Gift Guide

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


PLEASE NOTE: THIS EBOOK DOES NOT CONTAIN PHOTOS INCLUDED IN THE PRINT EDITION. 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 ...
See more details below
A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook - First Edition)
$7.99 price


PLEASE NOTE: THIS EBOOK DOES NOT CONTAIN PHOTOS INCLUDED IN THE PRINT EDITION. 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 stormin 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. Please note: This ebook edition does not contain photos and illustrations that appeared in the print edition.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The most completely delicious, the most civilized, and the most wickedly entertaining work of nonfiction anyone could ask for . . . Irresistable."—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

"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

"An epic, perfectly balanced by intimacies of setting and character."—The New Yorker

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

“[A] delightful narrative . . . Captivating.”—The Economist

"An entirely captivately biography which ranks alongside Holroyd's Bernard Shaw and his Lytton Strachey as one of the glories of the form."—Richard Eyre, The Guardian (UK)

“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

“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

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

“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

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429939041
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/2/2010
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 1,153,595
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

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.
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

A Strange Eventful History

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


Copyright © 2010 Michael Holroyd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312429492


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 her admirers could

remember. That June marked her fiftieth year in the theatre and the event

was celebrated with wild delight in the streets of London. Crowds filled

Drury Lane from midday till six o’clock in the evening – they would have

stayed longer, singing, dancing, growing hoarse from cheering, but their

rejoicings had to give way for Ellen’s evening performance at the Court

Theatre in Sloane Square. She was playing Lady Cicely Waynflete, a

character Bernard Shaw had specially written for her, in Granville-Barker’s

production of Captain Brassbound’s Conversion.

In the public imagination Ellen Terry had become an enchantress.

Floating serenely across the stage, she was seen as a symbol of pure romance,

virginal, unblemished, still in need of male protection: a ‘wonderful being’,

the American actress Elizabeth Robins described her, ‘with the proportions

of a goddess and the airy lightness of a child’. She ‘encompassed the age’,

wrote the theatre historian Michael Booth, ‘in a way no English actress had

done, before or since’.

Her beauty was not created by paint and lip-salve nor was it the illusory

beauty of theatrical make-believe. She possessed a natural radiance and

‘moved through the world of the theatre’, Bram Stoker recorded, ‘like

embodied sunshine’. The artist Graham Robertson believed her to be ‘the

most beautiful woman of her time’ and many people agreed with him. With

the ‘Hair of Gold’ and ‘Crimson Lips’ celebrated in a sonnet by Oscar Wilde,

and a mysterious smile which perhaps concealed no mystery, she was

recognised as a Pre-Raphaelite ideal. Her reputation was extraordinary: not

only was she a monument to female virtue, but also said to be the highestpaid

woman in Britain. Virginia Woolf was to speculate as to whether the

course of British history might have dramatically changed had she actually

been queen, while Queen Victoria, meeting her at Windsor Castle in 1893,

acknowledged her to be tall, pleasing and ladylike – everything a queen

should be. Describing the scenes at Drury Lane as ‘a riot of enthusiasm, a

torrent of emotion’, The Times dubbed her ‘the uncrowned Queen of

England’ – though by now she had begun to resemble a Queen Mother.

Every Victorian gentleman who saw her at the Lyceum Theatre performing

opposite the great Sir Henry Irving fell in love with her – and no

Victorian wife objected. Some young men, it was said, would actually

propose marriage to their girlfriends with the words: ‘As there’s no chance of

Ellen Terry marrying me, will you?’ Others, equally dazzled, reacted

differently. ‘I ceased to consider myself engaged to Miss King forthwith’,

wrote H.G. Wells on first seeing Ellen Terry walking one summer’s day,

looking like one of the ladies from Botticelli’s La Primavera. He remembered

being permitted to ‘punt the goddess about, show her where white

lilies were to be found and get her a wet bunch of forget-me-nots among the

sedges . . .’ She seemed to have the secret of eternal youth, to live beyond

good and evil. In the opinion of Thomas Hardy, her diaphanous beauty

belonged to a different order of being – a ‘sea-anemone without shadow’ or

a miraculous dancing doll like Coppelia, apparently brought to life by the

toymaker’s magic, ‘in which, if you press a spring, all the works fly open’.

