Helen D’Oyly Carte: Gilbert and Sullivan’s 4th Partner
By Brian Jones
London: Basingstoke Books, 2011
In 1984, I attended a talk by Arthur Jacobs, whose biography of Arthur Sullivan was then new. In the Q&A, he was asked why no one had written a biography of Helen D’Oyly Carte. Jacobs replied that he didn’t think there was enough available information about her. Helen is, of course, a recurring figure in the history of the Savoy Operas, but she is usually portrayed in a supporting role, not as one worthy of study in her own right.
Cunningham Bridgeman, who with François Cellier wrote one of the first histories of the G&S partnership, thought differently, suggesting that “it is confidently anticipated that the life-work of Helen Lenoir . . . may yet form the subject of a separate volume.” It took ninety-seven years for someone to prove Bridgeman right, and Jacobs wrong, but Brian Jones has now done it.
Jones’s account of Helen’s early family life and brief career on the stage will be new to most readers, as will her impressive education. Helen was in the first class of four women admitted to London University, completing all the requirements for a degree of “Mathematics and Mechanical Philosophy.” She was arguably better educated than Gilbert, Sullivan, or Carte. As Carte would relate in an 1885 interview:
Miss Lenoir . . . can draw up an ‘ironclad’ agreement as well as any solicitor. On international copyright and dramatic rights she is probably one of the best living authorities; her knowledge is derived from practical litigation as well as text books. Before she came to me Miss Lenoir had passed with honours examinations at the University of London that would have entitled her to a BA degree had it then been given to women.
Despite that, the best job she could find, at first, was as a governess. She then went on the stage and found her way into Carte’s employ in 1877. Before long, she was authorized to sign letters in his name. By 1880, she was sent to New York to run Carte’s U.S. business, at a time when there were few women in theatrical management. Between 1880 and 1884, she spent entire winters in New York, returning to London over the summer months to manage Carte’s provincial tours. From 1880–87, she made at least fifteen trips back and forth between the two countries.
In 1885, Carte’s first wife, Blanche née Prowse, died of pneumonia. Exactly how Carte’s relationship with Helen became intimate is not known. Jones tells the story of their marriage through a remarkable resource: the 1888 diary of Lucas D’Oyly Carte, Richard’s older son. That volume has never been quoted at all, in any source I’m aware of. To this diary Jones devotes his longest chapter, allowing Lucas’s account to speak mostly for itself.
A fascinating series of entries comes on 6–7 April, when Carte takes Lucas and his brother Rupert to Manchester, where they take in three performances of Patience, with three different leading ladies, apparently scheduled that way so that he could assess their suitability for more prominent roles within his large organization.
It is clear from the diary that Helen had become a de facto member of the family; still, the marriage seems to have come as a surprise to the children. On 11 April 1888, Lucas writes: “Dinner with HL, Father, us, Mr. Stanley, and Mr. Fladgate. Afterwards Father [told us?] of his intentions [double-underlined] for the following day. Billiards.” The family honeymooned in France, with the children joining the newlyweds.
Although Jones finds enough material to justify a full biography of the woman he calls “Gilbert and Sullivan’s 4th Partner,” there is a good deal of what might be called filler. Many historical incidents are described without any new information. A chapter on the construction of the Savoy Theatre provides welcome detail, but barely mentions Helen at all, as she had no significant role in that project.
The one period in her life that Jones covers inadequately is 1906–09, when Helen mounted the first repertory seasons at the Savoy. Many letters passed between Gilbert and Helen: the librettist was particularly irked at the casts, which Helen chose without consulting him, and which he considered inadequate. Jones neither quotes nor mentions any of those letters (now residing in the British Library), which makes me wonder if he was aware of them. It is a rather substantial omission.
I wish that were the only problem. The book reads like a very rough draft. There is scarcely a page without a mechanical or other error. Many passages are so disorganized that you would think a family friend who knew nothing about Gilbert and Sullivan, had typed the author’s preliminary notes into a word processor, and then published them with no editing at all.
Most of the time, you can at least grasp Jones’s meaning. Except when you can’t. On p. 39, “When Helen came back to Carte’s office in autumn 1877, she must have been excited by the new technology involved.” No technology is mentioned. On p. 46, “The casting of Blanche Roosevelt as Josephine [in New York] was a further clue.” A clue of what?
On the same page, “She took the United States to her heart, and the United States developed a similar affection for Helen.” No evidence is shown of great affection by either party, and certainly not the entire United States, most of which she is not known to have visited. After the failure of The Chieftain, “Much credit for the wisdom of the next choice [The Mikado] must go to Helen” (p. 108), but it is not explained how she had anything to do with it.
