Showing posts with label Elinor Glyn. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elinor Glyn. Show all posts

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

True Romance and Elinor Glyn

I decided to read Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn, by Joan Hardwick, because I was intrigued by the descriptions of Elinor Glyn in The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters. But when it came time to open the book and begin reading, I did so with some trepidation. The prologue opens with a quote from Elinor Glyn, declaring that her dominant interest in life had been the desire for romance. This inspired dread. Perhaps I would learn that Elinor snacked on heart-shaped sandwiches as Danielle Steel does. I might be subjected to examples of Hallmark-style poetry, or read that Elinor could be seduced with the properly timed presentation of a plush teddy bear. Who knew what examples of mawkish sentimentality I might find lurking in the book.

But I need not have feared any of these things. I love biographies and have read many, and I don’t think I’ve ever admired the subject of a biography more. I do deliberately write “subject of a biography” as distinct from person, being aware that biographers are known for their partisanship to their subjects. After all one doesn’t like to spend years and much hard-won grant money on research and writing only to admit that one’s subject wasn’t worth the trees after all. A less sympathetic biographer might have made more of Elinor’s flaws and been less generous in assessment of her literary abilities. It’s an interesting experiment in to read two biographies on the same person and to see how much of our final view of the subject is dependent on the biographer’s spin.

But even so I don’t think I could be otherwise than admiring of Elinor Glyn, who was an incredibly interesting and accomplished person. Glyn was a prolific writer of romance novels, and a screenwriter during Hollywood’s early days. Beginning in 1901, she supported her family by producing a book a year for many years. In 1907 Elinor’s book Three Weeks, which told the story of a young man’s affair with an older married woman and featured an erotic love scene on a tiger skin, was published, and it catapulted Elinor to a new level of readership and fame, or rather infamy. Both the book and Elinor achieved instant notoriety, with everyone assuming that book was autobiographical. A popular bit of doggerel made the rounds: "Would you like to sin/With Elinor Glyn/On a tiger skin?/Or would you prefer/To err with her/On some other fur?" Edward VII – a compulsive womanizer – refused to have the book mentioned in his presence. When Elinor’s daughter Margot was caught reading Three Weeks at her boarding school, the school authorities confiscated the book and punished her. Glyn’s second career as a screenwriter began when, at 50, she received propositions from the King of Spain and from a Hollywood production company. She declined the first and happily accepted the latter. Elinor flourished in Hollywood, where her gift for self-promotion soon established her as someone of note. She gave birth to a meme that survives to today by declaring that Clara Bow had "It" (though Dorothy Parker snorted, "'It', hell. She had Those.") She made many prominent friends and mentored a number of young actors. Rudolph Valentino benefited from her lessons on how to woo a woman; Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow came to love and respect her for her excellent advice; Charlie Chaplin’s incisive mockery of her pretensions in no way diminished their friendship; and she travelled with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford on their belated honeymoon.

Excellence is generally compelling, but human nature being what it is we find excellence all the more attractive when it is packaged and delivered with style, and this Glyn never failed to do. It helped that she was beautiful, and seemingly ageless. I kept turning to the photo section to stare with incredulity at the pictures taken throughout her life. Though there are pictures taken of her in her late seventies, she never appears to be older than her late thirties. This seems to have been partly due to genetics (her mother’s photos are similarly amazing) and partly to her self-discipline. Elinor Glyn lived in an era during which those of her leisured class dined lavishly on seven-course dinners and routinely made trips to some elite spa to shed the resulting avoir dupois. Glyn ate simply and drank lots of water. She never permitted herself to slouch and even as an elderly woman always sat bolt upright. She loved clothes and dressed beautifully, keeping a notebook in which she sketched and detailed every outfit, and served as a model for the clothes produced by her sister, whose dressmaking business was wildly successful, thanks to Elinor. She always decorated her homes lavishly to provide the proper backdrop for the sort of life she wanted to lead. She knew how to get attention of the kind she wanted – once in her seventies she appeared at a luncheon with her cat Candide draped over her shoulders. Glyn was pretentious, but her pretensions were not a false front hiding emptiness or inadequacy, but an outlet for her creativity and artistry. The reality was just as interesting, and the relation between her actual self and her presentation of herself a fascinating one.

Glyn’s self-discipline seems to have been remarkable and, coupled with her intelligence, generous nature, and strong ethics and generally good judgment, enabled her to sail through many difficulties. During her adulthood if she needed money she promptly found a way to earn some. At one time of dire need she wrote a novel in 18 days. During World War I, like many other British women, she did a great deal of war work, and visited recuperating soldiers and washed dishes in a canteen (when she had never previously washed dishes in her life) as well as visiting the trenches as a war correspondent. And she never stooped to behaving badly no matter how others might have treated her. Though her marriage was not a successful one there was never animosity between Clayton and Elinor Glyn. Clayton lost all interest in Elinor soon after their marriage and was always indifferent to the attention she received from men, or at most found it amusing, as on the occasion the Sultan of Turkey sent an envoy to Clayton offering to purchase Elinor (to be fair, I can’t blame him for finding that one funny). Never lacking in suitors, Elinor found some emotional satisfaction in her several intense yet platonic relationships with men. But she couldn’t bring herself to be physically unfaithful to her husband, and would part from her lovers when they became too insistent on her doing so. It was not until Elinor met George Curzon, who was probably the love of her life, that she allowed herself to have a sexual affair.

