Thompson, Brian 1935-
THOMPSON, Brian 1935-
PERSONAL: Born May 2, 1935, in London, England; son of A. John (an engineer) and Peggy (Mills) Thompson; children: Peter, Clare, Stephen. Education: Trinity College, Cambridge, B.A. (with honors), 1958.
ADDRESSES: Home—Oxford, England, and France. Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Publishers, 77-85 Fulham Palace Rd., Hammersmith, London W6 8JB, England.
CAREER: Worked as adult education teacher; biographer, novelist, and playwright, 1973—. Military service: King's African Rifles, 1953-55; became lieutenant.
MEMBER: Theatre Writer's Union, Chelsea Arts Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: Royal Television Society awards for documentary film, 1977, 1978, and 1979; fiction award, Yorkshire Arts Association, 1979.
(Compiler) Lollipops, illustrated by Peter Bailey and others, Longman Young (London, England), 1971.
Portrait of Leeds (history), R. Hale (London, England), 1971.
Buddy Boy (novel), Golancz (London, England), 1977, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1978.
Trooper Jackson's Story (juvenile fiction), Gollancz (London, England), 1979.
Tishoo (play), French (New York, NY), 1980.
Turning Over, Amber Lane Press (Oxford, England), 1984.
Bad to the Bone (fiction), Viking, 1991.
A Half-Baked Life (fiction), Lime Tree, 1991.
Ladder of Angels (detective novel) Slow Dancer Press (London, England), 1999.
A Monkey among Crocodiles: The Life, Loves and Lawsuits of Mrs. Georgina Weldon (biography), HarperCollins (London, England), 2000, published as The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon: The Life, Loves, and Lawsuits of a Legendary Victorian, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2001.
Imperial Vanities: The Adventures of the Baker Brothers and Gordon of Khartoum (biography), HarperCollins (London, England), 2002.
The Nightmare of a Victorian Bookseller: Martin Tupper's "Proverbial Philosophy," Short (London, England), 2002.
Work has appeared in anthologies, including Dandelion Clocks, M. Joseph, 1979, and Loving Couples, M. Joseph, 1981. Also author of plays, including The Conservatory, Jones, Patriotic Bunting, Ten Mighty Talents, Traffıc, and Deccan (a teleplay).
WORK IN PROGRESS: A play on H. L. Mencken; a novel about expatriate English in Florida; a children's book set in France.
SIDELIGHTS: Brian Thompson has worked in many different literary forms. He has written for film, television, and the stage, as well as penning novels and biographical works. His first nonfiction book, which was published some twenty-five years after he changed careers to become a writer, is his most well known: The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon: The Life, Loves, and Lawsuits of a Legendary Victorian, which charmed reviewers in both England and the United States by retelling the story of a once-notorious Victorian figure.
The real-life story of Georgina Weldon was discovered by Thompson when he came across her memoirs: six volumes written in French that detail a bizarre life marked by an enormous sense of self-importance. As a pretty young woman who had a beautiful singing voice, Weldon aspired to become a famous figure in Victorian England. However, her unusual accomplishments would turn her into a figure more notorious than admired. After marrying a rather poor soldier, her singing career was a minor success; she had romantic connections with the composer Charles Gounod, and formed a strange musical orphanage in her home. Having twice escaped her husband's attempts to have her committed to a lunatic asylum, Weldon took her claims of abuse to court; she was, however, imprisoned for a time before she ultimately saw laws regarding lunacy and the rights of married women changed in England. All of these adventures are related in Thompson's biography The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon, originally published in England as A Monkey among Crocodiles: The Life, Loves and Lawsuits of Mrs. Georgina Weldon, the main title referring to an expression that Weldon once used to describe herself.
Reviewers were astounded and amused by the rediscovery of Weldon, and often credited Thompson with clever handling of the material. In the London Independent, for example, Jan Marsh said that the work "tells her tale in lively and aptly slapdash style, refusing to make judgments." Simon Shaw wrote in the Mail on Sunday that the book contains "a hilarious and oddly moving portrait of a justly forgotten minor figure." A critic for Publishers Weekly remarked that "Thompson's telling of it is perhaps more muted in tone than it deserves; his portrait of Weldon is both well-rounded and evenhanded." And Donna Seaman commented in Booklist that the author had created "a splendidly suspenseful, witty, and intriguing portrait of a woman who experienced and generated more folly and pathos than most novelists could possibly conjure."
Victorian figures also populate Imperial Vanities: The Adventures of the Baker Brothers and Gordon of Khartoum, in which Thompson depicts the lives of three English gentlemen who found themselves at the far reaches of the British Empire at its geographical zenith. Samuel Baker was, among other things, an explorer in Africa, while his brother Valentine was a cavalry officer who fought in the Crimea and other conflicts. A younger and better-known contemporary was General Charles Gordon, who first distinguished himself in putting down the Taiping rebellion against the Chinese Empire and later crossed paths with the brothers. Thompson seeks to show the remarkable vanity of these individuals, who felt a God-given entitlement to their pursuits. And he relates their less-than-glorious conclusions: Samuel became a social outcast after marrying a slave that he rescued in the Balkans, Valentine was dismissed from the cavalry after being accused of sexual assault, and Gordon was brutally killed while trying to end the slave trade in Khartoum.
