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The Life, Loves, and Lawsuits of a Legendary Victorian

by Brian Thompson

Pub Date: March 20th, 2001
ISBN: 0-385-50090-4
Publisher: Doubleday

Weldon was a piece of work, to put it mildly, and here is her crazy and remarkable life, told in an airy voice by Thompson (Ladder of Angels, 1999).

Born to an illustrious if cash-poor family in 1837, Weldon was raised in Florence, and as she grew into womanhood, “the air of obedient calm required by mid-Victorian women was quite foreign to her.” Her father wanted her to marry for wealth and position; instead, she ran off with an officer in the Hussars, then ran off with the French composer Charles Gounod, then settled in with her soulmate Angele, although there was to be a string of lovers (even if “she was not all that interested in sex,” as Thompson tells us). She sang at the Paris Opera, she kept bees and grew peas, she published her own newspaper, ran a music school for orphans and another for the blind, appeared on Pear’s soap advertisements, and before the courts (on charges of lunacy among others). She was chucked into Newgate and into Holloway for “false and scandalous libel” (she had a hard time holding her tongue when people criticized her talents or behavior). She was a collector of men; she lied and grasped and was ungrateful, but she also did some serious damage to the cruel lunacy and marital laws of Victorian England. Most of this material Thompson has gathered from Weldon’s self-published, six-volume memoirs—“a forest of libel directed at anyone who had ever dared cross her will”—although he does an estimable job unspooling a vision of Victorian society and the intricate steps the upper crust danced to maintain appearances (a society that Weldon did her best to shock).

A wild and woolly story, expertly told, of a woman whose life was a long string of fireworks.