Even in her fifties she was still a marvellous child, delicious and fascinating.

Many people had expected her to marry Henry Irving – they were such a

romantic couple onstage. It was rumoured that he secretly loved her – for

how could he not have done so? Yet she was not regarded as a dangerous

woman like the notorious Mrs Patrick Campbell or Edward VII’s mistress

Lillie Langtry. On the contrary she appeared an example of young

motherhood as well as First Lady of the London stage. Her public image was

all the more extraordinary since it conflicted dramatically with the facts of

her life. And if those facts now seemed ‘like a story in a book’, this was partly

because she had recently decided to write a book. She began her memoirs

that year.

‘I never felt so strongly as now’, she said, ‘that language was given me to

conceal rather than to reveal – I have no words at all to say what is in my heart.’

When the book was published, it appeared to Virginia Woolf like ‘a bundle

of loose leaves upon each of which she has dashed off a sketch . . . Some very

important features are left out. There was a self she did not know . . .’

‘I was born on the 27th February, 1848’, she wrote. After her death, when

these memoirs were being prepared for a new edition, her editors loyally

claimed that ‘we have found Ellen Terry the best authority on Ellen Terry’.

Yet there are potent omissions and genuine confusions in her writings which

cover little more than half her adult life and grow ragged towards the end. As

to the facts, she gives not only the wrong year for her birth but is also

uncertain where it took place.

Alice Ellen Terry was born on 27 February 1847, at 44 Smithford Street,

theatre lodgings above an eating house in Coventry, the city of three spires.

On her birth certificate her father gave his occupation as ‘Comedian’. Her

earliest memory was of being locked in a whitewashed attic of some lodgings

in Glasgow one summer evening while her parents and her elder sister Kate

went off to the theatre. The Terrys were strolling players who travelled the

theatre circuits and were then touring Scotland. But going further back,

Ellen wondered, ‘were we all people of the stage’?



The Terrys

Her maternal grandfather, Peter Ballard, was by profession a builder who

worked as a master sawyer in the docklands of Portsmouth, a busy seaport

and garrison town threaded with insalubrious cobbled streets and dark alleys

where, like nocturnal animals, beggars, prostitutes and thieves lay in wait.

He was also a Wesleyan preacher who spoke on Sundays in the smarter areas

of the town with their muddle of demure Georgian houses and medieval

churches. He disapproved of the town’s theatre, a barnlike building in the

High Street, which had been temporarily shut down in 1836 for ‘unseemly

and improper conduct’. But his daughter Sarah was to run off at the age of

twenty-one with Ben Terry, the twenty-year-old son of an Irish innkeeper

at the Fortune of War tavern in Portsmouth, a mere boy who had been

picking up a meagre living working the drums in the theatre. In fact both

Ben and Sarah kept their marriage secret from their parents. They were

married on 1 September 1838 in the church where Charles Dickens had

been baptised: St Mary’s in Portsea, an area, near the docks, of taverns,

shops and brothels that catered for the navy.

Their future was full of risk and excitement. They were a striking

couple: he ‘a handsome, fine-looking, brown-haired man’ in peg-top

trousers; she tall and graceful, with a mass of fair hair and exceptional large

blue eyes. Ben seems to have taken it for granted that his wife would

belong to the theatre and that all their children would be ‘Precocious

Prodigies’ like the celebrated juvenile actress Jean Davenport. She had

played at Portsmouth and was to become the original of Dickens’s ‘Infant

Phenomenon’ in Nicholas Nickleby, giving the theatre there a permanent

place in stage history. The stage was everything to Ben, and Sarah was

quickly caught up by his fervour and enthusiasm. As soon as they were

married, they set off for whatever adventures might await them on the

open road.

