Glyn, Elinor (1864–1943)

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Glyn, Elinor (1864–1943)

Bestselling English novelist, journalist, screenwriter, and social commentator whose romantic fiction critiqued European society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with famous works such as the novel Three Weeks and the script for the motion picture It. Pronunciation: Glin. Name variations: Nellie Sutherland. Born Elinor Sutherland on October 17, 1864, in Jersey, England; died on September 23, 1943, in London; daughter of Douglas Sutherland (an engineer) and Elinor (Saunders) Sutherland; sister of Lady Lucy Duff Gordon (1862–1935); educated at local schools near Guelph, Ontario, Canada, as well as by governesses and tutors, and self-education in home libraries; married Clayton Glyn, on April 27, 1892 (died 1915); children: two daughters.

With mother and sister, moved to Summer Hill near Guelph after death of father (1865); moved to Scotland after remarriage of mother (1871); presented at British court (1896); published The Visits of Elizabeth (1900); published Three Weeks (1907); lionized on visit to U.S. (1907), plus later visits (1908, 1910); appeared in stage version of Three Weeks (1908); conducted affair with Lord Curzon (1908–16); visited Russia (1909–10); served as war correspondent in France, as well as unofficial ambassador to U.S. Army troops (1917); reported on the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (1919); visited Egypt at invitation of LordMilner (1920); worked as screenwriter and consultant in Hollywood (1920–27); returned to England (1929); worked as war correspondent in World War II (1941).

Selected works:

(books) The Visits of Elizabeth (1900), Three Weeks (1907), His Hour (1910), "It" and Other Stories (1927), Romantic Adventure (1936); screenplays: Three Weeks (1923), It (1928).

"Would you like to sin/ with Elinor Glyn/on a tiger skin?" went a popular British jingle of the late 19th century. "Or would you prefer/ to err with her/ on another fur?" The object of such attention had gained her reputation as a "scarlet woman" for writing a series of romance novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Set against the backdrop of opulent surroundings and exotic locales, Glyn's books, which were some of the bestselling romance novels of the time, depicted members of European high society engaging in passionate love affairs.

Elinor Glyn intended her novels to portray modern nobility in action. She insisted that the "future happiness of the world" depended on the "elevation of all mankind to the rank of princes and princesses in a fairy kingdom, and not in the abolition of such romantic ideals." Now, however, she is known less for the literary merit of her writings than for her role as a social commentator who chronicled the foibles and hypocrisies of high society in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Although Glyn would be born on October 17, 1864, in Great Britain, her family was Canadian. Her mother Elinor Saunders Sutherland was part of a pioneering family, of reduced circumstances, who had shown a talent for survival in rural Canada. As part of his engineering work, Glyn's father Douglas Sutherland had traveled frequently in the company of his wife, even into areas considered hazardous. After completing a Brazilian project, the Sutherlands had gone to New York and eventually to London, where Glyn's older sister Lucy (later Lady Lucy Duff Gordon ) was born in 1862. While Douglas traveled on to Italy to work in a tunnel project, Elinor Sutherland and Lucy went to the British island of Jersey, to stay with a French relative who was spending the winter there. Only five months after Elinor was born in Jersey, word arrived that Douglas Sutherland had contracted typhoid. Leaving the children in the care of relatives, Elinor Sutherland traveled to Italy and returned with her husband to London. He died there in 1865.

Although Glyn's father had made a deathbed wish that his daughters be raised in Europe, money was too short to allow that. A widow at only 24 years of age, Elinor Sutherland chose to return to the protection of her parents' family home, which was located near Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Glyn lived there, with her mother and sister, until she was eight years old.

The imposing family residence, a white house named "Summer Hill," had a large colonnaded front porch and expansive lawn. It was dominated by Glyn's equally imposing grandmother, Lucy Saunders . Aloof and proud, Saunders tried to instill into her granddaughters the importance of self-reliance and self-control—in Glyn's words, "molding my character." Each day, Glyn and her sister were required by their grandmother to sit still and be silent for five minutes; when she learned that Glyn was afraid of the dark, Lucy Saunders told Glyn that fear was not shameful but showing fear was. No granddaughter of hers, she declared, would be allowed to show fear.

