A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families

David Edgar writes:

It’s been possible to detect Holroyd’s presence in his narratives before: no one who read the third volume of his Shaw biography could miss his growing irritation with the playwright’s perverse attachment to dictatorial regimes and their brutal methods – an irritation exacerbated by the perception that, in other ways, Shaw grew up as he grew old. But in A Strange Eventful History, Holroyd’s take on his subjects is both more pervasive and more diffuse. In essence, he has adopted the novelistic device of free indirect style, inhabiting rather than reporting the inner life of his characters (‘It was curiously satisfying work,’ thinks Holroyd as Gordon Craig, ‘this disembowelling of a writer’s text’) and expanding it to embrace the worlds through which – and, often, against which – those characters move. So, when the 15-year-old Ellen Terry enters the artistic colony in which George Frederic Watts is to paint and later to marry her, the narrative voice becomes a prissy, late Victorian chorus: ‘The atmosphere was curiously liberal. Surely it was not quite fitting that the guests, whatever their rank, should be treated as models for Watts’s paintbrush.’ Holroyd clearly enjoys dressing up as the neighbours. When Irving and Terry share a house in Winchelsea, ‘such disapproval as there was quickly vanished once their dogs became better known.’

(LRB 1 January 2009)

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