Glyn met the widowed George Curzon in 1908, and they began a passionate affair that was to last for years. In 1915 Clayton, who had become an alcoholic, died, and while Elinor honestly mourned the waste of his life and the loss of the man she had once loved and fell ill immediately after his death, she could now hope to marry Curzon. Curzon even asked her to take charge of the decoration of a Montacute estate he had recently acquired. But Curzon had also been seeing another married woman, Grace Duggan, whose husband died at the same time as Clayton. Curzon seems to have honestly loved both women and been torn by the decision between them, but in 1916 he married Grace, probably because as she was younger than Elinor, he could hope to have the male heir he desperately wanted. Elinor was at Montacute working on its decoration when she read of George and Grace’s engagement in a newspaper. She left the house at once, and later burned the 500 letters Curzon had sent to her.

Devastated as she was by Curzon’s treatment of her, she seems to have carried on with her life without noticeable pause. She entered happily into her new life in Hollywood. She had the satisfaction of continued close relationships with Irene, Cimmie, and Baba Curzon, who would turn to Elinor Glyn rather than their stepmother when they needed a mature woman’s advice. Glyn also learned from the Curzon daughters that George and Grace Curzon’s marriage was a failure. She did not delight in the news, but it was a comfort to realize that she might well have been an unhappy Lady Curzon as well.

Glyn was contemptuous of the uselessness of the lives led by most of those in her circle, and her life was chockfull of the worthwhile. Besides writing her many books and several screenplays she travelled incessantly, had many talented and powerful friends, and educated herself to a high degree. As she aged she continued to be open to new adventures and undertaking, and to learn and grow as a person, and showed an excellent discernment when it came to discarding or retaining the values she’d had in her younger days. She was the kind of grandmother who insisted that her grandchildren converse, rather than chatter, but she was able to see that she’d been wrong in her youthful reverence for pre-revolutionary French government and to see the good in socialism.

As I read the book I often shook my head in disbelief at the way Elinor seemed to repeatedly manage to get entrée into the kind of society and incidents that are of historical note, but looking back on her life I see that she was a part of those moments because she belonged in them. She achieved a great deal, and was a remarkable person, and so attracted others like herself. It was not luck that Mark Twain called on her while she was in New York. It was not a coincidence that she was asked by the Grand Duchess Kiril to go to Russia in 1910 to write a book set in the Russian royal court. The Grand Duchess had been impressed by the accurate rendering of the French court in Elinor’s books and thought that if such a widely read author could write such a book about Russia it might have a good effect on Russia’s image. Elinor, with her love of travel and adventure, her understanding of image creation, and her need to produce a new book every year, accepted at once. George Curzon was a man who enjoyed women as he did fine wines and beautiful paintings rather than as equals or partners, and when first approaching her, expected a light flirtation. He was taken aback when Elinor was well informed about his work in India, and interested in hearing about his travels and the book he’d written. She asked about his opinions on Lloyd George. She loved the classics as much as he did, and they would later read Plato together.

At the end I realized I’d been given a valuable illustration of the truest and best meaning of romance, a word that has become somewhat degraded since Elinor Glyn’s time. The word romance has come to be associated with some unfortunate things – Harlequins, stuffed animals, movies starring Julia Roberts, sentimental greeting cards bought by harried men late in the afternoon of February 14th, or other things that are well enough in their way but that are often so cliché and perfunctory in their presentation as to be almost empty of actual romantic value, such as gifts of roses, chocolates and lingerie (especially if the roses cause an allergic reaction, the chocolates make one’s skin break out and the lingerie doesn’t fit). Thus my sense of fear upon beginning the book – I am already so sated with this degraded, sentimental, modern definition of “romance”. But that’s not at all what Elinor Glyn had in mind when she spoke of romance. To her, romance meant ideals, imagination, adventure, passion, and heroism. A romantic life was thrilling and epic. She worked very hard to create a life that was romantic, and to present herself as a romantic figure, and succeeded despite her failed marriage and rejection by the love of her life. The story of her life makes it clear that this genuine romance can not only be incorporated into an intelligent and realistic person’s life, but enrich it.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

The Lives of the Incidental and the Related

Anne De Courcy’s The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters is a biography of three English sisters – Irene Curzon (1896-1966), Cynthia “Cimmie” Curzon Mosley (1898-1933), and Alexandra “Baba” Curzon Metcalfe (1904-1995). Their father, George Curzon, was a brilliant man who was born to the peerage and held a series of important posts in the British government at a time when Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world. He was Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, then Viceroy of India, then Leader of the House of Lords, then member of the War Cabinet during the First World War, then Foreign Secretary, and finally Lord President of the Council – all this in spite of the agonizing pain caused by the curvature of the spine that he suffered, and the necessity of wearing a steel corset. For a wife he chose one of the most beautiful young debutantes in America, Mary Leiter. Though Mary and George did love each other it was not incidental that Mary was also one of America’s richest young debutantes, since George could not have otherwise have afforded such a career. The viceroy’s salary, for instance, did not half finance the lifestyle thought necessary to a viceroy.

