Does the name of Sybil Thorndike mean anything today? In the 1930s, Miss Jean Brodie presented her to Edinburgh schoolgirls as ‘a woman of noble mien’ and a role model, but by the time she died in 1976, at the ripe age of ninety-three, she had become something of an old joke – a relic of a lost era of genteel theatre in which diction was immaculately crisp and the emotional temperature kept near boiling point. Thirty-three years later, without a significant corpus of films to keep her art alive, I guess she is pretty well forgotten.
But here is Jonathan Croall’s handsomely produced and meticulously researched biography to remind us of the rich and glorious life of a great actress and a hugely attractive human being. The book offers a lengthy and exhaustively detailed chronicle, devoid of much in the way of scandal or surprise, but its subject’s charm and vitality radiate such illuminating force that I found it far more engaging and enjoyable than Michael Holroyd’s recent trawl through the torridly eventful saga of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving.
The daughter of a Minor Canon of Rochester Cathedral, Sybil Thorndike represents a point in that curious turn-of-the-century process through which the Church of England suddenly became best friends with the stage – Sybil’s Christianity remained fervent, but neither she nor her parents were ever troubled by qualms