A Strange Eventful History

The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families

Michael Holroyd


In A Strange Eventful History, one of our greatest living biographers turns his attention to a gruop of history's most influential performers, a remarkable dynasty that presided over the golden age of theater.
Ellen Terry was ther era's most powerful actress.  George Bernard Shaw was so besotted that he wrote her letters almost daily, but could not bear to meet her, lest the spell she cast from the stage be broken.  Henry Irving was a merchant's clerk who by force of will and wit became one of the greatest actor-managers in the history of the theater.  Together, Irving and Terry presided over a powerhouse of the arts in London's Lyceum Theatre and revived English theater as a popular art form.
Exactingly researched and bursting with charismatic life, this epic story follows Terry and Irving and their brilliant but volatile children--among them Terry's son, Edward Gordon Craig, the revolutionary theatrical designer.  A Strange Eventful History is more than an account of the great classical age of London theater; it is a potrait of nineteenth-century society on the precipice of great change.


Read an Excerpt


A Story in a Book

‘The past is now to me like a story in a book’, Ellen Terry wrote almost forty

years later in 1906. It was a fairy story, her life; or perhaps one of those

melodramas she had been playing onstage for as long as her admirers could

remember. That June marked her fiftieth year in the theatre and the event

was celebrated with wild delight in the streets of London. Crowds filled

Drury Lane from midday till six o’clock in the evening – they would have

stayed longer, singing, dancing, growing hoarse from cheering, but their



Praise for A Strange Eventful History

"The most completely delicious, the most civilized, and the most wickedly entertaining work of nonfiction anyone could ask for . . . Irresistable."--Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"A hugely entertaining book, one that brings a vanished theater world--and an era itself--miraculously back to life."--Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal
"An epic, perfectly balanced by intimacies of setting and character."--The New Yorker
“A fabulous cavalcade of a book, written with infectious verve and deep imaginative sympathy.” —John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)
“[A] delightful narrative . . . Captivating.”—The Economist
"An entirely captivately biography which ranks alongside Holroyd's Bernard Shaw and his Lytton Strachey as one of the glories of the form."--Richard Eyre, The Guardian (UK)
“This is Michael Holroyd’s first extended feat of biographical writing since his monumental three-volume life of George Bernard Shaw, completed nearly twenty years ago. A Strange Eventful History is magnificent—not just as a fascinating exercise in group biography, but as a masterpiece of comic writing. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that I think Proust would have been addicted to it, had it been published in time.” —Paul Taylor, New Statesman

“A collective biography that doesn’t disintegrate into something less than the sum of its parts . . . The miracle of this book . . . is that it manages to engage and maintain the reader’s interest through a rapidly evolving, scene-changing narrative, presented with a range of eye-catching effects . . . Holroyd evokes the mysterious world of the Victorian and Edwardian theatre, the hiss of the gas footlights, the coloured lights and smoke, with all the attention to detail of the star-struck fan seated in the front stalls.” —Mark Bostridge, The Independent on Sunday

A Strange Eventful History, [Holroyd’s] first biography for fifteen years, has all the tumbling narrative, spicy detail and easy empathy that determine his Midas touch. But it has something else, too: a rich, playful style more typically associated with lyric forms . . . which shows Holroyd yet again pushing the biographer’s art to new imaginative planes.” —Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

“Holroyd has once again triumphed over a seemingly impossible subject . . . Like all his biographies, [A Strange Eventful History] avoids neat explanations and simplistic pieties . . . It is also deftly plotted, with an infectious verve that springs from his delight in the waywardness of human nature.”—Frances Spalding, The Independent

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Michael Holroyd

  • Knighted for his services to literature, Michael Holroyd is the author of acclaimed biographies of George Bernard Shaw, the painter Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey, as well as two memoirs. He is the president of the Royal Society of Literature and the only nonfiction writer to have been awarded the David Cohen British Literature Prize. He lives in London with his wife, the novelist Margaret Drabble.
  • Michael Holroyd


Available Formats and Book Details

A Strange Eventful History

The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families

Michael Holroyd