Maybe not mad, but certainly dangerous to know

<i>A Monkey Among Crocodiles: the disastrous life of Mrs Georgina Weldon</i> by Brian Thompson (HarperCollins, &pound;19.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Was she mad? Georgina Weldon's historical niche is as the woman who successfully resisted two attempts to have her kidnapped and consigned to an insane asylum, and thereby gained a place in the annals of Victorian lunacy reform.

Was she mad? Georgina Weldon's historical niche is as the woman who successfully resisted two attempts to have her kidnapped and consigned to an insane asylum, and thereby gained a place in the annals of Victorian lunacy reform.

Four mad-doctors posed as visitors interested in her "musical orphanage", and then the attendants arrived with a carriage. On the first occasion, she was defended by a stalwart bailiff employed by her husband to prevent thefts from the house by the con-man Georgina had left in charge. On the second, she barricaded herself into the library and was valiantly protected by Louisa Lowe, who had herself challenged asylum committal proceedings. In the ensuing mêlée, Georgina escaped into hiding with Mrs Lowe.

There seems little doubt that Harry Weldon had reasons for seeking committal. He was, after all, responsible for her debts, and Georgina demonstrated scant contact with reality. Though it is hard to tell if her behaviour was genuinely crazy or simply a reckless response to events, she certainly left a trail of destruction in her wake. Not until late in life did she quieten down, sitting for 12 years in a French convent with her vast archive to pen 1500 pages of memoirs.

Born in the year of Victoria's coronation, daughter of an impoverished (and ultimately insane) gentleman, Georgina spent her girlhood in Florence. She then impulsively married a young army officer with no background and few talents, who nonetheless ended his days as Garter King of Arms. Georgina's only assets were a good singing voice and stunning self-belief. One suspects George Eliot of using her as a source for Gwendolen Harleth. Whatever she did was right: the rest of the world were knaves or fools. It masked insecurity, perhaps, but the mask never slipped, for to admit the manifest failures would have destroyed her sense of self - and led to the madhouse.

Brian Thompson tells her tale in lively and aptly slapdash style, refusing to make judgements. Among the bizarre incidents were the months the Weldons spent living à trois in Tavistock Square with Charles Gounod, the renowned composer of Romeo et Juliette and Faust. Like Georgina, he was a compulsive flirt; things grew messier and messier, not least because Georgina was a Dickensian fantasist of the first order. When not planning an international solo career, she was a philanthropist, opening her home as a supposed singing academy for orphans. As Thompson remarks, the infants she took needed rescuing as much as those on the streets.

When Gounod returned to his wife, Georgina fell prey to a couple of fraudsters, Angÿle and Anarchasis Menier. The latter's name seems appropriate to the utter chaos into which the Weldon household disintegrated (Harry understandably preferring his club, rooms and mistress). Angÿle - a former whore from Clermont Ferrand - became Georgina's friend, confidante and lover. Together, the women took the orphans to Normandy. It was Georgina's return that precipitated the lunacy proceedings.

After her victory, she devoted her energies to legal battles against all and sundry, including her husband and even her own lawyer. All, she claimed, were in league against her. Surprisingly her litigation was not declared vexatious, and she won more cases than she lost, becoming a minor celebrity.

Thompson's narrative steers a swift course through very muddied waters. It is handicapped by the fact that Georgina's archive, available to her last biographer in 1959, has apparently disappeared, so that Thompson must rely on her self-justifying memoirs. More puzzlingly, it is only towards the end that he brings up two very salient facts: Georgina's declaration (to Angÿle) that she was molested as a child by the butler, and that one of the orphans perished without a death certificate and was rumoured to have been buried in the garden. Both revelations suggest a far darker story than the farcical surface presents.

Jan Marsh's biography of DG Rossetti is published by Weidenfeld

Comments