Although Glyn and her sister Lucy were sent to classes at a local school house, much of their

education came from their grandmother and an aunt. Grandmother Saunders spoke frequently of the glamour and responsibilities of the European nobility, and Glyn later wrote that she gained a sense of noblesse oblige. This near reverential attitude toward the European nobility was shared by an unmarried aunt who often cared for the two girls. When Aunt Henrietta read to the sisters from Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Glyn found herself fantasizing about life at court. She believed that it was the source of her preoccupation with the subject, even as an adult.

A visitor to Summer Hill in 1871 changed the family's situation and the girls' lives. Douglas Kennedy, a well-to-do bachelor who was over 60 years old, took a special interest in their mother. Elinor Sutherland showed little interest in marrying Kennedy until she learned that his family owned an estate in Scotland; apparently, the chance to raise the girls in Europe, as her dead husband had wished, was a deciding factor. After their marriage in 1871, the Kennedys crossed the Atlantic ocean to Scotland, accompanied by seven-year-old Elinor and nine-year-old Lucy.

The first months in Scotland were spent in a castle owned by their stepfather's brother near Galloway. Initially, Glyn and Lucy were enthralled with the picturesque castle and the portraits of well-dressed family members lining the walls. The darkness and gloominess of the castle depressed them at night, however, and they noticed the coolness of their new in-laws, who did not approve of the marriage.

In the beginning, the girls were supervised by an English nurse who locked them away in a room while she carried on a tryst with a local gamekeeper. Later, as they stayed in a series of other houses (eventually settling in Jersey because Kennedy thought that the climate benefited his asthma), they were cared for by a series of governesses. None of them stayed for long: Glyn, who had developed a reputation for being rebellious and obstinate, insisted that these silly women could not teach her anything.

The only teacher Glyn accepted was a man of French nationality who was able to teach her writing and the French language, even though, she reported, he had a "ridiculous" moustache and smelled of stale tobacco. She was also enthralled with his stories of Greek gods and goddesses. He failed to convince her of the importance of correct spelling, however, and even as an adult, she relied on editors or printers to correct the many spelling errors in her manuscripts.

A confirmed bachelor who had underestimated the changes that children would bring to his life, Douglas Kennedy was disliked by both sisters. They thought him domineering, especially toward their mother. The houses that they stayed in usually contained sizeable libraries, however, and Glyn sought to escape her stepfather by spending much of her time pouring over the collections. To some degree, she educated herself by reading, among other books, Samuel Pepys' Diary, Don Quixote, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, The Life of Charles II of England, and Voltaire's Zadig.

When their stepfather died in 1889, their mother decided that they would move to London. Money was tight, and Glyn began to wonder what she should do with her life. Now in her 20s, she discovered, to her surprise, that young men were attracted to her. When she was a child, her red hair had been considered a social handicap, and she had overheard another mother advising her mother to comb her hair with a lead comb "to darken it." Now she found that men were attracted by her red hair and considered her a beauty. Often surrounded by swains who argued over who should be her escort, she remembered, fondly, that at one party the argument became so heated that four young men jumped into a nearby lake, while still shouting at each other. It was the beginning of a lifelong preoccupation with her looks that would cause Glyn, as an adult, to scrub her face daily with a stiff brush and undergo face lifts so painful that her arms had to be strapped down.

Without marriage, women in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain had no social position, and "spinsterhood" was equated with loneliness. The position of governess was open to Glyn, but she believed that her temperament and background made her unsuitable for such work. Although marriage had become important, she did not want to marry a "penniless" youth. She also rejected three marriage proposals from better-off older men, though she wrote in one of her novels, The Vicissitudes of Evangeline: "It is wiser to marry the life you like because after a while the man does not matter."

In 1892, Elinor accepted a marriage proposal from Clayton Glyn, who was a neighbor of a family she was visiting. Clayton, in his late 30s, appeared to be economically well-off; his family owned an estate in Scotland. Although qualified to work as a barrister, he had chosen not to do so. They married that same year.

