagonists with the clear-eyed detachment of an amused bystander . . . Irving-Terry performances were groundbreaking, making the Lyceum the most successful theater London had ever seen, but in his role as the theater's manager, Irving was hardly adventurous. He was most interested in theatrical works that provided a vehicle for himself. Apart from a couple of one-act comedies by Pinero, the Lyceum staged no work by new dramatists. No Wilde, Ibsen, Barrie or Shaw—or 'Pshaw' as Irving referred to the 'impertinent puppy of a critic.' Irving was the first actor to be given a knighthood, and when he died in 1905 he received a state funeral, his ashes buried in Westminster Abbey. Terry's death in 1928 brought her son and daughter together, uniting the feminist Edy and the skirtchaser Gordon as they had never been since childhood. Clutching Edy's arm as they led the funeral procession, Gordon whispered to his sister in a voice that carried clearly to the mourners: 'We must have more occasions like this.' Such vivid, comic moments abound in A Strange Eventful History. It is a hugely entertaining book, one that brings a vanished theater world—and an era itself—miraculously back to life."—Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal

"[A] delightful narrative . . . Captivating."—The Economist

"A Strange Eventful History, [Holroyd's] first biography for fifteen years, has all the tumbling narrative, spicy detail and easy empathy that determine his Midas touch. But it has something else, too: a rich, playful style more typically associated with lyric forms . . . which shows Holroyd yet again pushing the biographer's art to new imaginative planes."—Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

"Thomas Hardy decribed the preeminent Victorian actress Ellen Terry as a 'sea anemone without shadow'; John Singer Sargent painted her as Lady Macbeth in a dress covered with shimmering beetle wings. 'Ellen Terry is the most beautiful name in the world; it rings like a chime through the last quarter of the nineteenth century,' wrote George Bernard Shaw. (They later became life-long friends.) A showstopper in its own right, Michael Holroyd's rollicking collective biography A Strange Eventful History traces the influence of the woman who, along with the legendary tragedian Sir Henry Irving, ruled the golden age of British theater. Drawing from an array of sources, Holroyd, whose books on Shaw and Lytton Strachey set the bar for literary biography, brings to life the gaslit stage on which Terry an Irving enacted the suppressed passions of the public—as well as their darker, behind-the-scenes story."—Megan O'Grady, Vogue

"If you wanted to read the best biographer writing in English today, you very likely would choose Michael Holroyd . . . His newest confection is a group biography, A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families . . . What a cast! This book admits one to an imagery visit to the old Lyceum stage in London, with a seat right up front . . . Michael Holroyd magisterially captures the spirit and allure of the stage and the dispiriting effects of a life on the boards for families in A Strange Eventful History."—Michael D. Langan, Buffalo News

"A Strange Eventual History is a biography of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, two of the most distinguished stage actors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries . . . A Strange Eventual History is both informative and wildly entertaining. Any reader who thinks celebrities are especially outrageous today will be in for a rude awakening."—The Howard County Times

"This is Michael Holroyd's first extended feat of biographical writing since his monumental three-volume life of George Bernard Shaw, completed nearly twenty years ago. A Strange Eventful History is magnificent—not just as a fascinating exercise in group biography, but as a masterpiece of comic writing. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that I think Proust would have been addicted to it, had it been published in time."—Paul Taylor, New Statesman

"Holroyd has a wonderful eye for detail, often almost obsessive, but never redundant . . . He also has a dramatist's ear for dialogue and for making all the minor characters interesting. Add to this a nose for a good story and a wit that often undermines his subjects' seriousness without ever capsizing it, and you have an entirely captivating biography which ranks alongside his Bernard Shaw and his Lytton Strachey as one of the glories of the form."—Richard Eyre, The Guardian (U.K.)