Ben had trained himself to be a competent supporting actor. As a teenager

he hung around the stage door of the Theatre Royal where his brother

George played the fiddle and got him casual work shifting scenery, painting

and repairing props, and then playing the drums. He became mesmerised by

what he saw: the frolics, farces and burlesques, the dissolving spectacles and

nautical imitations, the scenarios with songs, the ‘budgets of mirth and

harmony’ and juvenile performances in which the current child genius

would dash round and about and in and out, playing all the roles, sometimes

assisted by a ‘marvellous dog’. When the professional season ended, the

theatre was used for lavish balls and assemblies, or taken over by smart

thoroughbred officers of the garrison and their well-groomed ladies who,

under aristocratic patronage and to the beat of rousing marches from the

regimental band, would put on ostentatious amateur performances, their

playbills beautifully printed on pink silk. From watching rehearsals of

the comedies and melodramas, Ben Terry learnt a good deal about the

technique of acting – how to play the well-recognised roles of Heavy Father,

Low Comedian, Walking Gentleman, Singing Servant, Character, Ingenu

and so on. He was particularly fascinated by the expansive actor-manager of

the stock company there. William Shalders appeared to be everywhere,

doing everything, all the time. ‘He painted the scenery, made the props, ran

the box office’, recorded the biographer Joy Melville, ‘and even wrote

pirated versions of London dramas in which his wife and daughter acted the

minor roles, and visiting actors the lead parts.’ He strongly influenced Ben

Terry, who saw him as someone on whom he might model his own career.

‘My sister Kate and I had been trained almost from our birth for the stage’,

Ellen wrote, ‘. . . our parents had no notion of our resting.’ Usually she was

bundled up and carried off to her mother’s dressing-room in whatever town

or village they had reached. ‘Long before I spoke in a theatre, I slept in one’,

she remembered.

These days of travelling suited Ben’s cheerful and impulsive nature. On

him the sun always seemed to shine, though his family remained poor. It was

a more worrying time for Sarah. Moving from place to place on carts and

wagons, the children often slept on a mattress laid out on the floors of attics

and played in the small areas below. To add to their income, Sarah would

take on work as Wardrobe Woman or, under the name ‘Miss Yerret’ (an

approximate reversal of Terry), play the role of Walking Woman to swell a

crowd or decorate a chorus whenever she was not pregnant or recovering

from a miscarriage. ‘She worked hard at her profession’, Ellen wrote, and she

brought up all her children to be ‘healthy, happy and wise – theatre-wise, at

any rate’.

Six of her nine surviving children were to have careers onstage and

Benjamin, who felt he had no dramatic talent, was obliged to work his

passage to Australia and later seek employment in India so as to escape

the force-field of his family destiny. Sarah, whose mother came from a

respectable Scottish family socially superior to most theatre families, saw to

it that her children were kept neat, clean and tidy. She was forever sewing,

holding things together. The girls, she decided, needed little general

education and only the boys were initially sent to school.

Ellen was soon being taught to read, write and speak properly by her

parents. Ben was ‘a very charming elocutionist’, Sarah ‘read Shakespeare

beautifully’ and they ‘were unsparing in their corrections’. In the late

Victorian and Edwardian theatre Ellen Terry and Johnston Forbes-

Robertson were said to be the only actors who ‘delivered the language of

Shakespeare as if it were their natural idiom, and whose beauty of diction

matched the beauty of the words’. In the opinion of her son, Gordon Craig,

she ‘was very much a daughter of Shakespeare, and when she spoke his

prose it was as though she but repeated something she had heard at home –

something said that morning’.

Ellen quickly learnt how to walk, breathe and cry onstage: in short, how to

behave. She had a genius for pleasing people and even when she mixed up her

lines or got caught in a trap-door, fell over onstage or laughed when she should

have cried, they applauded her from the stalls and galleries. She was, as one

critic called her, ‘a perfect little heap of talent’.

Even so, she was not considered quite so talented as her elder sister. Kate

Terry began her career at the age of four, dancing a hornpipe in a sailor suit,

and was later to display what Charles Dickens called ‘the very best piece of

womanly tenderness I have ever seen onstage’.