By time of the birth of their second child (and second daughter) in 1898, however, the marriage was foundering. Upset that his wife had not given him a son, Clayton left for several weeks at Monte Carlo, where he gambled away more than £10,000. Relations between Glyn and her husband worsened when she finally told him, after an agonizing self-debate, that a friend, Lord Brooke, had made a pass at her. Her husband's response was to laugh, "No! Did he? Good old Brookie!"

Financial problems also intruded. Elinor did not know that Clayton was in debt when he married her. She gave little thought to their frequent trips to the Continent or the Middle East, where he insisted that they stay in first-class hotels and where she frequently conducted expensive shopping forays. Only later did she learn how often her husband had borrowed money and how little of his debts he could repay. In fact, paying off Clayton's debts would become a major motivation for much of her writings.

Glyn began to record her impressions in her notebooks as she moved through English high society. Many of her comments were both perceptive and critical. When presented at court in 1896, she noticed to her dismay that the clothing and complexions of women did not meet her own high standards. As she learned more about the mores of the upper class in England, she also began to realize that her own marriage was not atypical. In late-19th-century Britain, affairs were not only common but acceptable as long as both parties were discreet. If a husband neglected his wife for others, his wife was free to engage in her own affairs.

By building a career around the hypocrisies and quirks of such a society, Glyn would become a successful novelist. She did not seek to become a writer, however; she entered upon her writing career gradually, and even indirectly. In 1889, an editor of a Scottish magazine asked Glyn to contribute articles on the topic of fashion for future issues. Then, during a long period of convalescence from rheumatic fever, she asked that her mother bring her diaries and notebooks to her. In 1879, Glyn had started a record which she called "The Diary of Miss Nellie Sutherland." She now began to rewrite some of the entries into letter form, producing a manuscript which she titled The Visits of Elizabeth. How it came to be published is not clear, although her husband showed it to the editor of a magazine during one of his periodic visits to London. It was serialized in the magazine in 1899 and published as a book in 1900.

The Visits of Elizabeth was centered around Glyn's observations, often humorous, of the atmosphere and social mores of the upper classes, particularly in France and England. Although some reviewers found the book shocking or vulgar, it was a commercial success. Glyn initially decided that her writings would appear anonymously, but she later changed her mind. Frances Evelyn Greville , countess of Warwick, a local grande dame known as Daisy who had befriended Glyn, urged her to publish under her own name, adding that "Elinor Glyn" sounded like a pseudonym anyway. Glyn's next novel, The Vicissitudes of Evangeline (1906), appeared under her real name, despite the fact that it raised a touchy issue: under what conditions might a wife be forgiven for having an affair?

The word "Romance" has been… cheapened in modern times.

—Elinor Glyn

Glyn's following book, Three Weeks (1907), the story of a woman who initiates a younger man she meets in Switzerland into the art of love, was her most famous. Toward the end of the novel, the heroine is revealed to be the queen of a Balkan country, and is eventually assassinated by an agent of her husband. Three Weeks was typical of many of Glyn's writings in its use of an exotic setting (sometimes Eastern Europe or the Middle East); in its description, in voluptuous terms, of passionate love affairs; and in its frequent use of exclamation marks. Daisy Warwick, who had read the novel in manuscript, cautioned Glyn against publication. Not only would others think that Glyn had had an affair with a young man, she warned, but, worse, they would believe that she was boasting of it.

Warwick's prediction came true. Many reviewers assumed it was autobiographical, noting that the heroine shared several characteristics with Glyn, including the use of tiger skins as decorative notes; the love for certain cities, such as Venice; and the mention of certain colors as predominant decorative hues in rooms, such as purple. But the book was a great success, selling more than two million copies throughout Europe and the United States within nine years of its publication; by the early 1930s, sales had reached five million. Glyn was unprepared, however, for public condemnation as a sinful woman. An Eton schoolmaster wrote her about his unhappiness over the book, although he admitted that he had not read it; challenged to read it, he reported that he liked the book but would not allow his students to read it. King Edward VII, a notorious womanizer, would not even allow the book to be discussed in his presence.