Thoughts, abilities, and emotions are attributed to Helen without basis. “Helen was . . . aware of contemporary tastes” (p. 46). When two of the touring companies mounted a benefit for Helen, she “won their hearts because of . . . her mathematical ability to make the journey from theatre to theatre smooth and rapid” (p. 63). “Helen, with her academic background in Mechanical Philosophy must have particularly welcomed the freedom from gas lamps” (p. 92). These seem to be guesses, not facts.
The lack of known letters from Richard D’Oyly Carte to his son is supposedly “because Helen was capable of keeping the family in touch with one another” (p. 74). Did Carte really delegate family correspondence to her, even before they were married? Lucas’s diary mentions letters from Helen; it doesn’t mean that Richard wrote none.
Jones frequently expresses himself awkwardly. For instance, on p. 45, “In 1878, copyright protection for works originated in London was inadequate.” What he means is, “In 1878, copyright protection in America for works originated in other countries was inadequate.” The inadequacy wasn’t specific to London-based authors, nor did every other nation share the peculiarities of U.S. law.
On p. 119 comes the following strange sentence: “At the start of the previous chapter, near the cartoon of Barrington in The Vicar of Bray it became clear in the 1890s that Richard D’Oyly Carte was a chronically sick man.” Syntactically, Jones is suggesting that a cartoon of Barrington had sickened Carte. What he means is that at the start of the previous chapter, at around the point where a cartoon of Barrington is shown, Jones has already told us that Carte was sick. The actual passage Jones has in mind isn’t on the same page as the cartoon anyway.
There are many factual errors, some of which could be typos. On p. 42, “Carte’s Second Pinafore Company was performing HMS Pinafore for the first time in the provinces” (in late 1879). Actually, it was a different company that had done so, a year earlier. Jones gets it right, four pages later.
On p. 46, the date of the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance is given as December 1878 (it should be 1879). On p. 105, Nancy McIntosh’s role in Utopia, Limited is given as “Princess Selene,” not Zara. (He is probably mixing it up with Fallen Fairies, in which Nancy did play Selene.) On p. 121, the closing date of The Emerald Isle is given as “9 November 201” [sic].
He repeats Leslie Baily’s well known error that Carte’s famous demonstration from the stage of the new Savoy Theatre, in which he broke an electric light covered in muslin to show it would not catch fire, occurred on the first night. As long ago as 1958, Reginald Allen had shown that this happened months later, as the electric lighting on the stage wasn’t even working on the first night.
On page 38, Nancy McIntosh is described as Gilbert’s ‘adopted’ daughter, quoted thus, but without explanation. On p. 131, the word adopted appears without quotes, but a footnote explains that “Nancy McIntosh as an adult was too old to be legally adopted.” Why make the error at all, only to correct it?
The name of the former curator of the G&S Collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library is given as “Frederic” Wilson (p. 4) and “Rick” Wilson (p. 73), neither of which is correct: it is either “Fredric” or “Ric”.
Jones adopts a not-quite-chronological order, and as a result, tells much of the story twice. Impresario Michael Gunn’s wife, Bessie Sudlow, was introduced to him by Richard D’Oyly Carte. This anecdote is related on pp. 19–20 and p. 37. In 1877, Helen had received an offer to perform in India, which she accepted initially, but then declined after deciding to remain with Carte. This story occupies a third of a page on p. 23, and then half a page on p. 40.
Pages 46–47 describe Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour to America. Helen also arranged a lecture tour for one Matthew Arnold; his story is told on 57–58. Both are then re-told, in almost identical words, on pp. 66–67. Details of the production of Pinafore in New York on 1 December 1879 are given on p. 46 and again on p. 62, right down to the detail of W. S. Gilbert’s participation in the chorus, wearing a fake beard.
Sometimes a sentence is repeated on the same page, or even the same paragraph. For instance, on p. 103, the command performance of The Mikado is described in the second paragraph, and again in the fourth. Frank Desprez’s authorship of the libretto to Carte’s operetta Happy Hampstead is told twice, a few lines apart, on pp. 34–5. Jones also discusses the piece on p. 31, attributing its lyrics to Carte himself.
The circumstances of the “piracy” of Pinafore, the lack of copyright protection, and so forth, are told twice between pp. 41–46, with (in some cases) the identical sentences repeated within a page or two of one another. The material is so disorganized that one not familiar with the facts would be completely lost. For instance, in describing the Paignton performance:
However, the first pages of music had not been received in London and the performance was postponed. . . . The music arrived in Torquay from London on 29 December, to give the Pinafore company only one rehearsal of the completed piece. They would have known most of act one and something of act two.
