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Posted April 13, 2001
A Notorious Victorian Flirt and Modern Portia
This book provides plenty of evidence that the Victorians did occasionally have fun while putting on a moral face for the world at large. The author uncovered an enormously long memoir by Mrs. Weldon in 1996, and decided to write a biography about her. He certainly seems to have discovered one of the most colorful Victorians I have ever read about. When she was not luring older men to fall in love with her, not singing in public, not running her orphanage unsuccessfully, not failing as an impresario, not making a mess of her marriage, and not suing everyone in sight (and serving as her own barrister), she was making up fanciful stories about all and sundry and being cheated by anyone who could get near her. Other than that, she had a pretty normal life. Mr. Thompson does a fine job of using her memoirs, adding context from the writings of contemporaries, and providing historical references to put her escapades in perspective. Mrs. Weldon in her day was more outrageous than most people see Madonna today. Mrs. Weldon (and her father) had problems separating fantasy from reality. He ended up in an insane asylum. She almost did, as her husband was trying to bring her under control. Her manic energy drew men like moths to the light, and some she clearly captivated. One of the most interesting parts of the book covers the three years when Charles Gounod, the French composer, lived with the Weldons a house once owned by Charles Dickens in London. These were remarkably productive years for Gounod, although he escaped from her with difficulty and with complications Her ministrations would have put a lesser man into the hospital. Mr. Thompson also recounts her many brushes with notoriety that led Queen Victoria to refuse to attend a concert if she were to sing, and to lose her a rich husband when her potential mother-in-law caught her alone with a much older man where neither one should have been. As she got older, her mental problems got worse. She began to neglect details more and more. A French couple got together to steal from her, and a lot of the book recounts this period. I found this section overdone. Towards the end of her 40s, she discovered that a new act of Parliament would allow her to make legal actions in her own name. With the help of a friend to learn how to write writs, she began suing everyone in sight, and often represented herself. She didn't always win, and went to prison for six months at one time as a result of losing an action. But she became a popular heroine, Parliament changed the laws about committing spouses to insane asylums, and she was in demand for singing performances again. At 50, she lost her energy, and retired to a hospice in France where she worked on her memoirs for 12 years. When she self-published these, she managed to offend almost everyone whom she knew, and the book was mostly ignored. The memoirs end up compromising her reputation far beyond what would have happened if she hadn't written it. That was pretty typical of her. Although I liked the book, this level of scandal can be found in modern life. Those who are interested in the Victorian period will probably find it more titillating and intriguing than I did. I thought that the book repeated her most consistent foibles far too much. Clearly, the woman was a hazard. A number of children in her orphanage certainly suffered from her neglect. But, as a reader, I only need a few examples. This one buried me in them, and I graded it down one star for that. If you are ever tempted to 'stretch the truth a little' to impress someone, think of Mrs. Weldon and where that led her. I think you'll be more careful of what you say. In conversing, less is more. If you can't say something good about someone, don't do what Mrs. Weldon did and make up fantastic, negative stories about them. Seriously, the woman accomplished a lot considering what she had to work with. Without her mental problems and character flaws, she cWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.