Count Alfred D’Orsay, 1801-1845: Charmed, I’m Sure

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but somehow it never quite gets off the page. Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise, the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd. Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred. That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man. His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare. While the general was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit, Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others. (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading

John Elwes, 1714 – 1789: Bah, Humbug

The man was said to be the template for Ebenezer Scrooge, and superficially there seems something of a case to be made.  In the end, however, he was far stranger than that, and one wonders that Dickens could not have done more with him.

He was born John Meggot (or Meggott) to a prosperous brewer who died when John was four years old, leaving a fortune of over £150,000.   Bereaved by her loss and presumably terrified of going into principle, Mom died of starvation.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man man possessed of a good fortune (and unencumbered by parents)  must be in want of a good time.  He had been a scholar at Westminster, liked high society, and liked riding. He liked travel as well, and spent some time in  Switzerland.  (Voltaire was supposedly the main attraction- Elwes preferred the horses.)  Continue reading

Charles Dickens 1812 -1870: An Actor Turned Writer on a Writer Turned Actor

Charles Dickens and The Great Theatre of the World by  Simon Callow, Vintage Books.

Moliere did it, by all accounts so did Shakespeare, and when you consider that the actor’s greatest tool is observation, and their greatest use of it, characterization, you wonder why writers, who also have to create characters, don’t cross this line more often than they do.  But writers are introverted people – aren’t they? They are alienated, self absorbed, at odds with the cosmos they inhabit, unconcerned by such quotidian niceties as the physical world around them – aren’t they?

Maybe not.  Charles Dickens certainly was not.  If anyone was ever forced into this world like a needle into an epidermis, then surely it was Dickens.  He was the most tirelessly observant person anyone could remember ever meeting. Without looking at anything in particular, Dickens wrote of himself as a young man, he had missed nothing.  How many of us can say the same? Continue reading

Catherine Dickens 1815-1879: His “Dearest Pig”

 There are fatal encounters in this life some of which do not turn out well for either of those appointed by time and fate to meet.  Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens probably met at the home of her father George Hogarth in 1835.  They quickly became engaged.

Charles was on the rebound from a failed courtship of a determinedly flirtatious girl named Maria Beadnell who had, after the manner of flirts, ended up marrying a young man with greater expectations than his own.  He was at a loose end and he was invited home to one of his editors’ houses, and the rest was history.

Catherine at about nineteen or so was an early Victorian pin up with brown hair, big blue eyes, a pink face and a curvaceous figure that was going to run to fat in later life.  She was captivated almost at once by Dickens’ energy and his humor, his bright waistcoats, may have helped as well.  He, on the other hand, liked Catherine’s “calm”. Continue reading

Ellen Lawless Ternan, 1839-1914: Best of Times, Worst of Times

Her name was Ellen. She was an actress born to an actress mother and had two older sisters who were also actresses. The Ternan family had been treading the boards long before Ellen came along and the talent in the family belonged to her mother rather than to her actor/manager father who died early and tragically. Ellen Lawless Ternan struggled along after that death with her mother and sisters trying to eke out a living on the London stage.

For many years it must have seemed like a thankless struggle and an unprofitable one to the little family, but then, when Ellen was eighteen, a privately produced melodrama went into Wilkie Collins production which required professional actresses. It was called The Frozen Deep and it featured among its principal players, the writer Charles Dickens. Continue reading