So, “the first pages of music had not been received,” but somehow the cast “would have known most of act one and something of act two.” In fact, the music was sent in two shipments, and it was the second act they received first, exactly the opposite of what he says.
Most astoundingly, an interview that Helen gave with the Philadelphia Times in 1881 is quoted at length (2 full pages) from pp. 47–49, and then quoted again, at similar length, starting on p. 63. A comparison of the two versions shows numerous differences of wording and punctuation. I don’t know which one is correct. Perhaps neither.
On many occasions, Jones prints the same material twice, but differently. George Edwardes (then called “Edwards”) came to work at Carte’s office in the late 1870s on Michael Gunn’s recommendation. Jones quotes Gunn’s letter thus on p. 20:
This is George Edwards. Give him a job, pay him a pound a week, and make sure he earns it.
And thus on p. 37:
This is George Edwards. Give him a job, pay him a pound a week and see that he earns it.
Carte’s ancestors were named “Cart”. Where did the extra ‘e’ come from? On p. 28:
. . . Richard Carte added an e to his surname to avoid confusion with Britain’s other top flautist Thomas Card.
On p. 37:
The e in Richard D’Oyly Carte had been added by his father, who wanted to distinguish himself from another Richard Cart who was already established as a musical performer.
After Helen and Richard were married, the members of the touring “E” Company presented them with a pair of silver candlesticks, with an inscription that read, in part:
We . . . hope the accompanying offering . . . will give you a tithe of the pleasure in acceptation that we experience in presentation.
Jones prints it in facsimile on p. 87. On p. 88 he quotes it inaccurately:
We . . . hope the accompanying offering . . . will give you a taste of the pleasure in anticipation that we experience in anticipation.
On p. 99 is the well known Gilbert quote after the production of The Gondoliers, but oddly garbled:
. . . it gives me the chance of shining through the twentieth century with a reflected light.
It is quoted correctly on p. 102:
It gives one the chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light.
On page 69, a letter from Carte to Helen is quoted from Leslie Baily, The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, p. 163. Actually, it is on p. 263 that book, but let that pass. Baily begins the quote with, “Knowing your peculiar disposition as I do. . . .” Jones replaces “peculiar” with “particular”.
A quote on p. 120, attributed to Cellier and Bridgeman, is incorrect: a semi-colon is replaced with a comma, and the words “distinguished medical attendant” are replaced with “doctor”.
Late in life, Gilbert testified before a parliamentary inquiry on theatrical censorship. A quote on p. 130 is from this inquiry:
. . . there was no preliminary correspondence. There was some feeling afterwards he simply took my property and laid an embargo upon it.
Jones cites no source, but Dark and Gray, p. 149, word and punctuate the passage thus:
. . .there was no preliminary correspondence—there was some afterwards—he simply took my property and laid an embargo upon it.
I checked every quote that I could. In not one case is Jones accurate. Not one. This is a sad state of things. There is a much larger quantity of quotes that I could not check, but many of them have garbled syntax, with punctuation or even entire words clearly missing. I have to assume they are mere paraphrases, one and all.
This is to say nothing of the many mechanical errors, missing punctuation, quotes opened but not closed, non-sequiturs, incomplete ideas, facts told out of sequence, and so forth. The carpet quarrel, for instance, is described after the opening of Ivanhoe, when the two actually happened in the reverse order. I think Jones knows this, but the general reader would be confused. I could go on, but behold, I have said enough.
The book is copiously illustrated, although many of the illustrations lack captions, and at times one has to hunt through the text to figure out what they are. There is also an index, which is quite as full of errors and omissions as the rest of the book.
It is not for me to guess what went wrong. Jones served capably for many years as editor of both The Savoyard and the W. S. Gilbert Society Journal. His other book, an excellent biography of Henry Lytton, was not beset by similar problems. Perhaps it had an outside editor, and this one did not. G&S fans will no doubt be grateful to learn about a strong, talented woman, who is long overdue her moment in the sun. To tell her story was obviously a labor of love for Jones, who says he spent thirty years on it. His abundant affection for the subject is not diminished by his many errors.
But Helen, who was so careful, accurate, and well organized in everything she did, would be aghast that the only biography she is likely ever to have, is so full of mistakes. I have never seen anything quite like it.
Postscript: I recommend this book despite its many errors. Fortunately, the audience for such a volume is likely to consist mainly of G&S fans, who are more likely to forgive the mistakes and less likely to be misled by them. Nevertheless, the book could have been so much better. There are plenty of capable people in our community who would happily have edited the book gratis, or at least have read a manuscript and pointed out the more egregious slips. There is nothing to be done about it now, but I still endorse the book, faults and all.