The two little girls were born at a fortunate time in the history of the

British stage. In 1843, a year before Kate’s birth, a new Theatre Act was

passed which finally broke the monopoly held by the Theatres Royal in

Drury Lane and Covent Garden. These had been the only two theatres in

the country licensed by the Master of the Revels to perform ‘legitimate’

drama under letters patent granted in 1662 by Charles II – though these

licences had been gradually extended to cities of royal residence and

elsewhere through special arrangements. The bawdy, licentious wit of the

late seventeenth century had reflected the amiable frivolity of Charles II’s

court, and would eventually lead to a severe reaction. In 1737, provoked by

Henry Fielding’s political satires and personal allusions, Robert Walpole

took statutory powers to control dramatic performances by appointing an

Examiner of Plays. On behalf of the Lord Chamberlain (who took the place

of the Master of Revels), this examiner was to license all dramatic works for

performance in public places. One consequence of this strict licensing

system was that Restoration plays were largely replaced by rowdy entertainments

that did not need a licence and that made theatres places of illrepute:

music halls and drinking dens at risk of being devoured by riots and

fires, abominable places to which respectable people – people like Ellen’s

grandfather Peter Ballard – never went. The 1843 Act, which was to spread

‘legitimate’ theatre through the country, retained the Examiner of Plays,

whose job was to encourage the staging of polite drama.

The Terry family belonged to a theatre that became dominated by a

procession of famous actor-managers. They produced the great Shakespearean

dramas, often in sentimentalised versions and with their parts adapted to

suit the type of character-acting at which each excelled – the specialist

eccentricities of John Hare, the graceful diction and classical good looks of

Forbes-Robertson, the delicious light comedy performances of Charles

Wyndham, Beerbohm Tree’s luxurious decadence and genius for burlesque,

George Alexander’s aristocratic charm, the perfect deportment of Martin-

Harvey, Gerald du Maurier’s easygoing nonchalance. All these and others,

following in the steps of Sir Henry Irving, whose speciality lay in exploiting

the sinister components of romantic melodrama, were to reflect, with their

glittering knighthoods, the genteel revolution that had taken place in the

British theatre by the time of Ellen Terry’s jubilee.

Though her attempted stage debut as ‘the Spirit of the Mustard-Pot’

ended in tears, Ellen was to remember her early years of travelling from one

theatre town to another as being intensely happy. Like her father she had a

naturally impulsive temperament whereas Kate seemed to have inherited

her mother’s carefulness. In 1852 the actor-manager Charles Kean, hearing

of the eight-year-old Kate Terry’s remarkable performance as Prince Arthur

in King John, invited her to recreate the role at the Princess’s Theatre in the

West End of London. She went there with her mother and the younger

children, and the following year Ellen, who (aged six) had been ‘looking

after’ her father, travelled down with him from Liverpool to join Kean’s


The morality of employing very young children onstage intermittently

agitated the Victorians. There were those who, like Bernard Shaw, were to

argue that ‘dressing the stage’ with enticing seven- and eight-year-olds,

soliciting infants to make money for the proprietors of theatres, was an

exploitation of impoverished families. How was it possible to justify this

parading of prettily dressed boys and girls, who had not even reached their

teens and had never been to school, so that adults might enjoy a repertoire

of sensational entertainments? Why should theatre managers consider themselves

exempt from the regulations that protected young children from

being exploited in factories and workshops? Their descriptions of theatres as

perfect schools of deportment, where the charges’ characters were moulded

by masterpieces of English poetry, were pure commercial bluff. But the

Revd Charles Dodgson claimed that listening to the words of elevating

plays – such as radically cleansed versions of Shakespeare – was an education

in itself and kept children away from truly vicious pursuits on the

streets. Besides, you had only to see these theatre children themselves to

understand how they rejoiced in their work. ‘They like it better than any

game ever invented for them’, Dodgson wrote in a letter to The Theatre. This

passion for acting gave children ‘a better average for straightness of spine,

strength, activity, and the bright happy look that tells of health’, he argued.

