If a novelist's most difficult task is to describe a party, a biographer can be even harder put to recreate a widow whose métier was a salon. The famous pass to and fro, and such a woman can become a shadow in her own life. David Waller's biography, however, draws upon a hidden attic of material and elegantly recreates a seething, death-haunted century.
Dead at 99 in 1918, Gertrude Tennant came into the world before the railways. Without any wars on the go, her father, Admiral Henry Collier, was reduced to half-pay. After his banker absconded, the family made that economic retreat to Paris favoured by many in the early 19th century. Whether describing the dubious food with which canny French shopkeepers supplied this colony or the rise of Victor Hugo, Waller evokes a cosmopolitan world.
Here is a recreation of a family, with six children, whose genteel poverty did not prevent Gertrude and her sickly sister Henrietta from so imbibing books that their seaside holidays appear the stuff of an Eric Rohmer film. In 1834, at Boulogne for Henrietta's heath, the 14-year-old Gertrude met Charles Tennant. A virginal 38, he was on holiday with his mother; occupied with writing, politics and his family's Welsh estates and lucrative canal interests.
Eight years later, the Colliers favoured Trouville, where a young Flaubert was beguiled by both sisters. He enjoyed a long kiss with Gertrude at the Paris opera. Despite her dislike of Madame Bovary, this friendship lasted until his death in 1880.
By then, Gertrude had been a widow eight years, for Mr Tennant died two months after Henry Stanley found Livingstone. His vivacious daughter Dolly, a talented painter, perhaps slept with Andrew Carnegie – but married Stanley. These are but some of those who teemed through Gertrude's Whitehall house through five decades of widowhood. Wilde, Gladstone and Hugo are among those who animate pages that draw upon the long chronicles that Gertrude and Dolly addressed to dead Henry. It could be Thackeray at his best.