Shopping in Lucerne

E.S. Turner

  • Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn by Joan Hardwick
    Deutsch, 306 pp, £20.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 233 98866 1
  • Mother of Oscar: The Life of Jane Francesca Wilde by Joy Melville
    Murray, 308 pp, £19.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 7195 5102 1

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.

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