Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards
|Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards|
|Reviewer: Claire Storey|
|Summary: A lengthy but accessible read about the knight and actor who shaped the modern theatre.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 508||Date: November 2006|
|Publisher: Hambledon Continuum|
Sir Henry Irving rose to acclaim in the late 19th Century. The first Knight actor, his influence on Victorian society, and, in particular, the theatre and popular arts caused Gladstone to think of him as his greatest contemporary. His death in 1905 saw societal mourning on a grand scale and his burial in Westminster Abbey shows the esteem in which he was held.
Written to coincide with the centenary of Irving's death, Jeffrey Richards' book examines not only the life of this remarkable man but also the social history of late 19th-century Britain, its religion, imperialism, chivalry, the press and even the beginnings of our all-too-well-known celebrity culture. A Victorian Actor and His World is so much more than a simple biography; Irving's life is put into context and the book provides a complete study for how Irving's life shaped, and was shaped by, his world.
Unlike many biographies, Irving's early life, before he took the reins at London's Lyceum Theatre, is dealt with in an almost cursory fashion for it is not here that the interest lies. That Irving was rejected by his mother and had a disastrous marriage is all but brushed under the carpet, save that the latter circumstance set the tone for why he was such a controversial figure. The stage was no place for a gentleman but Irving set to change that. That he could do so with a failed marriage and having taken a very public mistress (vehemently denied by both he and his beau, Ellen Terry) and end up with a Knighthood to boot makes it all the more surprising.
Richards' comprehensive study is broken into discrete chapters, and, rather than taking a chronological approach, each deals with a particular influence of Victorian society on Irving's life and work. This results in a well-rounded look at Victorian theatre and society and makes for an interesting read that goes beyond what one normally expects of a biography.
If a flaw is to be found in the approach then I would say that it is that breaking down Irving's life according to its influences results in the repetition of certain facts and, in places, one feels like one has read a section before only to realise that it is being approached from a slightly different viewpoint. Similarly, the fact that Irving was such an influential character in 19th Century society means that there are multiple "name drops" and reported exchanges between Irving and other greats of the time. This is necessary and adds to the informative nature of the work but, at times, I wondered whether I was learning about Irving or indeed one of his contemporaries.
I found Irving's life endlessly fascinating and was left with a picture of a true Knight. For all his flaws he seemed to display a great sense of justice and equality. He mixed high brow Shakespeare with modern melodrama and made no distinction in terms of respect. His audiences were cross-class and rather than play to the lowest common denominator he sought to educate and bring culture to the masses.
As with many greats, Irving's death was one of legend. Although he did not die on stage his last words uttered on the boards were "Into Thy hands, O Lord, into Thy hands". And thus he completed his life's work.
A Victorian Actor and His World is a compelling if lengthy read. The writing style is accessible despite the academic gravitas of the work. One finishes the book feeling that one has a much better understanding of both the world of Irving and the theatre and Victorian society. I feel that the book would appeal to those interested in theatre or Victorian life and its appeal is wider than that of most biographies due to the unique approach that Richards has taken.
Our thanks to the publishers, Hambledon & London, for sending such an interesting read.
You might also enjoy A Memory of Violets: A Novel of London's Flower Sellers by Hazel Gaynor.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards at Amazon.com.
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