Rupert Christiansen

Women of Noble Mien

Sybil Thorndike: A Star of Life


Haus Publishing 584pp £25 order from our bookshop

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.

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