A Strange Eventful History

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Lest anyone think that the culture of celebrity is a recent invention, Michael Holroyd’s generally engrossing account of the lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and their numerous children and romantic partners contains many examples of just how enthusiastically their contemporaries loved and idolized these icons of the British stage. Their every movement was front-page news for journalists catering to the public’s desire to know the most trivial details of their lives, and, in this fishbowl atmosphere, relationships with their children, lovers, and professional associates were subject to the kind of intense scrutiny that can either harden or unbalance its recipients. Although Terry and Irving were by temperament and training able to stand up to this constant attention, their children and friends often reacted to it in much more negative ways. As a consequence, A Strange Eventful History for the most part more than lives up to its title, as it reveals in compelling detail how life on the public stage could result in severely troubled private lives.

Ellen Terry was born into the world of the theater in 1847, although at a much lower level than that she would eventually achieve. Her father was a competent supporting actor. Her mother took theatrical odd jobs between pregnancies, and most of the family’s nine children would go on to have some sort of theatrical career. The family’s life was one of frequent travel from one provincial playhouse to another, punctuated by periodic unemployment and occasional longer runs in successful productions, and from her earliest days Terry was fascinated by the atmosphere of the stage. In 1856, she made her London debut in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623) at the age of nine. Despite a series of both professional and personal ups and downsincluding an abortive early marriage and a nonmarital relationship that resulted in the birth of two childrenby her early thirties, she had become the brightest star on the London stage.

Terry’s eventual partner in celebrity, Henry Irving, came from a much different background. His father was so unsuccessful as a travelling salesman that Irving (born John Henry Broadribb) was at the age of four sent to live with an aunt in Cornwall, a region at the time connected to the rest of England only by steamboat. Living in a remote mining village where entertainments were few and far between, he was enthralled by the touring theatrical companies that occasionally visited the area. At a Christmas party, he was scared out of his wits when a boy wearing a terrifying mask burst into a darkened room. He always remembered this incident as proof of the power of acting and, when reunited with his family in London at the age of eleven, insisted on following a theatrical career. He progressed slowly but steadily to the point that, by the early 1870’s, he had changed his name to Henry Irving and become one of England’s leading actors.

Irving and Terry first acted together in 1867, but his performance was panned by the critics and there seems to have been no romantic interest between them at the time. Irving married in 1869 after a whirlwind romance, but the following year he and his wife began a series of separations and reconciliations, during which two children were born. Meanwhile, Irving’s increasing professional success seemed to drive him further from his wife. Forced to chose between his family and his career, he made it clear that he loved the theater more than he did his family. Devoting himself to a hectic acting schedule while also assuming managerial responsibility for one of London’s largest theaters, Irving rapidly became one of the people to reckon with in his chosen profession.

As Irving began to partner...

(The entire section is 1548 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The Economist 388, no. 8595 (August 30, 2008): 79-80.

The Guardian, September 6, 2008, p. 7.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 4 (February 15, 2009): 184.

Library Journal 134, no. 2 (February 1, 2009): 73.

London Review of Books 31, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 27-29.

Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2009, p. D2.

The New Republic 240, no. 8 (May 20, 2009): 46-47.

New Statesman 137, no. 4913 (September 15, 2008): 52-53.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 10 (June 11, 2009): 70-72.

The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 2009, p. 12.

The New Yorker 85, no. 9 (April 13, 2009): 77.

The Observer, September 7, 2008, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 51 (December 22, 2008): 41.

The Spectator 308, no. 9399 (October 18, 2008): 37-38.

The Times Literary Supplement, December 19, 2008, p. 3-5.

The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2009, p. W6.

The Washington Post, March 12, 2009, p. CO4.