‘The stage child “feels its life in every limb” . . . where the Board school

child only feels its lessons.’

While writing her memoirs, Ellen Terry often wished she had been given

some school lessons on grammar, punctuation and spelling to guide her

through this task. They had worked her hard in Charles Kean’s Company,

so hard that on leaving the stage with the other children, sometimes in the

middle of the night, her legs aching, she would creep into the green room

and fall asleep. She hated the labour that led up to her performances, the

wearisome learning of lines and the endless rehearsals lasting all day,

sometimes without lunch or supper. Charles Kean, ‘a short, thickset man’

with ‘chubby features’, was a pedant of modest talent who liked to boast of

the verisimilitude of his sets and properties. He enjoyed conducting

rehearsals by ringing a hand-bell from the auditorium. His wife, a fine

intelligent actress called Ellen Tree, ‘parrot-beaked and double-chinned,

moving solemnly within the periphery of her crinoline’, would then ascend

the stage and put everything to rights. ‘I admired and loved and feared

her’, Ellen remembered. These were exhausting sessions, yet she would not

have exchanged her life with anyone. ‘My whole life was the theatre’, she

wrote, ‘. . . during my three years at the Princess’s I was a very strong, happy,

and healthy child.’

The Princess’s Theatre was a narrow gas-lit building between a furrier’s

and a tobacconist’s in Oxford Street. It had opened in 1840 and been used

for concerts and operas until, following the new Theatres Licensing Act, a

few plays began to be performed there. Charles Kean, son of the famous

Drury Lane tragedian Edmund Kean (who had unsuccessfully tried to

detach his son from the stage by sending him to Eton), took over the theatre

in 1850 and gave his management there a reputation for extravagant

productions of Shakespeare played against ‘authentic scenery’. These were

interspersed with rather tepid translations of French comedies and some

swashbuckling historical dramas.

At the Princess’s, Ellen learnt how to ‘walk the plank’, dance a minuet,

draw her breath in through her nose and begin to laugh, how to produce her

vowels correctly, tuck in her chin and puff out her chest when making an

entrance, and also how to manoeuvre gracefully (not jumping like a

kangaroo) while wearing a trailing flannel dress. It was ‘heavy work for

a child, but I delighted in it’.

She delighted especially in what she called ‘the actual doing of my part’.

She played important parts, small parts, dumb parts (the best of which was

walking on carrying a basket of doves, agreeably aware of being regarded

with bitter envy by the other children, and feeling as if this dove-bearer were

the principal attraction in The Merchant of Venice). In Richard II she climbed a

pole to a dizzy height during a street scene; in Henry VIII she was ‘top angel’;

and in a comedietta by Edmund Yates she played a tiger (‘Tiger Tom’)

wearing a brilliant little pair of top boots. In another production she was ‘a

little boy cheering’, but even in these tiny roles such opportunities for acting

precocious boy-girls were exciting. In the Christmas pantomime of 1857 she

played the blonde-haired good fairy Goldenstar, and the frightening bad

fairy Dragonetta with flashing eyes and dark looks. It seemed as if she could

be anyone and that everything was possible: changes of gender, character,

appearance, species and identity. The world of the theatre was limitless.

Ellen’s London debut at the age of nine was as the little prince Mamillius

in The Winter’s Tale. Increasingly aware of what she looked like, and getting

to recognise the effects she created, she was able many years later to recall

wearing a red-and-silver dress and oddly baggy pink tights for Mamillius,

and a row of tight sausage curls arranged with perfect regularity by her

mother. For two wonderful scenes (before she ‘died’ offstage), she propelled

across the boards a splendid ‘property’ – a go-cart built like a toy depicted on

a Greek vase in the British Museum. On the first night, with Queen Victoria

and Prince Albert in the theatre, when told by Leontes (Charles Kean) to ‘go

play’, she did so with such verve that she tripped over the handle of her gocart

and fell on her back. But it did not matter. The Times described her

performance as ‘vivacious and precocious’ and the Revd Charles Dodgson

noted in his diary on 16 June 1856 that he ‘especially admired the acting of

the little Mamillius, Ellen Terry, a beautiful little creature, who played with

remarkable spirit and ease’. Ellen cherished this role so jealously that she

did not miss any of the 102 nights of the run, and her understudy, Clara

Denvil, a little girl with eager eyes, never got the chance to show herself.