As one might expect of those born to such parents the three Curzon sisters were wealthy, titled, beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed. This book documents their intertwined lives. It was an era when women did not have careers and the three women lived sumptuously on their inheritances all their lives anyway, but they all gave a great deal of time and energy to the public good and excelled at whatever they did. Cimmie was a Member of Parliament. Irene and Baba both did a considerable amount of charitable work, in honour of which Irene was created on of the first four female life peers in 1958, and Baba awarded a CBE in 1975. Cimmie and Baba married and had three children each. Irene never married and had no children, although she essentially raised Cimmie’s children after Cimmie died at the age of 34 from an appendectomy performed in a pre-antibiotic era. Socially they mingled with many of the well-known people of the day, and the index to the book reads like a Who’s Who of the thirties. To give a few examples of their social connections, George Curzon had a long-standing affair with Elinor Glyn, and Glyn, a kind woman, also became a fondly regarded and lifelong friend to the Curzon daughters. Cimmie’s husband was Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley, a charismatic and power-obsessed politician who founded an alarmingly successful fascist party in England in the thirties. Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) fell in love with Baba, although not she with him. Baba’s husband was the closest male friend the Duke of Windsor ever had, and Baba had affairs with many powerful men – including her brother-in-law, Tom Mosley. Tom Mosley’s second wife was Diana Guinness, who was Unity Mitford’s sister and, like Unity, a friend of Hitler’s.

This book had me musing about the nature of history. If history is not what actually happened but our construction of what happened, why include these three particular women in it? Why was this topic worth the intensive work it must have been to document it? While reading the 454-page book I kept waiting for one of the Curzon sisters to do something to warrant such a biography. I think I must have read several hundred pages before it dawned on me that this was not going to happen. I probably should have taken the hint from the title and subtitle, which define the three women by their biological relationships, or from the four review blurbs on the back of the book, which make use of the term “social history” twice. The Curzon sisters led useful lives that are mildly interesting to the reader, but they were not of historical importance in themselves. This book about them is primarily worth reading for the social and historical context it provides. The Viceroy's Daughters is, therefore, a good book to read if one wants a sense of what life was like in aristocratic English circles during the first half of the twentieth century. One learns that the hunt was a subculture of its own and could be an entire way of life for some, as it was for Irene for a time. There are incidents that speak volumes about the social mores of the era, such as George Curzon’s summary dismissal of a housemaid who had allowed a footman to spend the night in her bed (“I put the wretched little slut out in the street at a moment’s notice.”) He saw no parallel between the housemaid’s actions and his own many affairs, and there is no mention of what happened to the footman. It is related that Baba taught Prince George to drive in a single afternoon – a few hours’ instruction from a friend being standard driver’s education at the time. There is by far the most negative and unflattering account of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s relationship and behaviour towards others that I have ever read. And there is a truly disturbing account of the growth and momentum of Tom Mosley’s British fascist movement, complete with pictures of a moustached, black-shirted Tom exhorting a fervent crowd and the lyrics for a song called “Mosley!” (“Mosley, Leader of thousands!/Hope of our manhood, we proudly hail thee!/Raise we the song of allegiance/For we are sworn and shall not fail thee.”). If the reader has any complacent notion that the threat and allure of fascism was limited to one or two leaders and their countries, or even to one era, he or she will be disabused.

The Curzon sisters have much in common with Princess Diana, and they share her specific relationship to history. They, like her, were born to the aristocracy, wealthy, beautiful, well-dressed, unhappy in their marriages and romances, successful mothers, active in charitable works, and politically unimportant. Not being a part of the royal family, nor mothers to the heir to the throne, they were less well known. And at any rate media coverage in their day, though it covered society events and the lives of the aristocracy, would have had an entirely different tone from that of Diana’s time. If the Curzon sisters had had colonial irrigations or bulimia, it was not breathlessly reported. I doubt that Irene’s excessive drinking was ever generally bruited about. Being famous, however, has always meant that people whom you have never met believe that they know you. So the Curzon sisters, like Diana, would have been objectified and treated as characters in a soap opera rather than as people, and even more idealized. It made me realize that in a hundred years’ time Diana will probably be largely forgotten, or at least have dwindled to the status of a tragic footnote, as has say, Anne Boleyn. In any case I expect her image won’t still be appearing on magazine covers and bus shelters. Because in the case of these celebrity soap opera-like stories, you probably had to be there at the time watching, and have the memories of the unfolding events interwoven with the events of your own life, in order to feel that they have any compelling meaning.