David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines
hradzka

six degrees of the Elephant Man

Reading an interesting book: DAME MADGE KENDAL BY HERSELF. It's part of the Elephant Man kick I'm on of late; I'm toying with the idea of a novel featuring Joseph Merrick, so I'm trying to get a sense of some of the people around him, as potential sidekicks.

The modern fame of Joseph Merrick owes a lot to Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play (and David Lynch's 1980 film, which was not based on the play but may well have been greenlit given the play's considerable success). In the play, Madge Kendal features heavily: she meets with Merrick several times and is essentially his romantic interest. In Lynch's film, the same role is filled by "Fanny Kemble;" it's not clear if the writers deliberately changed the name or simply muffed it. In any event, if one were to write a novel about the Elephant Man, Madge Kendal would be the logical choice for a sidekick. Or so I thought.

So I started looking into Kendal. She was a respected dramatic actress and a brilliant comedienne, though her refusal to act opposite anyone but her husband (reportedly a stodgy, pompous actor who had one good trick: the ability to turn deathly pale at will) annoyed audiences who wanted to see a little variety. I read a series of articles by her on the subject of dramatic performance, and thought she came off well enough there, but an account of her in a book on women of the British theater was very harsh on the personal side.

So I checked her autobiography out of the library, which she wrote (or, rather, dictated to an obsequious friend) at the age of 85. And I've learned two important things. First, while Madge Kendal undoubtedly did philanthropic work on behalf of the Elephant Man, and corresponded with him, she probably never met Joseph Merrick in person at all. Second, Madge Kendal was a nasty bitch of the highest order. For example, she opens with a note that she's not going to talk about scandal and gossip, because she thinks that low. And then, at regular intervals, she writes cruelly about her own children and how deeply they disappointed her.

The best part about the autobiography, though, is that it's annotated. It's a 1933 first edition, and at some point in the last seventy-six years somebody with very nice handwriting and detailed knowledge of theatrical history scribbled, in ink (a fountain pen, no less!) and at some length, detailed explications of how exactly Madge Kendal is lying through her teeth. With names. And dates. The phrases "monstrous fabrication" and "utter rubbish" pop up, as does "Quelle rotte!" Sounds like a charmer, doesn't she?

OTOH, unreliable narrators can be *really* fun...

There's are some other candidates for sidekicks, and I think it might be worthwhile to put several of them in this thing I'm kicking around. There's a young man -- the son of the hospital engineer who built Merrick's apartment and custom furniture -- who became friends with Merrick and would often drop in and play the violin for him, but among women, the potential sidekick who really stands out is Leila Maturin (nee Leila Scot Skirving), who is not famous but who played a role in a turning point in Merrick's life.

She was in her early thirties, a doctor's widow, and a friend of Merrick's friend and benefactor, Frederick Treves. Women tended to react very, very badly to Merrick's appearance, and Merrick had been deeply traumatized by this. Treves thought that one way to heal the wound would be to introduce Merrick to a woman who would not be afraid, who would not run, who would smile at him, and shake hands with him, and have a simple, pleasant conversation. Somehow or other -- Mrs. Maturin was from Edinburgh, her husband was from Dublin, where they married and where he was working when he died (he caught scarlet fever from a child he'd been treating), and she was buried there when she died in 1917, aged 62; *I have no idea how she met Treves, or WTF she was doing in London* -- Treves knew Mrs. Maturin, and decided she would be ideal. So he briefed her, showed her photographs, walked her through what to expect. And then he took her to Merrick's apartment.

She looked at Merrick. And smiled. And said, "Hello, Mr. Merrick. It's a pleasure to meet you." And shook his hand.

And Merrick broke down weeping.

It was the first time in his life that a woman had smiled at him and shaken his hand.

Yeah, Leila Maturin's cool. The one surviving letter from Merrick's correspondence is to her. He addresses her, perhaps wishfully, as "Miss Maturin."

You wanna know the best bit? I mentioned she was from Edinburgh. Turns out that, like Mrs. Kendal, she was an actress. Amateur theatricals, nothing professional, but she was a good amateur actress and got good roles. The acting company was run by a local professor, one Fleeming Jenkin (no, I did not make up that name).

You wanna know who else was in that amateur theatrical group? Go on. Guess.

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.

SWEAR TO GOD. Stevenson would walk home with her and her little brother from the theatricals because he had the hots for Leila. One time, they invited him in for a snack, and he ate too much jam, had a major sugar rush, and WOKE UP THE HOUSE.

The Elephant Man and Robert Louis Stevenson. One degree of separation.
Tags: history
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