Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2021

Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba (2021), by Robert Wainwright

Reading this lively biography of Australia’s first international superstar, Dame Nellie Melba, made me realise how far society has come in just over a century.  Whether we browse the so-called women’s magazines at the hairdresser with bemusement, read the scandal rag headlines surreptitiously in the checkout queue, or just puzzle over the #TwitterHashtags that are trending — celebrity culture is all around us.  Paradoxically, because we are inured to it, it takes a good deal to scandalise us, and it enhances some careers rather than otherwise.

But it was a different world when Nellie Melba was forging her international career.  Scandal in high society could be disastrous in all sorts of contexts, more so in stuffy turn-of-the-century London than more tolerant Paris. Europe, however, had its own political minefields for a naïve Australian to negotiate when she (imprudently married to a wife-basher called Charles Armstrong) embarked on an affair with a playboy claimant to the French throne.

I have previously read Ann Blainey’s authoritative biography of Melba and enjoyed it for its insights into the talent, initiative and determination of this Australian musical icon.  But, as you can tell from the blurb, Robert Wainwright’s bio has a different emphasis…

When most Australians think of Nellie Melba they picture a squarish middle-aged woman dressed in furs and large hats, an imperious Dame whose voice ruled the world for three decades. But there was much more to her life than adulation and riches.

To succeed she had to overcome social expectations, misogyny and tall-poppy syndrome. She endured the violence of a bad marriage, was denied by scandal a true love with the would-be King of France, and suffered the loss of her only child for more than a decade, stolen by his angry and vengeful father.

Against all odds, Nellie Melba became the greatest opera singer of her time on stages across Australia, America and Europe.

Nellie Melba, c1907 (Wikipedia)

(BTW, to counter that rather unflattering image, here’s a picture of her as a lovely young woman.)

Although the reader gets a clear picture of Melba’s life, Wainwright’s bio is more tabloid in style.  I mean this in the sense that sensationalism is used to titillate and engage the reader. Nellie probes into Melba’s personal life with more pages devoted to her relationships, her celebrity, her rags-to-riches lifestyle*, and her scandals, supplemented by gossip from hotel staff.  With Chapter headings such as ‘A doctrine of rivalry’, ‘The devil who leaves’, ‘A diva meets a duc’, ‘To Russia with lust’, and ‘Of envious men’, he tells of an eventful life which brings Melba into a different focus, less of her musical prowess and more of her love life, her marriage travails, and her contractual difficulties.  In this bio, Melba’s domestic and professional dramas are worthy of the opera stage in their own right.  This makes it a most entertaining book, one that is good fun to read.

* It wasn’t really rags-to-riches in the usual sense. Nellie’s family was middle-class and she was short of money at the beginning because her father only grudgingly supported her because he didn’t approve of her choice of career.

Wainwright devotes an entire chapter, for instance, to an incident which warrants only a paragraph in Blainey’s biography.  Hard up in her early days in Paris, Nellie was embarrassed to be reproved for the shabbiness of her dress by her teacher Madame Mathilde Marchesi.  When she explained that she had only one decent dress and could not afford anything else, Marchesi offered to pay for another, but Nellie stood on her dignity and refused.  Unfortunately, since Nellie has no footnotes, it’s not clear whether the following exchange comes from a source such as Melba’s autobiography Melodies and Memories (1925*) or from Wainwright’s imagination filling in the gaps:

Madame seemed flustered at Nellie’s resoluteness and started waving her hands furiously.  ‘I cannot possibly continue teaching you while you are wearing that ridiculous dress.  It is an eyesore.  You must get a new one.’

Nellie had not considered the possibility that she might be dismissed.  The threat of losing her position changed everything.  Bursting into tears, she fled from the room but, as she reached the front door, Madame once again called out for Nellie to stop.  This time, though, her voice was pleading.’ ‘Nellie, Nellie, I am so sorry.  You must not go.  Run to Worth’s now and buy yourself the most beautiful dress you can find.  I will pay.  I will pay.’

Now it was Mathilde Marchesi who was afraid of the consequences of her actions.  Nellie sensed the older woman’s fear and composed herself.  She had come too far to start backing down. ‘No, dear Madame.  Either you must put up with me in this dress or I cannot come anymore.’

Madame Marchesi shrugged and kissed her prized student.  It was a price worth paying.’ (p.59)

But having made so much of this incident with the dress, Wainwright doesn’t explain in the next chapter what Nellie wore for her first performance at one of Madame Marchesi’s soirees.  It included reporters in the audience and Ambroise Thomas, director of the Paris Conservatoire and composer of the opera Hamlet. Surely she must have had something elegant for this crucial performance? I know, it’s trivial to care.  But still…

This is an interesting video about the Melba Collection held by the NGV here in Melbourne, which shows how critical costumes were to the profile of opera stars.

Nellie Melba was one of our superstars, in an era when Australia was said to be a cultural desert.  Nellie, The life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba, brings that era alive.

* Melba’s autobiography Melodies and Memories (1925) was, according to Wikipedia, mostly ghost-written by her secretary Beverley Nichols, who apparently complained that Melba did not cooperate in the process of writing or by reviewing what he wrote.  So it might not be all that authoritative either…

This was the music that I listened to as I wrote this review:

Melba statue at Waterfront City, Melbourne Docklands (Wikipedia)

Image credits:

Author: Robert Wainwright
Title: Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760878252, pbk., 244 pages including notes, acknowledgement of sources and a bibliography
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin


  1. This sounds really interesting. I knew little about her beyond her name and only recently discovered that Peach Melba and Melba Toast were created at the Savoy for her–when not on a diet and when on one.


    • Yes, and apparently the Americans dreamed up a coat called The Melba too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So interesting! I know of her, of course, because of the Beverley connection – he obvs adored her despite his complaints! Sounds like a fascinating take on her life!


    • My guess is that there are aspects of her life that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now but that she wished to suppress then out of embarrassment.
      But also, dredging back over one’s life isn’t really the most interesting thing to do…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I know almost nothing about Nellie Melba, what an incredible life!


    • If only we had more recordings from later in her career…


  4. This is on my library list :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Maybe in another context it would be trivial to care/wonder about the dress, but when she’s clearly been so affected by that disapproval in the past, surrounding her wardrobe, I can see where it would matter. This isn’t a woman I’m familiar with, but I can see the appeal of her biography.


    • I think we have to distinguish between caring about appearance in every day life and the lengths to which some people take that to excess, and the importance of dress on stage, for men as well as women. Performers, especially in opera then as now, were expected to be glamorous, so even in a soiree, she would have been expected to make a grand entrance in something that made an impact, not a day dress.
      (My piano teacher used to put on an annual concert so that her pupils had the experience of playing for an audience before our exams at the conservatorium, and we were always told to wear our party frocks and patent leather shoes, and our parents frocked up too!)


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