Glyn thought critics missed the point: if she really had been engaged in a number of passionate affairs, it would not have been necessary (or prudent) for her to write such a book. From Glyn's viewpoint, the furor was especially odd because "the Lady" in her book had to "pay" for her failure to observe her marriage vows; she thought that the novel's tragic ending gave the book a "moral" tone.

In 1908, Glyn sought to earn more money by appearing in a stage production of Three Weeks, hoping that she would benefit financially when the play moved to the fashionable West End theater district of London. She was extremely disappointed when the Lord Chamberlain's office refused to permit it; only later did she learn that the Foreign Office, alarmed at rumors that the leading female character in Three Weeks was copied after Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, had asked that such action be taken.

Because of the success of Three Weeks in the U.S., Glyn decided to tour America from coast-to-coast in 1908. She took with her a voluminous amount of clothing, including 60 pairs of shoes. Warned that the book might make her a target of the press, she was prepared for the horde of reporters as she arrived in New York City. But she was treated as a celebrity almost everywhere, meeting President Theodore Roosevelt and being invited into the homes of some of America's wealthiest families. At a dinner in her honor, Mark Twain praised Three Weeks.

She was overwhelmed by the reception given by a group of miners in Nevada who had champagne shipped to their small community for a dinner in her honor. She later wrote that they "were full of the chivalry, of the abstract respect for honest women, and of the rough sense of justice toward men, which was the heritage of an earlier time." The "magnificent" miners convinced her, she wrote, that manners could be acquired through good character and education and were not exclusively the result of good bloodlines. She gave the episode of the miners a prominent place in her book Elizabeth Visits America (1909).

While she was staying in Munich in the summer of 1909, the Russian grand duchess Kiril (Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg ) and her mother-in-law the Grand Duchess Vladimir (Maria of Mecklenburg-Schwerin ) invited Elinor to visit Russia. She read the manuscript of her novel His Hour (published in 1910 and generally considered one of her best books) to the Grand Duchess Vladimir. It appears that she did not read all of the manuscript to her Russian hosts, however, since the published novel portrayed Russia as a country 300 years behind the times. Invited to spend parts of 1909 and 1910 in Russia, Glyn did not always reassure her hosts with her behavior. While touring the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, she was asked how she knew so much about the building. She replied that she felt at home because she believed, at times, that she was the reincarnation of Catherine II the Great .

Upon her return to Britain, Glyn discovered that her husband was again borrowing and was unable to pay off his debts. Although the Glyns had grown increasingly distant, she felt some responsibility for helping him. He had rescued her from "spinsterhood" and had given her a place in society; in a way, he had even made her career as a novelist possible, since a single woman writing passionate novels would have been an object of ridicule.

For nearly three weeks, she stayed in her bedroom, writing the novel The Reason Why (published in 1911) and using the advance money to repay her husband's debtors. The story of a red-haired woman badly in need of money, the book contained several references to Tennyson's Idylls of the King. She considered it the worst novel she had written and added that "My only choice on this occasion seemed to lie between the degradation of myself or of my pen." To save money, the family moved into increasingly smaller quarters on her husband's estate. When Glyn placed her husband on an allowance and bought out his holdings in his estate, he never forgave her. Clayton insisted that she was cheating him and that his financial troubles stemmed from her trips and purchases.

Personal distractions during the years 1912 through 1914 slowed Glyn's writing output. She was shaken when news arrived that the luxury liner Titanic had sunk, because her sister and brother-in-law, Lady and Lord Duff Gordon, were on board. Thrilled when they turned up among the survivors, Glyn was again taken aback when British newspapers printed charges that the Duff Gordons had bribed crew members in order to be placed in a half-full lifeboat. Although the Gordons were cleared during an official inquiry, Glyn frequently sat in the audience during the hearings.

Glyn was also distracted by the British politician Lord George Curzon, with whom she conducted an eight-year affair. Considering her popular reputation as a "scarlet" woman, Glyn was linked with relatively few men, including Lord Milner and Lord Alastair Innes Ker, a guardsman. Curzon, a widower with three children, had been present at a stage performance of Three Weeks and had sent her a congratulatory note. She came to regard him as a high-minded political leader with an "untiring devotion to self-imposed duty" and "little regard for personal advantage in the pursuit of what he believed to be good for the country." He was portrayed as a rising, if egoistic and ambitious, politician in her novel Halcyone, which was published in 1912. She presented him with a copy of the book.