Reviewers of Thompson's Imperial Vanities expressed interest in the three lives and discussed the significance of their experiences. Andrew Roberts, who reviewed the book for the Evening Standard, decided that these men "cannot really be seen as representative of anything much besides themselves, and certainly not of imperial hubris." In the Spectator, Michael Glover called the book "fairly frothy history-making," concluding, "It all reads like an absurd and vainly tall tale of days long past." In addition, John Spurling remarked in the Times Literary Supplement that "Thompson's cheerful, pithily phrased style casts a modern, coolly cynical, metropolitan gloss over a much rougher, more inchoate world."
Before these books, Thompson wrote a variety of fiction, ranging from novels to children's literature. Among these, he found particular success with his detective novel Ladder of Angels, in which the author created a grim missing person story featuring private investigator Patrick Ganley, a former London police officer. Unsavory relationships within the wealthy Pelling family are revealed when daughter Melissa disappears. While looking for the missing heiress, Ganley learns that her family is involved in murder, rape, and sex for hire, and seem to lack any kind of moral conscience. Publishers Weekly reviewer Jeff Zaleski called the novel "a complex foray into the primitive desires" of the Pellings, and said it was "written with a sweetness of language that cuts intriguingly against the moral decay at the story's center." Writing for Booklist, Thomas Gaughan was pleased to find that the American private eye model had been used successfully in a British setting, remarking that "Thompson makes it work because he uses the formula to look closely at a seldom-seen side of contemporary Britain."
Commenting on his career and sources of inspiration, Thompson once told CA: "I have been writing for a living since 1973; before this time I was interested in education and the arts. I changed from a secure and reasonably well-rewarded job to one filled with doubt and uncertainty, principally for the doubt and uncertainty. All but a very few of us have it. The ones who don't have doubt are usually the world's enemies. Fiction is a way of expressing doubt and incomprehension with dignity.
"I have always been interested in history. I was a child in Cambridge, where the mighty Eighth United States Air Forces was operational during the Second World War. When I look back on the many things I have written, they have war as their theme. Or perhaps it would be better to say that they are thick with the detail of war, the sound and the fury of it. It is not popular to say it now-a-days, but what personal experience I have had of combat (leaving aside all educated responses to it) has been exciting and very keenly felt. This is the somber side of me. Much of what I do to earn my living is to make people smile, or better, laugh, or best of all, laugh and cry at the same time.
"Novels are especially important to me, and I wish I could concentrate more on that form of fiction. There is something so personal and complete about the resolution of a long prose narrative. The next best thing is sitting in a theater and hearing an audience laugh with pleasure and understanding at a line given by an actor, but springing straight from the heart of you. Having said all this, I could never be a polemical writer. Too much doubt and too great a pleasure in the art of disguise.
"Everything I write has my children in mind, and what books I publish are dedicated to them. I'm quite sure this will make some psychologist I have never met (and never want to meet) tut-tut and blow out his cheeks. But for me, the act of writing is trying to gain the respect of those whom you yourself respect. I respect and admire my children greatly.
"Finally, it is not enough to write books and plays: one must write English. That is a much more demanding occupation, but that's where it's at. If I have a good day at the typewriter, I feel linked, however poorly, to the great practitioners of language, who might be other fictionalists, but might as well be historians, biographers, botanists, or oceanographers."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 1, 1999, Thomas Gaughan, review of Ladder of Angels, p. 74; February 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon: The Life, Loves, and Lawsuits of a Legendary Victorian, p. 1019.
Evening Standard, March 4, 2002, Andrew Roberts, "A Certain Type of Englishman," p. 46.
Guardian (London, England), January 18, 2003, John Dugdale, review of Imperial Vanities, p. 30.
Independent (London, England), Jan Marsh, July 19, 2000, "Wednesday Book: Maybe Not Mad, But Certainly Dangerous to Know," p. 5.
Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 27, 2001, Simon Shaw, review of A Monkey among Crocodiles: The Life, Loves and Lawsuits of Mrs. Georgina Weldon, p. 68.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1999, Jeff Zaleski, review of Ladder of Angels, p. 68; March 26, 2001, review of The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon, p. 83.
Spectator, March 9, 2002, Michael Glover, review of Imperial Vanities: The Adventures of the Baker Brothers and Gordon of Khartoum, p. 45.
Times Literary Supplement, April 5, 2002, John Spurling, "Not All Is Vanity," p. 22.*