For those muttering – another Melba biography – the key to this one lies in the subtitle. Journalist-turned-author-sleuth Robert Wainwright is adept at finding the stories beneath or behind the well-known versions, and that’s what he has done here.
The book’s cover – a painting by Rupert Bunny from 1902 when Melba was 40 and an Edwardian superstar – depicts her in handsome, solitary splendour. In contrast, Wainwright’s Melba is the centrepiece of a vast picture that is vividly populated with portraits of those around her. From her singing teacher Madame Marchesi to her nine-years-junior great love, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, there are enough major characters to turn biography into an operatic Downton Abbey. And it would be even juicier and more dramatic for being the real thing.
The nicely brought up Melbourne girl struggled first against her classically patriarchal father (marriage, not a career and definitely not on the stage), and then a husband whose inadequacies as provider and personality quickly turned to violence. That Nellie was never going to settle to housewifery on a Queensland cattle station was a flaw Charles Armstrong never forgave.
Her struggles were also professional: London was...