Curzon's friends seemed to regard Glyn as a woman of low birth who had gained notoriety by writing a shocking novel—an unsuitable companion for a potential future prime minister. She noticed that she was not invited to his home when others from the highest social levels were present. In the words of one author, he was "compartmentalizing" his friendship with her.

Glyn, who had offered to decorate his home, was in the midst of that project when it was announced that Curzon had been named to Prime Minister David Lloyd-George's war cabinet in 1916. The next day, a notice in the newspapers announced that Curzon, who needed money to refurbish an inherited estate, was engaged to marry Grace Hinds Duggan (Curzon) , a wealthy widow. Glyn burned all the letters she had received from him and never spoke to him again.

Determined to forget Curzon, she threw herself into her writing, producing The Career of Katherine Bush, which was published in 1917. The story of the daughter of an English auctioneer who rises to high society, it was, in a way, a rejection of the aristocracy that her grandmother had worshipped. The message of the novel was that nobility was not a matter of good birth but the result of good character, and that any intelligent person could attain high social standing.

With the advent of World War I, the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst asked her to be a wartime correspondent for his American newspapers. She accepted the offer with enthusiasm, seeing it as a way to forget Curzon. She was disappointed at the response of the "gallant French race" to the war, and she was also horrified that French high society refused to greet newly arriving American troops in 1917. Glyn appointed herself unofficial ambassador to the arriving Americans, visiting troop camps and traveling perilously close to the war front. On more than one occasion, when she had to take cover during a bombardment near the fighting, she remembered her grandmother's words about not showing fear. As a reporter at the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty in 1919, she was one of only two women present.

In 1920, Glyn accepted a contract offer from the Famous-Players-Lasky (later Paramount) studio to travel to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter and consultant. The next seven years in Hollywood would become some of the happiest of her life. As the sole representative of European high society in movie land, she felt a responsibility to correct crude and inaccurate portrayals of Europeans—she called them "travesties"—in Hollywood films.

Glyn tried to add both romance and accuracy to films she worked on, even demonstrating to make-up artists the correct look for powdered wigs. She wrote a historical flashback sequence into the script for Beyond the Rocks (1924), so that Rudolph Valentino could wear costumes from the romantic days of European history. At times, she lamented that her efforts failed: despite her complaints, actors were placed in a "Swiss chalet high amidst snow" while wearing evening dress. But she also found occasions to try to improve Hollywood's social graces. Concerning Valentino, she wrote, "Do you know that he had not even thought of kissing the palm, rather than the back, of a woman's hand until I made him do it!"

Curzon, Grace Hinds

Daughter of Joseph Hinds (U.S. minister in Brazil); married Alfred Duggan of Buenos Aires (died); married Lord George Curzon, in 1917.

A beautiful woman of charm and wit, upon her marriage to Lord George Curzon, Grace Hinds Curzon became the center of social gatherings at Carlton House. But she was well aware that she could never successfully compete with the specter of Mary Leiter Curzon , her husband's first wife. Lord Curzon was buried beside his first wife; Grace Curzon was buried in a niche nearby.

Although one reason that Hollywood studios hired Glyn was to be able to use her name for publicity and film credits, her screenplays, with their vivid and clear-cut characterizations, were well suited to the silent screen. In 1922, when she went to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio made every effort to please her, settling her in a five-room suite. Her sister Lucy wrote excitedly that Elinor was "making cinema history in Hollywood." Glyn became a friend of the comedian Charlie Chaplin, an acquaintance of the producer Samuel Goldwyn, and, through a friendship with actress Marion Davies , a visitor to Hearst's castle at San Simeon, California.

