Nellie by Robert Wainwright

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Robert Wainwright is a veteran journalist who has now written fourteen books. As has been his custom, he focusses on the people behind the major news of the day. In this case, it is a time over 140 years ago. There has been much written about the career of ‘the nightingale’, Australia’s first real superstar, but Wainwright has chosen to analyse the woman herself who rose to fame in the latter years of the 19th century. Wainwright highlights her love affair with Philippe, the Duc d’Orleans and would-be king of France, an aspect that many previous authors have glossed over but which this author believes was more enduring than others believed.

The book also highlights the clash of personalities found in the family of Helen Porter Mitchell, later to be known as Nellie Melba, one of the greatest sopranos the world had known. Both her father and her husband were of the firm belief that a woman’s place was in the home caring for her husband and children. Her father was a god-fearing man who saw his eldest daughter’s voice as a heavenly gift yet ‘he could not abide the notion of her taking the stage professionally’ (9). Her husband believed that his wife should be obedient to him, and he had a right to make her do so. Fury and force had always been his ‘modus operandi ‘(174) and not just within his home. Several times she took their son and continued to pursue her dream. At least this way she could live without having to rely on anyone else.

Although both husband and wife realised very early in their marriage that ‘they didn’t belong together, not just because they were both headstrong, but because they wanted different things in life’ (204), it took years and much heartbreak, including a very public scandal, before they accepted the situation and could both live a reasonably satisfying life.

Through analysing the love affair between Nellie and Philippe, the author imparts much about the history of Philippe’s life, his expectations, and his relationship with France. He was a prince and engaged to a princess when he first met Nellie and his family were outraged that he would mix romantically with a married mother and commoner. Their relationship would not endure. Their affair had been characterised by ‘romantic, carefree youth which neither was able to repeat with anyone else nor recapture with one another in later life’ (337). Philippe would later describe his love affair with Nellie as ‘The best years of my youth’ (194).

But what about the artist herself. That she became a globally renowned opera singer cannot be denied, but what about the person behind the voice. The author reveals a woman, who from a very early age believed that she could use her talent to shine. ‘Self-belief was Nellie’s armour and she wore it with the fury of an operatic warrior. When it was challenged, pierced or rattled she sought to make the chain mail tighter and stronger’ (88).

She kept her personal life as private as she could. She never commented on her marriage except to say that she married Mr Charles Armstrong when she was young, that her husband was not musical and that she soon found that domestic life did not fill the entire range of her ‘girlish fancies’ (212). Nor did she reveal her anguish when her son was taken from her, and she did not know if she would ever see him again. She kept her dark thoughts hidden behind the combined stoicism of her ‘religious upbringing and the confidence shield of a performance artist’ (226).

To the public she came across as ‘warm, engaging and down-to-earth … as a simple natural woman, devoted to her art and fond of society and its diversions’ (229). The author includes many instances where this famous singer went out of her way to help others. She helped many young aspiring artists and when she saw a young lad freezing on the street corner until he sold all his papers, she bought the lot.

Nellie Melba was also a proponent for women’s rights. She believed that, even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women should be free to make their own choices. At one stage, she owned her own company. Creative and quick thinking, she had an ability to calm what could become a disastrous situation.

Many people in the 21st century will not know the woman called Nellie Melba, how she came by the name and why her face adorns Australia’s $100 bank note. Those who do know of her, think of an older squarish woman whose voice is immortalised on scratchy early recordings. But this remarkable woman achieved much against great odds and became famous throughout the world for her amazing voice. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1918.

This book has much to offer a reader. It tells of a distinguished career in a time when most women were treated as part of a man’s belongings. It describes a woman as she single-mindedly struggles to carve out a career for herself and succeeds overwhelmingly. It highlights the influence of journalism and the tall poppy syndrome on artistic aspirations. It also shines a light on society at a particular time in history and specifically the rise of Covent Garden as the Royal Opera House in London. During her climb to fame, Nellie Melba would be introduced to the influencers of the time. Many of these names will be familiar to the reader.

I believe Robert Wainwright has achieved his goal in writing this book. He has revived memories of an Australian icon and allowed the reader to relive the life of a brave, determined woman.

Nellie

(2021)

Robert Wainwright

Allen & Unwin

ISBN:978-1-76087-825-2

$32.99;352pp

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