"A fabulous cavalcade of a book, written with infectious verve and deep imaginative sympathy."—John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)

"A collective biography that doesn't disintegrate into something less than the sum of its parts . . . The miracle of this book . . . is that it manages to engage and maintain the reader's interest through a rapidly evolving, scene-changing narrative, presented with a range of eye-catching effects . . . Holroyd evokes the mysterious world of the Victorian and Edwardian theatre, the hiss of the gas footlights, the coloured lights and smoke, with all the attention to detail of the star-struck fan seated in the front stalls."—Mark Bostridge, The Independent on Sunday

"Holroyd has once again triumphed over a seemingly impossible subject . . . Like all his biographies, [A Strange Eventful History] avoids neat explanations and simplistic pieties . . . It is also deftly plotted, with an infectious verve that springs from his delight in the waywardness of human nature."—Frances Spalding, The Independent

"Biographer and memoirist Holroyd re-creates the separate and shared histories of two theater immortals . . . The author begins with a fetching chronicle of actress Ellen Terry's interrupted rise to fame among an itinerant family of actors in Victorian England, following the path trod by her immensely popular older sister Kate. Freed from an older husband, never quite compromised by an effervescent, affectionate nature that kept her on the threshold of scandal, Terry eventually formed a celebrated alliance with actor-manager Henry Irving, whose story then occupies center stage until the spotlight widens to their common history and eventually the stories of their gifted, troubled offspring. The pair that began it all were a study in contrasts. Terry was the enchanting, intuitively gifted beauty, Irving the scrupulously disciplined arch-professional. She was Ophelia to his Hamlet, his partner in the great success they enjoyed at London's Lyceum Theatre and during a spectacularly popular American tour. Their respective children followed them into artistic circles. Henry's two sons achieved reasonable success as actors, though nothing like their father's renown. Terry's daughter Edy Craig lived on the outskirts of England's emerging lesbian culture. Her handsome brother Gordon Craig, an infamously waspish actor turned stage designer, virtually invented abstract scene design, when not fathering babies with an alarming number of smitten women. The acting gene re-emerged with brilliance in Terry's great-nephew John Gielgud, whom Holroyd depicts as an incisive critic and superlative thespian. In addition to his replete portrayals of Terry and Irving, Holroyd offers a plethora of anecdotal and analytical information about acting technique and theater lore. Readers will relish such tidbits as the fact that Irving's embattled business manager was Bram Stoker . . . A crowded, thoroughly captivating canvas of cultural history."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Literary biographer Holroyd admirably interweaves the histories, from the Victorian stage to modern theater, of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving and their families. In this engaging social history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Holroyd writes informatively of the theatrical world, highlighting not only the glamour of Irving's and Terry's careers but also the toll the hard work and disappointments of their calling had on their personal lives. He speculates, offering substantiating detail, on the relationship between Irving and Terry, who spent as much time together offstage as they did on. Terry's son Edward Gordon Craig's life as an influential stage designer leads the biographer on a merry chase through his relationships with eight women and his 13 children. His sister Edith Craig's life as a suffragette, her lesbian entourage, and her contributions to the theater have not been well documented, a shortcoming Holroyd corrects. Irving's sons, Laurence and Harry, relatively minor characters in this narrative, followed in their father's footsteps but didn't reach his level of success or inherit his daring, charisma, and creativity. This well-indexed book is highly recommended for all academic libraries and all libraries with theater collections."—Susan L. Peters, Library Journal

"Holroyd's latest starts as a biography of Ellen Terry, one of the greatest actresses of the late 19th century—until it reaches the beginning of her professional and personal involvement with the even more legendary Henry Irving. The story circles back to recap Irving's life, then moves forward with their collaborations on Shakespeare plays and 'blood-and-thunder melodramas' at London's Lyceum Theater as well as road shows in England and America. Holroyd also delves into the lives of their children (from separate relationships), and it's Ellen's offspring, Edy and Gordon Craig, who dominate the second half of this hefty family history: Edy took up with a longtime companion who originally had a lesbian crush on Ellen and would later become involved with Vita Sackville-West; Gordon was a visionary set designer who treated the women in his life—including Isadora Duncan—abominably. There's even a place in the saga for George Bernard Shaw (the subject of Holroyd's three-volume biography), who conducted a passionate correspondence with Terry for years before they ever met. Holroyd does a masterful job of keeping all the narrative lines flowing smoothly, ensnaring readers in a powerful backstage drama rivaling any modern celebrity exploits."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

A Story in a Book
‘The past is now to me like a story in a book', Ellen Terry wrote almost forty
years later in 1906. It was a fairy story, her life; or perhaps one of those
melodramas she had been playing onstage for as long as...

About the author

Michael Holroyd

Knighted for his services to literature, Michael Holroyd is the author of acclaimed biographies of George Bernard Shaw, the painter Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey, as well as two memoirs. He is the president of the Royal Society of Literature and the only nonfiction writer to have been awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.

Michael Holroyd