Elinor Glyn's greatest film success came with the motion picture It (1928), which made a superstar of its female lead, Clara Bow . It was based on one of Glyn's short stories which was published as a book in 1927. She defined "It" as an "animal magnetism" or a "peculiar fascination possessed by men more often than women" that makes them "immensely attractive to all women and even men." The story of a store clerk who falls in love with the store's owner, It earned more than a million dollars for the studio, and the film made Glyn a popular speaker in America on any topic related to love. She lectured in vaudeville theaters in New York City and was asked to contribute articles to magazines on topics such as "How to Hold a Man" and "The Philosophy of Love."

Glyn genuinely liked some of the stars she worked with, but some found her to be far different from anyone they had ever met. Gloria Swanson termed Glyn's British dignity "devastating," but added that "although she was old enough to be my grandmother, she was the first woman I saw wearing false eyelashes and got away with it." "She talked a blue streak," added Swanson. With her "dyed red hair, green eyes, and mouth of crimson," she seemed like "something from another world."

As with most strong women, Glyn also gained a reputation for difficulty. She selected a British stage actor, Eric Percy, as the best person to play the male lead in the American version of Three Weeks (1923). Horrified when a German, Conrad Nagel, was selected instead, she created a scene in the studio commissary. The director King Vidor observed that he had to use all his "diplomatic" ability in dealing with Glyn. Her contract was not renewed in 1927, partly because she had gained a reputation as a meddler who was costing the studios money. For a time, Glyn lived in New York City and then set sail for Britain. Though she planned to return to the States, her daughter and husband intervened, arguing that she had mismanaged her money and would owe a substantial amount of U.S. income tax if she went back.

Agreeing to remain in Britain but feeling trapped, Glyn continued to find projects that interested her. She financed a British film version of Three Weeks, thinking that "British critics would be kind to someone spending their own money to make a film," but the movie was a critical and popular flop. Glyn had more success writing. She wrote seven more books and, in 1936, at age 72, published her autobiography Romantic Adventure. Well-received by critics, the book also caused some surprise by revealing that the character of "the Lady" in Three Weeks was not based on her life.

During the 1930s, Glyn also became a popular "medium" at "spiritualist" parties. Reincarnation appealed to her because it balanced out the fundamental unfairness of life. She did not have fixed opinions about the "possibility of communication with the dead," she wrote, but "could see no reason why this should be impossible." Glyn came to believe that "all supposed communications from the dead are really made by nonhuman sprite-like disembodied entities."

She continued for a time to live in the style to which she had become accustomed, decorating one apartment in an assortment of brocades, silks, and five tiger skins. (An American visitor to one of her apartments quipped, "There wasn't a darned chair in the room you could relax in.") Although she was still in demand as a writer, her finances were less than robust. Her family eventually placed her on an annuity and asked a bank to pay all her bills. She was not allowed to sign a check.

Glyn's last book, The Third Eye (1940), was a secret-service thriller. From that point on, most of her writing came as a war correspondent for the Hearst newspapers during World War II. Believing that her "brain has come back more clearly," she reported that she felt "young and spry." Over the next two years, however, she became increasingly ill. She died in a nursing home on September 23, 1943, at 79 years of age.

In her autobiography, Glyn wrote that "The highest essential element in romance is love, but this is love in the highest sense, which becomes self devotion to a spiritual ideal accompanied by disregard of material advantage." One of the great ironies of her life was that, although she never lacked "material advantage," her writing career was partly motivated by her belief that she lacked love in her life.


Ethrington-Smith, Meredith, and Jeremy Pilcher. The "It" Girls: Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, the Couturiere "Lucile," and Elinor Glyn, Romantic Novelist. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Glyn, Anthony. Elinor Glyn: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.

Glyn, Elinor. Romantic Adventure: Being the Autobiography of Elinor Glyn. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1937.

Hardwick, Joan. Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn. London: Andre Deutsch, 1994.

suggested reading:

Hamilton, Ian. Writers in Hollywood. London: Heine-mann, 1990.

Leslie, Anita. Edwardians in Love. London: Hutchinson, 1972.

Robinson, David. Hollywood in the Twenties. NY: Tantivy Press, 1968.


Most of the surviving notes and correspondence of Elinor Glyn are privately held by family members, although some letters are contained in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois