On Broome Stages by Clemence Dane: A Conversation with Kate Macdonald

A few months ago, Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, and I had a long dialogue on the subject of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which both of us had — coincidentally — just read and written about. That pleasant experience led to suggestions of other books to read and discuss, and we settled on Clemence Dane’s Broome Stages a 700-page saga that follows a family of English actors from the mid-18th century to the 1920s. I’d read very enthusiastic reviews several years ago and thought it might be a long, rich, and entertaining read.

Cover of first UK edition of "Broome Stages"Kate: When you suggested this novel I was keen because I enjoy reading novels about the theatre, and have long had Clemence Dane on my radar as an author I ought to know more about. I hadn’t realised that she wrote novels as well as plays (over 30 plays and 16 novels, and the Wikipedia entry suggests that she was also a painter and a sculptor). Now that I’ve read this novel (which is more like three or four), I’d rate her at the same level as J. B. Priestley: highly competent, excellent with character and dialogue, but not convincing as a literary stylist. She is a quintessential English middlebrow author, I think, but (in this novel) doesn’t give more than an absorbing family saga with lots of domestic drama. She’s vague about historical detail (especially shaky in the early, Regency part), but I think that’s because she’s writing as a playwright. All her characters are actors and her sets are stage sets. So much dialogue, and characters that draw the audience’s attention by being outrageous, or by saying arresting things. I found almost all them objectionable: selfish, obsessive, unkind, bullying and unreasonable, which is probably what makes them good dramatic subjects.

Brad: I’d have to concur with your assessment. Let’s face it, this novel is an order of magnitude lower than Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which we last discussed.

I was primarily interested in reading it because the reviews (both UK and US) when Broome Stages first came out were gushingly enthusiastic: “No lover of good fiction or of the theatre can afford to leave Broome Stages unread,” and that sort of thing. The Saturday Review (US) reprinted a long excerpt from it and the universal assessment seemed to be that it was a big, rich book studded with memorable characters large and small, and irresistibly readable. Personally, I found it all too resistable to read, at least in the first third or so.

In those early chapters, Dane uses a rather arch style that attempts, I guess, to mimic the tone of a Fielding but comes off (now, at least) stale and irritating. And I found it quite difficult to form a sustainable sense of many of the main characters. A sum of mannerisms and vices usually isn’t enough to turn a character from a name to a persona. The style, at least, grows a little more limpid as the story nears (Dane’s) present day, but the characters–well, I would certainly fail if you gave me a test of matching Broome names with their respective generations and actions now, a month-plus after reading it.

It did pick up momentum–a bit–but I felt that Dane didn’t some much end the story as stop it: as if she just ran out of ideas. There was one intriguing element toward the end. There is a fairly pointed hint at one point that youngest of the last Broome generation, John, is engaged in homosexual relationships at boarding school and then another, even more obvious, that he has a male partner–which his mother simple takes in stride, happy that her son is happy. Dane herself was gay and involved in a long-term relationship with a writer of children’s books, Olwen Bowen, so it might have been a way of asserting as normal and unexceptional something that was, at the time, considered acceptable only if covert.

Priestley is a good comparison. I thought of a huge best-seller in America around the same time–Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, which was a 1,000-plus page historical novel intended to invoke the spirit of Sir Walter Scott and maybe even Tolstoy, but which is now considered more as a curiosity than a work of any serious literary merit. Such doorstop wonders seem to pop up every generation.

Clemence Dane, 1934
Clemence Dane, 1934
Kate: Looking at my notes I see that from the last generation of the Broomes it’s Richard who is gay, Henry dies in the war, Gerry is a lazy waster, and John is a mercurial playwright destined for greatness and to be the next Broome of the stage. But I need the notes to remember, you’re right about the personalitiesthemselves being forgettable. Hilaret, Lettice, Elinor, and Domina are the only named women characters I can recall. There was also Lionel’s illegitimate daughter who married into a Viennese Jewish family in the 1880s (very G. B. Stern, that), went to Brazil and brought forth another daughter who ended up in England to help Elinor elope scandalously with Lewis. Dane could absolutely create dramatic and entertaining storylines, but I agree, character definition was not her strong point.

Considering (now that you mention it) that Dane was herself gay, and presumably interested in women and their relationships, its odd that she create hordes of male characters, but only five women across three centuries of Broome breeding. They are all dominant, but stand out like illustrations of ‘the female condition in this century’ rather than working participants in the plot.

The staginess of the novel is quite attractive. I can visualise it working as a film or a TV series in the style of Dallas or Dynasty, endless sweepings on and off in big hats after huge rows and passionate arguments between men and women, and men who don’t behave as men are supposed to behave. The characters’ obsession with the continuance of the Broome legacy is typical of that genre. And, of course, after writing that I go to IMDB to check, and yes! It was made as a TV mini-series in 1966, starring many actors who don’t now have photographs by their names so they’re no longer working, or remembered. Only one series, though, and no pictures from it floating around on Google.

