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Gracious Ladies: The Norbury Family and Edward Elgar
By Kevin Allen
Published June 2013, £25
After unloading this book from the fork-lift truck that had to be employed to deliver it, and regaining consciousness after discovering that this is only volume one, I was able to appreciate that actually this ‘ginormous’ and heavy book could be quite a good read!
Kevin Allen’s aim in this book is to give “an account of social, religious, political, cultural but above all, musical life in Victorian Worcestershire.” This he does by starting with the Norbury family who were the subject of Elgar’s eighth movement in the Enigma Variations and uses primary sources - including local newspapers and letters - to follow the progression of this interesting family.
The blurb on the back cover of this enormous book describes the main characters: Nelly, Winifred and Florence Norbury and the rather wonderful life they had. It rather put me in mind of Jane Austen and I imagined the book to be a detailed and real life Pride and Prejudice - a theme taken up by the author -yet I was slightly disappointed by the Prologue which gives a very extensive history of Worcester as a city and some rather wishy-washy facts about Elgar’s father’s business beginnings.
The book certainly has a more romantic tone as we hear about Gertrude and Thomas through their courtship and early marriage. A slightly eccentric paragraph about Letts’ Diaries and their advertising campaign leads to some rather dull statistics about 19th century income tax. Thankfully the story resumes as Gertrude and Thomas take up residence at Sherridge the family home which proves to be a central part of this narrative.
The best things about this book are the wonderful pictures as well as the vast quantity of letters. Reading what various members of the family had written gives a much greater insight into their personality than just reading about them. Yet, Allen manages to add to these first-hand accounts by fleshing-out the details around this fascinating group and bringing together various accounts to give a full picture of a particular incident. The description is so vivid of Winifred and Florence during the 1880s and their work during the election that I feel jealous of their lives of rowing with the cook and going to concerts.
Elgar’s life and music is certainly placed firmly within the social context of his time. The Norbury family seem to have been present or part of many of important performances such as the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford and Israel in Egypt at the Crystal Palace. Particularly interesting to Elgar fans is the account of the headmistress at The Mount School where Elgar was violin teacher, Miss Rosa Campbell Burley. She took violin lessons with Elgar and apparently fell in love with him. She describes Elgar’s teaching methods in a less than complimentary fashion:-
“He affected a superior tone, and the manner and dress of a country gentleman, while remaining irritable with his unfortunate pupils and unpredictable in his behaviour towards their elders.”
There is also a great deal of detail about the musical situation at Worcester Cathedral including the organists there and how they were perceived. This insight can be applied to other cathedrals of this sort which were certainly home to a great deal of important musical developments during this period.
This book is well written, incredibly detailed and very insightful. Its contribution to literature about Elgar is fairly limited given the body of work already in existence, but the social and historical context provided by the description of the lives of this family are invaluable and would appeal to anyone with an interest in Victorian England, amateur music-making and family life.
Author's postal address
2 Milford Court, Gale Moor Avenue, Alverstoke, Hampshire PO12 2TN, United Kingdom (£5 postage within UK, contact author by above email address for international rates)