The Magazine

Victorian Triangle

The drama wasn’t always onstage.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Ellen Terry was born into a famous theatrical family and had her London debut at the age of nine playing the prince Mamillius in Kean’s production of The Winter’s Tale. By the time she was a teenager, she was an accomplished comedienne. Even more striking than her perennial youthfulness was her voice, “that most sweet voice,” as Holroyd describes it, “half-whisper and half sigh, which enchanted everyone: a soft, veiled, husky, intimate, thrilling sound, mysterious in its power.” Irving was fond of saying that Terry was fatal to criticism because she turned her critics into lovers, but it was not only critics who fell in love with her. In 1864, when she was 16, the 46-year-old Pre-Raphaelite painter G. F. Watts became so infatuated with her that he married her. Tennyson, Disraeli, Browning, and Wilde all flocked to Little Holland House to call upon the enrapturing child bride. Johnston Forbes-Robertson, the most dashing of the Edwardian actor-managers, had a crush on Terry from the moment he set eyes on her. Bram Stoker, Irving’s major domo and the author of Dracula (which was based on Irving), recalled Terry moving “through the world of the theatre like embodied sunshine.” Even Gladstone, who learned some of his oratorical tricks from Irving, found Terry irresistible. 

In 1868, after her separation from Watts, Edward Godwin, the architect and interior designer, whom Max Beerbohm called “the greatest aesthete of them all,” fell in love with Terry while she was on tour. Within months, they ran away to Hertfordshire and had two children, Gordon (called Ted) and Edy, both of whom took the surname Craig. Their strange and eventful histories dominate the second half of this book. How the children of the famous come to grief does not always make for riveting reading. Still, Holroyd treats the children of both his primary subjects with admirable sympathy. Moreover, their failure casts an interesting light on the success of their parents. Terry never deceived herself on this score: “What fools we are in bringing up our children!” 

Holroyd describes Godwin as “a man with a visionary future but no actual present,” which could also describe his talented, undisciplined son. Terry’s love for Godwin was never entirely reciprocated: As Holroyd observes, Godwin “was a romantic, living off his nerves, seeing in her beauty an image of what he passionately desired, but never losing for long his mysterious discontent.” In Holroyd’s biography, it is not so much love as love thwarted that binds together his different subjects. 

Irving was in many respects a cold, cruel, egomaniacal man who delighted in making others suffer the same denial of love that he had suffered at the hands of his mother. He took no interest in his sons when they were growing up and hardly noticed when Laurence, his younger son, tried to kill himself. Harry, the older son, complained to his mother: “I wonder why Irving avoids writing to us. .  .  . Of course we have heard nothing from our affectionate father. .  .  . It would be a good thing if we could make the old cab-horse take a little trouble.” Irving also kept Terry at a distance: “He knew only one way out of his isolation,” Holroyd observed, “and that was by turning it to some use, even to grim enjoyment upon the stage.” Nevertheless, despite his personal limitations, Terry loved Irving. As Holroyd remarks, she “loved his unpainted face, that splendid face he wished to hide.” One reason Terry was drawn to Irving’s isolation was that it was so different from her own blithe gregariousness.

Throughout her later years, Terry agonized over her son’s fecklessness. “Talk—and not do,” she wrote him in one gently remonstrating letter: “It’s bad in a woman but terrible in a man.” Despite the extravagant claims Holroyd makes for his influence on set design and film lighting, Craig was an unsavory pseud, whose delusions of grandeur drew him to Mussolini and Hitler. “Gordon Craig has made himself the most famous producer in Europe,” Shaw quipped, “by dint of never producing anything, while Edith Craig remains the most obscure by dint of producing everything.” Edy’s career both as a costumier and a director was far more productive than her brother’s, though her personal life was blighted by her mother’s overprotectiveness. One revelation here is that England’s sweetheart was no model mother.

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