In the autumn of 1856 Ellen was given the role of Puck in A Midsummer

Night’s Dream. She played it well, romping on the stage while putting a girdle

around about the earth, full of mischief and vitality. Looking in her mirror

she had been dismayed to see how gawky she was growing. But in the role

of Puck she could escape this dismaying image for it was ‘a part in which the

imagination can run riot’. In Shakespeare’s moonlight she entered a

fairyland where every wish came true. ‘I grew vain’, she remembered, ‘and

rather “cocky”.’

Ellen’s last major role at the Princess’s Theatre was as Prince Arthur in

King John – the part in which her sister Kate had triumphed and which had

been responsible for bringing the Terry family to London. It was the first

really demanding character she had played and, aged eleven, she found the

rehearsals miserably difficult. In a moment of exasperation, Mrs Kean

slapped her face, unexpectedly getting from her the expression of morti-

fication and tears she wanted when Hubert threatens to blind the little

prince who pleads for his life.

Ellen was determined not to fail where her sister had succeeded. She

would get up secretly in the night to practise her lines, experiment with her

voice and examine her gestures in the mirror. For the first time she realised

what perseverance and labour a successful career in the theatre would

demand from her and ‘all vanity fell away from me’.

Her Prince Arthur was judged a success. But at the end of the 1859 season

Charles Kean gave up the Princess’s Theatre and sailed to the United

States. Kate and Ellen were earning good money for their ages, but the

Terry family had been growing and, without a steady income, Ben had to

leave London with his daughters and once more seek his fortune on the



Excerpted from A Strange Eventful History. By Michael Holroyd.

Copyright © 2009 by Michael Holroyd.

Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in hardcover, and by Picador in trade paperback.


All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.


Excerpted from A Strange Eventful History by Michael Holroyd Copyright © 2010 by Michael Holroyd. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xii

Notes on the Text and Acknowledgements xvi

Rumours of a Death Foretold 1

Part 1

1 A Story in a Book 5

2 The Terrys 8

3 Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall 16

4 Heaven and Holland Park 22

5 England's Michelangelo 26

6 The Kingdom of Pattledom 29

7 A Marriage Is Arranged and a Deed of Separation Signed 35

8 The Kate Terry Valse 47

9 Found Drowned 52

10 Happiness for a Time 54

11 All Change 63

12 A Failure to Be Proud Of 66

13 Men! 79

Part 2

14 What's in a Name? 91

15 Entrances and Exits 98

16 Their Coronation 108

17 Our Lady of the Lyceum 119

18 Interval: Irving on Holiday 127

19 His Shylock 129

20 Shakespeare's Lovers 135

21 Children! 143

22 Our American Cousins 158

23 From Malvolio to Mephistopheles 170

24 Death of a Husband, Death of a Lover 179

Part 3

25 Her Lady Macbeth 193

26 Ted and Edy and Harry and Laurence 202

27 All Is True 220

28 After the Shooting 227

29 Counter Attractions 234

30 One More Laurel Wreath 243

31 Mixed Fortunes 247

32 The Irish Pretender 266

33 Wishful Thinking 276

34 Choices 284

35 Confusions 295

36 For Love or Money 303

Part 4

37 Made in Heaven 321

38 A Sea of Troubles: Helgeland and Hungerheart 333

39 The End of Irving 354

Part 5

40 Women! 367

41 Brothers 392

Part 6

42 Family Affairs 409

43 Masks and Faces 435

44 Not Quite Alone 470

45 The Long Game of Patience 478

46 An Occasion 493

Part 7

47 For Friendship's Sake 513

48 Good Night Unto You All 531

49 White Candle, Aged Face 553

An Outline of Sources 575

Select Bibliography 585

Index 591

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)