Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba by Robert Wainwright

 ‘Who was she?’

Dame Nellie Melba GBE (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931) was an Australian operatic soprano. She was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond and became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and the early 20th century. She took the pseudonym ‘Melba’ from her hometown of Melbourne.

Before reading this book, my knowledge of Dame Nellie Melba was scant. But while I lack the gene necessary for appreciating operatic singing performances, I wanted to know more about Dame Nellie’s journey from colonial Australia to international stardom.

Mr Wainwright begins his biography with a prologue in March 1919, with a man sitting down to write a letter. We learn that this man, Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, was important to Dame Nellie and that this letter was found amongst her papers. An earlier liaison between them had resulted in a scandal that almost derailed her career. And then we return to the beginning.

I read of Nellie’s upbringing, of her unfortunate marriage to Charlie Armstrong and then her life living in Mackay in Queensland. I read of her poverty-stricken years as a student in Paris to Mathilde Marchesi, of her care for her son George. While her father gave her some money, he did not support her singing. And her husband Charlie Armstrong was truly awful. I read of hardship, hard work and determination. Perhaps it was no surprise that Nellie fell in love with Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (aspirant to the French throne).

Her life was full of both sadness and triumphs. She did not see her son for a decade after her husband took him. She lived in a society which had particular social expectations of women and in which men dominated.

I might not have the ear to appreciate her singing but I admire her determination and hard work. The images we see today, of a formidable looking woman wreathed in furs wearing a large hat, our knowledge of a dessert named in her honour, and of the Australianism ‘More farewells than Dame Nellie Melba’ convey an incomplete picture of a woman who triumphed against considerable odds.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith