Making love on a dead cat was a fantasy of the Belle Epoque. The much-quoted squib by Anon went:
Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err with her
On some other fur?
The author of that ‘daring’ novel Three Weeks played along with the joke. In her later years Mrs Glyn laid out five skins of her totemic beast in her London flat, to satisfy interviewers. The heads were half-raised, an operation for which (as a glance at the reference shelf confirms) the taxidermists of the Army and Navy Stores charged only 16 shillings, which included the insertion of two baleful eyes. In the Glyn myth the head served as an armrest for a seductress. Two of her skins were the gifts of Imperial statesmen who perhaps should have said it with flowers.
‘Preposterous’ is the word one tries not to apply to Elinor Glyn. Red-haired, green-eyed, intense, snobbish, spendthrift, a devilish fine woman in a tableau vivant, the tease of kings and proconsuls, an unstoppable redecorator, a believer in déjà-vu, reincarnation and sleeping with one’s head to the magnetic North, mightily addicted to reading her works to captive audiences (she once fobbed off an army requisitioning officer by this means) – so it could go on. Her positive qualities are usually listed as courage, zest for life and versatility as an author; the pen chiefly famous for releasing the romantic yearnings of the masses could switch easily to reporting a peace conference for the News of the World, or less credibly to trance-writing in ‘faultless Arabic’.
Glyn’s autobiography appeared in 1936. An excellent life by her grandson, Anthony Glyn, was published in 1955, revised in 1988. Why, then, another biography? Joan Hardwick, author of An Immodest Violet (1990), a study of Violet Hunt (whose novels included – yes – The Tiger Skin), evidently felt irresistibly drawn to another immodest adventuress of the period. She is a writer who can keep a straight face when trafficking in absurdity, though she throws in an occasional exclamation mark, and she is resolutely fair to an exotic who would today be baited routinely. Glyn’s novels, she assures us, ‘continue to inspire readers’, though it is hard to know who these may be. A further glance at the reference shelf shows that Mrs Leavis, in Fiction and the Reading Public, deigns to mention Ouida, Marie Corelli and Ethel M. Dell, but not Glyn. Two thick Companions to Literature, one of them edited by Margaret Drabble, give her 13 lines between them. Chambers Biographical Dictionary snortingly dismisses the Glyn output as ‘nonsensical, high-falutin, faulty in construction and ungrammatical’, qualities which were never a bar to popular acclaim.
Canadian-born, Jersey-reared, self-educated in the family library, young Elinor fantasised about aristocratic ancestors. A stern grandmother instilled strict moral rules. Edging ever upwards in Late Victorian society, Eleanor met many unsuitable role models, not all of them royal mistresses. Her fictional heroine was Becky Sharp. Spurning overtures from a sputtering peer, a decrepit Duke of Newcastle and an unappealing millionaire, she settled for a stolid, seemingly solid, squire called Clayton Glyn, who unknown to her had begun living on capital. On their honeymoon Clayton is reputed to have hired a swimming pool at Brighton for two days so that he could watch her swimming naked with her red hair streaming like a mermaid. Clayton was overfond of his food, but could he really have been the sort of epicure who, as one quoted source says, rather than accompany his young wife to bed would sit up to eat a pear when it was absolutely à point? Hasn’t one heard that tale about someone else? Perhaps waiting up for pears was another of those fads of the Epoque.
Like all affluent Edwardians, the Glyns were forever on the move. In Egypt the Sultan of Turkey, sensing a coolness between them, made Clayton a cash offer for his red-headed wife; later, an American millionaire proposed to pay off all Clayton’s debts as the price of taking her off his hands. Plots ready-made for fiction abounded. Elinor, having twice been told by Frenchmen that she was a tigresse, was not surprised to feel ‘weird, tigerish sensations’ at Paestum; but it was at Lucerne, of all places, that she was irresistibly driven to acquire her first tiger skin, displayed in a shop window. Seemingly she thought it would help to revive connubial bliss, but Clayton only raged at her extravagance. Hardwick tells us that Clare Frewen’s husband, seeing his new wife posing on a bear skin, said: ‘Come on, jump into bed. You’re not supposed to be a mistress. You’re supposed to be a wife.’
Elinor was by then writing light novels about high society. Ashamed of her spelling, she insisted on reading one of them to her publisher, Gerald Duckworth, in his office. At his suggestion they broke for lunch at the Savoy. No sympathy need be wasted on Duckworth, who was on to a good thing. Three Weeks, the succès de scandale of his 1907 list, stemmed from a liaison Mrs Glyn had been enjoying with a young Guards officer, Lord Alistair Innes Ker, whom she regarded as ‘emotionally sound asleep’. She had ended it because, as her grandmother had insisted, adultery was a deadly sin. But Elinor, deprived of romance, was now ready to commit adultery in print.
