This 600-page biography of two theatrical dynasties dovetails neatly into Michael Holroyd’s oeuvre – anyone familiar with his similarly large-scale portraits of Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and Bloomsbury will recognise many of the dramatis personae and the cracking of Victorian and Edwardian moral values in a sophisticated urban milieu where the grip of conventional monogamous heterosexuality had been loosened.
Holroyd is a fascinated but unprurient chronicler of this era of bedhopping, and his understanding of its intricate web of relationships is second to none. He writes with eloquence and clarity, sketching the broader context with a light but firm touch and incidentally providing a literary masterclass in the marshalling and sifting of detail. Yet none of this can prevent A Strange Eventful History from being a bit of a slog and occasionally rather irritating. The term ‘luvvie’ is overused, but so much self-centred, self-important and self-deceiving behaviour, so much vanity, hysteria and smugness, make it unavoidable here.
I would also question the wisdom of Holroyd’s attempt to combine the stories of two complex families across several generations, especially as they interlock closely at only one section of the story – the legendary partnership of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre between 1878 and 1902.