I lived outside the UK from 2001 to 2016, so I missed a lot of new books I would otherwise have gobbled up on their first publication. (There were good English bookshops where we lived, but I still missed things.) I only realised that this exceptional biography of Lydia Lopokova existed because I met a friend in the library some weeks ago when she was taking it back, and so I bought my own copy, twelve years late.
It is magnificent. It’s a meaty, rewarding read. It never palls, not even during discussions of interwar economic theory (mercifully brief, though necessary for Lydia’s marital context). It filled in so many gaps in my knowledge of twentieth-century dance and literature. It is packed with gorgeous and fascinating ballet history. It shows how vile the Stephen sisters could be when they found someone to be nasty to who could not fight back. It illuminates the power of understanding how money works. It describes how ballet became established in Britain. Above all, it shows what a remarkable force of nature, and of dance, and of loving generous imaginative honesty the great Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova was, and how natural but yet extraordinary it was that she fell in love with a gangling gay British economist and he with her, and how their long marriage contributed to the reshaping of the western post-war economy.
I like the ballet bits best. Lydia’s utterly remarkable life began in St Petersburg in 1891, the daughter of an alcoholic Russian theatre usher and a German Estonian. Although from a poor family and with none of the usual recommendations, Lydia was able to audition for the Imperial Theatre School through her father’s connections, and even more miraculously she was accepted, one of the thirteen girls to enter that year. (There was clearly something in the Lupoukhova genes, her sister and two brothers also went through the School.) She trained as a ballerina, and was a star, eventually dancing at the Mariinsky Theatre and for the Tsar. At the age of seventeen she left St Petersburg for an unsanctioned two-month contract with the new Ballet Russes under Serge Diaghilev, and danced in Berlin and Paris with Nijinsky in Carnaval and The Firebird. She did not return to Russia for fifteen years, because at age eighteen she sailed to New York with a new Russian-American manager to make lots of money and a career introducing the new modern ballet to the eager American public.
Or so she thought. The story of Lydia’s redoubtable survival skills and her perseverance is simply riveting. The First World War intervened, but Lydia kept dancing, because that was all she knew how to do (though she was surprisingly successful in her first acting roles). Back in Europe with Diaghilev and a husband (whose first wife was inconveniently still alive and undivorced, though Lydia didn’t know this), Lydia and the Ballet Russes made their shivering, starving, nervous way from stage to stage in front of exhausted audiences, and finally reached Britain, where they became a sensation.
Lydia’s career on the London stage is part of British theatrical history, but she now became involved with Bloomsbury, so she had overlapping lives: helping to establish British ballet, and also disrupting the cosy intellectual supremacy of the households revolving around Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and the men who came and went and copulated amongst them. By marrying Maynard Keynes Lydia caused her ballet and theatre friends to worry that she would be swamped with dullness and could never have them round for parties again, and – more seriously – might leave the stage and her art. By marrying one of the most famous dancers of the day, Keynes caused his Cambridge friends to look down their noses at this social faux pas, his intellectual degradation and the sheer embarrassment of having to treat a creature from the stage as an equal when it was obvious her intellect would be inadequate for their dinner-party conversation. By marrying at all, Maynard Keynes absolutely horrified his more intimate and long-standing friends – mainly the Bloomsbury men he was used to having sex with.
Quite a prospect of disaster. But the story of the indomitable, sparkling and brilliantly talented Lydia and the generous and loving Maynard who made her the happiest of wives, and their triumph against the snobs from all corners, makes this biography a compulsive read. It leaps along, packed with quotations from Lydia’s letters whose appealing Russian idioms in painstaking English elevate her writing to sparkling art. It was a delight to read; one to keep and reread, partly to check that yes Lydia had done all that, danced with those great names and created those roles, but also to revisit her movements through modern history, and her heroic battle to keep Maynard alive for the last nine years of his life, including during the Second World War when he seemed to be the only European economic authority able to stand up to American dominance and broker the financial support that helped Britain survive the war. The last chapter, describing Lydia’s long widowhood and decline is sobering compared to the sparkling brilliance of her early years, but she did exactly as she wanted at both ends of her life, which is, in a way, reassuring.
5 thoughts on “Judith Mackrell, Bloomsbury Ballerina”
My first wife had a maiden great-aunt Monica, who lived with her parents. She had worked for Boosey and Hawkes and had met Lydia, Anna Pavlova, Diaghilev, Arthur Rubinstein, Jan Paderewski – both before and after he became Prime Minister of Poland – and many others. My great regret is that in my teens I was only vaguely aware of who they all were at the time and so failed to engage in the details of her recollections. I shall buy the book to discover what I missed.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have now finished the delightful Bloomsbury Ballerina. Rather tantalising, is the suspicion that I may have met her. My (then) fiancée and certainly went to see an old lady in the shadow of Firle Beacon (I lived in Lewes) as a family duty and it may well have been that Lydia and Monica were still in touch. The book also confirms all my deliciously violent prejudices against the viciously unkind Charleston and Monk’s House inhabitants – you may recall my mentioning that another girlfriend’s mother was Leonard Woolf’s secretary.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Living history! That’s very interesting. I’m glad you enjoyed the book.
I agree, Bloomsbury Ballerina is a beautifully entertaining biography. There are serious problems with Mackrell’s research though, not least of which being her confusing Lydia and her sister Evgenia in their St Petersburg days. The whole lengthy episode of Lydia having been taken out of school to appear in the 1903 premiere of The Fairy Doll is incorrect. This was without doubt Lydia’s older sister Evgenia, who continued dancing that same role for the next 10 years. Even the photo Mackrell uses of “Lydia” in this role is actually Evgenia.
Difficult for the average reader to detect! Hopefully that error can be corrected in new editions.