Baldly, Three Weeks tells of an immature young Englishman, Paul, who is sent abroad by his family to break up an entanglement. In the Alps he meets a footloose predator in the form of a Balkan queen who plays spider to his fly, Venus to his Adonis. What gift should he buy her, in Lucerne, but a tiger skin? Within three weeks she teaches him how to LIVE, then sorrowfully slips away, leaving a gold collar for his dog. Later the Queen is murdered by her husband’s agents, but not before giving birth to Paul’s son, a fine young boy who will be a credit to his turbulent throne. Paul, purified in romantic fires, is now destined for a constructive career. All plots sound silly in summary and this tale was silly in execution too, though told with great verve. Because the lady has a voice like rich music and undulates like a snake, her early warning to Paul to leave her before he is hurt goes disregarded. She receives him lying at full stretch on his tiger skin, with a red rose in her teeth, saying: ‘No, you must not come near me, Paul. I am not safe today. Not yet.’ He threatens to strangle her with love if necessary and bites the rose she flings at him (a touch of the Daisy Ashford here). A reading from Apuleius in Latin fails to slake his fires and a song or two on the guitar fans them. ‘Some day some man will kill you, I suppose,’ cries Paul, ‘but I shall be your lover first.’ At this the temptress affects bewildered surprise, ‘as a child might do who sets light to a whole box of matches in play. What a naughty, naughty toy to burn so quickly.’ And so to a rose-bowered climax in Venice, the physical action undescribed but sufficiently indicated by Nature’s benign responses. ‘Such was their wedding night,’ says Glyn, who did not lack nerve. ‘Oh glorious youth! And still more glorious love!’ But spiritual/romantic marriages were not recognised in 1907. Here was only a bright blaze of passion, as a lustful older woman mated with a young man in a series of sybaritic settings, the splendours adding to the enormity of the event.
Glyn pleaded that she had brought the riches of romantic fulfilment to millions of unsatisfied women, but what she had done was to dramatise her own unfulfilled affair (strewing enough clues for people to suspect the tale was autobiographical). Killing off the errant queen was not enough to turn the book into a moral tract. To use her own metaphor, she had played with a box of matches and was pretending surprise that it had exploded. In any event the out-cry was loud. Since it was a tale likely to debauch youths as well as maidens. Three Weeks was declared contraband at Eton. It was taboo even at the court of Edward VII. Glyn’s daughter Margot was punished for reading it at school in Paris. The Lord Chamberlain unhesitatingly banned a dramatic version. After the play was performed privately, with Glyn as the temptress, two fine tiger skins reached her almost simultaneously, from Lord Milner and Lord Curzon. It is tempting to picture Three Weeks as the subject of a prosecution on Lady Chatterley lines, with the Sunday Times critic (the only friendly one) called on to substantiate his argument that the story had ‘too much emotional intensity to deserve the reproach of lasciviousness’. Would Curzon and Milner have spoken up for the author? As it was, the law gave its opinion later in an action by Glyn for copyright infringement when Mr Justice Younger (later a Lord of Appeal) ruled that this ‘glittering record of adulterous sensuality’ could not by its nature expect protection in any court. If followed today, this judgment would lay almost every novel open to piracy.
From Russia, Glyn received an invitation from two broad-minded grand duchesses to write a novel about tsarist society. By that time a rumour had circulated worldwide that the Balkan queen of Three Weeks was based on the Tsarina, who (gossip said) because of her inability to produce an heir had been packed off on a yachting cruise with a young Englishman, the Tsarevitch being the result. The offended House of Romanov, Glyn believed, was behind a mysterious plot to kidnap her in Warsaw, an adventure from which she was equally mysteriously rescued by unknown men who enjoined silence. Curzon, now high in Glyn’s affections, investigated the affair, without success. It is easy to suspect that it was all an absurd misunderstanding, if not one of the novelist’s fantasies, but it makes an excellent story. How wise was Jane Austen to laugh off that invitation to write a romance founded on ‘the august House of Saxe-Coburg’.
The Spanish court had nothing against Glyn. She met King Alfonso through her sister, the fashionable dressmaker Lady Lucy Duff Gordon, who had his queen as client. Once, the King nipped up four flights of stairs to flirt with Glyn in her newly-painted purple salon: ‘In response to his amorous words Elinor told him that she found the love of kings too passing. She preferred their friendship.’ Hilarity mounts when ‘Madame’ Glyn in her sprightly sixties eventually reaches Hollywood. I well remember the popular obsession in the Twenties with ‘It’, that mysterious quality in women supposedly invented by Glyn but first identified by Mrs Bathurst in Kipling’s Traffics and Discoveries (1904). It, the film version of a Glyn story, starred the wayward Clara Bow. A cleaned-up version of Three Weeks was also filmed. In this overheated world Glyn’s contributions included teaching Valentino to kiss a woman’s palm, not just the back of her hand. She tried unsuccessfully to run an English salon and to preserve sanity by keeping Plato and Aristotle at her bedside; but that did not stop her dancing with the equivalent of toy boys in the ominously named Patent Leather Room. Meeting Chaplin, she said he did not look as funny as she had expected, and he replied: ‘Neither do you.’
