Mrs Berlioz

Patrick Carnegy

  • Fair Ophelia: A Life of Harriet Smithson Berlioz by Peter Raby
    Cambridge, 216 pp, £12.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 24421 8
  • Mazeppa: The Lives, Loves and Legends of Adah Isaacs Menken by Wolf Mankowitz
    Blond and Briggs, 270 pp, £10.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 85634 119 3

The Irish actress Harriet Smithson is remembered as an extraordinary episode in the life of Hector Berlioz. Appearing in the 1827 English theatre season in Paris, she took the city by storm – lithographs of her as the mad Ophelia were in every prinitshop window. Ladies of fashion demanded coiffure ‘à la Miss Smithson’ – a black veil with wisps of straw tastefully interwoven amongst the hair. As Peter Raby puts it, in a biography which for the first time gives her side of the story, ‘the conjunction of beauty, forlorn love, madness and premature death’ was irresistible to the French. Through her, Shakespeare suddenly became a central part of French consciousness and the preoccupation of writers such as Hugo and Dumas. The young Berlioz worshipped her from afar, but so intensely that he nearly had a mental breakdown. She became the inspiration and programme of the Symphonie Fantastique. Eventually he married her. But by the time he was introduced to his idée fixe it was too late. Better that the idée had never materialised. Better still that it had never been matrimonialised.

Inevitably, Harriet Smithson has been known largely through Berlioz’s letters and his incomparable Memoirs. Peter Raby, himself not a little bewitched by Harriet, now sets the composer’s melodramatic portrait in perspective by calling on the witness of critics and chroniclers, and of the many writers and artists who fell under her spell. The result is a compelling account of Harriet’s triumphs and miseries, of her relationship with Berlioz, and of her impact on the French Romantic movement. Mr Raby’s researches in archives, his visits to ‘decrepit theatres and even cemeteries’, have helped him to write a book which also has a great deal to say about early 19th-century theatrical life in Britain and France.

Somewhat less engaging is Wolf Mankowitz’s ‘biographical quest’ for an American stage personality of the next generation, Adah Isaacs Menken. This lady had already received the attention of at least seven previous biographers without anyone being left much the wiser about who she really was or even when she was born – sometime around 1835 seems likely. It is certain that she was carried bareback (in more senses than one) into American theatrical history three months after Abraham Lincoln became President, when she travestied the title role in Mazeppa, or The Wild Horse of Tartary, an atrocious adaptation after Byron. She was carried out of it when she died in Paris in 1868 after a whirlwind career not short on literary friends, among them Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Dumas père (to the dismay of ditto fils) and Dickens. She satisfied Swinburne’s longing for ‘Our Lady of Pain’, though the poet confided to Edmund Gosse that she was deficient as a lover, in that she tended to wake early and recite her poems to him, ‘swinging her handsome legs on the edge of the bed until he thought they would turn to ice in the morning air.’ The sample of her poems printed by Mankowitz will make the modern reader want to dive under the bedclothes too. As an account of what showbiz publicity can do for a girl his book is unbeatable. If it’s not always solid on ascertainable fact – ‘Charles Reade, the famous author of The Cricket on the Hearth’ is a particularly sportive invention – who cares? It’s the myth that matters.

Harriet Smithson was born on 18 March 1800 into a theatrical family in the west of Ireland, where her mother was ‘an occasional actress’ and her father a travelling actor-manager. He is saluted as ‘an itinerant humbugging performer’ in ‘The Smithsoniad’, verses penned by a disgruntled actor who had felt the force of his ‘rude austerity’, ‘ferocity’ and ‘cursed malignity’. No wonder that the young Harriet expressed scant enthusiasm for ‘dramatic exhibitions’. However, she was unable to hold out for long against the family business, and at 14 made her debut at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in Reynolds’s sentimental comedy The Will : at curtain-call she ‘received the compliment of three distinct peals of applause’.

Her career blossomed. By the age of 18 she was appearing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The metropolitan critics sharpened their pens. While it was considered that ‘her fine figure and graceful movements were displayed to advantage’ in The Belle’s Stratagem, it seems that her acting and way with the words may have been less pleasing. There were some who attributed her subsequent lack of advancement in London to her Irish brogue. ‘Miss Smithson improves nightly,’ patronised Bell’s Weekly Messenger, ‘and is rapidly losing that drawl, which we presume she brought from the blarney districts of her native country.’ By this time she was playing Lady Anne and Desdemona to Edmund Kean’s Richard III and Othello. Star quality, however, was not at all what was looked for in those who played opposite a superstar like Kean. She was prized as ‘a decorative utility player’, and as a ‘sweet but ... somewhat passive stage personality’.

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