Brad: I think you hit the nail on the head: the staginess of this novel of the stage may weaken its merit as a work of literature but make it perfect material for adaptation to the screen. There have been plenty of great movies made from bad novels and bad movies made from great novels. And just think how a good screenwriter and a cast of expert scenery-chewing actors could turn the nastiness of many of the Broome characters into delicious viewing. Some of the best television of the last 10-15 years has been based on the ability to seduce viewers into sympathizing with some very bad people (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Francis Urquhart/Underwood). And 1966 is fifty years ago–more than enough time to justify a remake.

Shall we contact the BBC? Surely pitching a concept to some show-biz types is on one of our bucket lists.

Kate: The 1966 miniseries began with the Lewis Whybrow elopement and used up the remainder of the novel, which I think was wise. I can’t think of a TV series that crosses so many historical periods as this book does. The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Poldark, all the British TV series of the 1970s that my mum was addicted to, and I took one look at, uncomprehending: they’re intense family sagas set in a discrete period, following the life of one individual and perhaps of their offspring as well. Perhaps that’s why Broome Stages is ultimately disappointing. Dane isn’t interested in people, she’s interested in creating a sweep of history, the rise and fall of a dynasty over centuries rather than generations. She loses the human focus, which is why her characters are unsatisfying. They have their moments of concentrated attention at crisis points, but years and decades go by in the turning of a page, which isn’t how one tells a story about people’s daily struggles.

Brad: True: any adaptation would have to focus on one period, at least in the case of Broome Stages. There have been a few examples of series that were able to successfully span several different time frames, but they required more narrative ingenuity than was demonstrated by Dane. As others have pointed out, she structured the generations and personalities of Broome Stages on the Plantagenets–which might be helpful for a reader familiar with that slice of English history but was utterly useless to a colonial such as I. In fact, one could hold up Broome Stages as a good illustration of why writing a novel around an arbitrary structure will rarely produce a work of the same merit as one building upon a strong story or interesting characters.

Which pretty much exhausts what I have to say about Broome Stages. I was hoping for better, but I’m afraid I will have to place it into my “Justly Neglected” file.

Kate: I never realised until I started reading up on the book afterwards that the Plantagnets were her framework. So that worked well, obviously ….. as you say, an arbitrary structure with more than a touch of staginess to it. So, goodbye Broome Stages. If I come across any other Clemence Dane novels I’ll read ’em, but I’m not expecting wonders.


Broome Stages, by Clemence Dane
London: Heinemann, 1931

7 thoughts on “On Broome Stages by Clemence Dane: A Conversation with Kate Macdonald

  1. I found one of her books in my language Portuguese, Ironically I couldnt find anyone in English the only traslation available is The Legend(A Lenda de Madala Grey).

  2. By happy chance I finished this book today, so was pleased to find such a detailed discussion of it just posted. I had high hopes of Broome, but didn’t find it compelling at all, though I did get through it.
    Richard is obviously gay, but I think there’s an implication that John may be too.
    It might have worked better as a series of books, like Walpole’s Rogue Herries books? As it was, it was too long and unwieldy, as if not sure what kind of book it was. I’m interested in your idea that family sagas work better with fewer generations than this one – that makes sense.
    She didn’t seem to have calculated the dates properly in the first 100 years or so – it was suspicious that she so rarely gave the date of any particular incident.
    It was a pity she made everyone a wonderful actor, nobody struggled, or bombed, or failed to get work. The transition of Elinor to leading lady was unconvincing after her sheltered and upper-class upbringing.

    An online friend recommended Broome Stages, saying she read it every few years and that it gave her endless joy. Very pleased for her, and can just about imagine it, but I won’t be doing that.

  3. Thanks for the comment. It sounds like we all had roughly the same impression, despite the fact that the book still has its fans. But then I see from Amazon that Anthony Adverse is still a favorite for a few, too. For myself, I was quite disappointed and sorta resent how much time I put into it, which is a shame, for some of my best reading experiences have been doorstop-sized books.

  4. If the series really is based on the Plantagenets, then the author was having a bit of fun with us. The name “Plantagenet” is believed to have come from “Planta Genista”, a plant known in English as Common Broom.

  5. I picked this book up in a country house we stayed in when I was a teenager and I was gripped by it. It is very well plotted; and the dynastic narrative appealed to me as well (I think that you miss the point when you say that is a weakness, it is just something that does not appeal to YOU!) It is full of melodrama, but melodrama is always entertaining for many, and yet melodrama rarely survives because it does lack profundity – it is a cheap stage trick. This is quintessentially a theatrical book – not only is it about theatre people, but it has the energy and immediacy of the stage, but also the gimcrack, faked-up, stage-set and make-up quality which you see as poor characterisation but others see as pure entertainment. My wife’s old boss loved this book and recommended it to her (she never read it). When I read and enjoyed it I was also keen on Agatha Christie – another writer who knew how to plot, but not how to create a real person – but Christie is not such a good writer as Clemence Dane. In summary, I think you are right to put this book below the highbrow, but wrong to miss its extraordinary qualities at the level at which it operates. It’s not literature. It’s a good read and its huge success in the market into which it was sold is no accident but proves that what it does, it does very well.

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