The on-off affair with Curzon lasted eight years, spanning Clayton’s death. Whether the two disported on his tiger skin, or merely read Plato on it, we shall never know. She was busy planning to redecorate Montacute for him when she read in the Times of his engagement to Grace Duggan. It was brutally done. Glyn never publicly branded him a cad; nor, showing great restraint, does her biographer. Like others, Joan Hardwick must greatly regret that her heroine burned his 500 letters. She has rummaged among Glyn relics ‘in the attics above the stables at Carlton Curlieu Hall’ and tapped the archives of the News of the World, but perhaps there was not a great deal to add to the legend. Some figures about the novelist’s sales would have been welcome, for it was a day of prodigious best-sellers (The Way of an Eagle, The Blue Lagoon, The Garden of Allah, The Broad Highway, to name but four). It is a surprise to read that at the turn of the century London had only two restaurants. Meaning, perhaps, only two to which a nobly born Guards officer could safely take someone else’s wife? One passage in need of slight amendment concerns the efforts of Glyn’s friend Lord Ilchester to ‘maintain in good order that great phallic symbol the Cerne Giant, under the auspices of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Erections’. Regrettably, the formation of such a society was no more than a threat by Lord Ilchester to deter the grassing over of the giant’s vital parts.
Another flamboyant, scandal-lapped, self-dramatising monstre sacrée surfaces in Joy Melville’s Mother of Oscar, a life of Lady Wilde, once famous as ‘Speranza’, the seditious Dublin belle of the potato famine. Born Jane Elgee, she too ran amok in the Classics and fantasised about her ancestors. In the late 1840s she wrote spirited, occasionally fustian verses in the Dublin Nation urging the Young Ireland movement to revolt; the equivalent, perhaps, of trying to galvanise the United Nations with a daily ‘Poem for Bosnia’. It needed more than a ‘come all ye’ to set a devastated Erin alight. Speranza went on to pen a ringing leader in the Nation, crying, ‘Oh! for a hundred thousand muskets glittering brightly in the light of heaven’ – muskets to surround the ‘doomed Castle’ where the infamous English tyrant had sat for seven hundred years; and much more. The English tyrant shut down the Nation but spared the leader-writer because she was one of the Ascendancy (and how could a silly young woman commit treason?). Erin failed to rise. ‘The lesson was useful,’ Speranza told a friend. ‘I shall never write sedition again.’ But all her life she was delighted to be remembered as the inspiration of the revolt that never happened, a Madame Roland manquée. She continued, from time to time, to call for freedom for Ireland, so long as that did not mean democracy.
Her next brush with the law came when, as Lady Wilde, she had earned a reputation as the witty and welcoming hostess of No 1 Merrion Square. Her husband, the eye surgeon Sir William Wilde, had been over-attentive to an unbalanced young woman, Mary Travers, who sued Lady Wilde for libel. Had Sir William violated the girl under chloroform? All Dublin speculated. Lady Wilde stood by her husband, but would have done better, we are told, to break down in the witness-box rather than display indifference over his indiscretions. Learned hams mocked her coolness. Travers won a farthing, Wilde paid £2000 costs and Lady Wilde licked her wounds.
The book expands into a closely-observed study of the Wilde family, with Oscar growing from dreamy fat boy into languid pale poseur and his frivolous older brother Willie writing non-inflammatory leaders for the Daily Telegraph. When her Irish rents dried up the widowed Lady Wilde moved to London, seat of the hated oppressor, where she could more readily ginger up her sons, urge them to marry and dissuade them from quarrelling. The success of her weekly salons owed much to her own talk, which was both sparkling and reckless. It was her wish to live ‘where men have courteous manners and splendid sins’ (some less-than-splendid sins were coming up) and she refused to have anyone under her roof described as respectable, since respectability was only for tradesmen. She was a bulky, old-fashioned figure, apparently clad, as Wodehouse would say, by Omar the Tentmaker. A gently teasing picture of her appears in The Picture of Dorian Gray. According to Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar greatly exaggerated his mother’s mental powers and social standing, but ‘really adored her and spoke of her always with the greatest reverence and respect’. Her literary earnings, largely from translations, were meagre. Astonishingly, she began lobbying for a literary pension, though her best remembered works were insurrectionary, and after many years she won a £70 Civil List dole. She never had an inkling that Oscar was ‘feasting with panthers’ and the events of 1895 took her by shock. At times of disappointment with her progeny she had signed her letters ‘La Madre Dolorosa’ or ‘La Madre Desolata’. Now desolation, real, black and unbearable, engulfed her. She died while Oscar was in gaol. It is most odd, as this book reminds us, that she never saw any of his plays, much though she revelled in his reviews. Too decrepit to attend? It is hard to believe.
The goodwill Lady Wilde enjoyed for so much of her life has animated her biographer, who presents her as the stout linchpin of a difficult, self-willed family; the less lenient may see her as more of a dear octopus. Joy Melville (who wrote a life of Ellen Terry) has made good use of Lady Wilde’s idiosyncratic letters, which are dispersed from Sweden to California, from New York to Dublin to Reading; she has combed unfamiliar journals and followed up many a beckoning Irish trail (even to a look-in at the house where Sir William’s two illegitimate daughters were burned to death in their crinolines). The Wilde industry is enlivened by this resourceful and entertaining study, which like all works in its field should be read in the light of Oscar’s warning: ‘The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.’