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’.

It must have been a measure of frustration with her London career which persuaded her to try her luck in Paris with the English Company that opened at the Odéon on 6 September 1827. This was a perilous adventure, in that five years earlier an attempt to introduce the Parisians to Shakespeare in English, as witnessed by Stendhal, was rewarded by the actors being driven off the stage with showers of apple cores, eggs, several pairs of sabots, and cries of ‘à bas Shakespeare! C’est un lieutenant de Wellington!’ Harriet seized the chance of playing Ophelia to Kemble’s Hamlet, and was an immediate, overwhelming success. No problems now with a touch of the Irish: what did the trick was the way Harriet threw herself around the stage – although it’s possible she did no more than what is always done when a play has to be put across to an audience unskilled in its language. She was, however, reported as adopting ‘fantastic postures’. This was deeply shocking – and irresistible – to an audience schooled in the restraint, dignity and decorum of the French classical theatre. Shakespeare and the passionately mimetic style of acting were equally outrageous. ‘A woman in bed between the sheets, faced by a monster who embraces her twice before suffocating her, as she begs in vain with pleas and tears, will always be an intolerable spectacle,’ complained the Journal des Débats. This scene continued to be an immense problem, although Macready as Othello to Harriet’s Desdemona went some way towards mollifying the audience’s aversion to overt violence by ‘drawing the bed curtains before setting to work with the pillow’. The mouse-trap scene in Hamlet was described as a ‘mélange de boufonneries et de choses terribles’. Lady Granville, wife of the British Ambassador, offered a rather more experienced view of the spectacle. Miss Smithson’s Ophelia, she wrote, ‘is very handsome and has deep feeling, with the vulgarest pronunciation and gesticulation. The Odéon is full every night to the roof. With all this “Umlet” puzzles them and they laugh when the Queen drinks and everybody dies. The upper-crust English expected their Shakespeare to be intoned in the proper manner, scarcely something to have worried French enthusiasts.

Present at the first night of Hamlet was the 23-year-old Hector Berlioz. Just as at the age of 12 he had worshipped the unattainable 18-year-old Estelle Duboeuf, so now he was enslaved by ‘La Belle Irlandaise’ who, in Raby’s words, was for him ‘a tragic doomed figure – borne senseless in Romeo’s arms, lying cold in the Capulets’ tomb, fainting with hunger and neglect, drowned beneath a willow, buried with Yorick in the graveyard at Elsinore’. Berlioz hung about the theatre and took lodgings opposite Harriet’s. His behaviour did not go altogether unremarked by Miss Smithson. Berlioz tells us that seeing him cry out and wring his hands at a rehearsal, she warned the other actors to beware of that ‘gentleman with the eyes that bode no good’.

Naturally she didn’t reply to his letters. Berlioz set to work to exorcise his infatuation by composing it into the Symphonie Fantastique. He found a shoulder to cry on in the scarcely less lovely but much more accessible Camille Moke, a virtuoso pianist, whom he sought to marry. The volte-face was complete, Berlioz now declaring to a friend that it was Camille who had revealed all Harriet’s ‘infamies’ to him: ‘She is an ordinary woman, endowed with an instinctive genius for expressing that anguish of the human soul which she has never felt, and incapable of conceiving the boundless and noble love I honoured her with.’ Ironically, it was the successful first performance of the Symphonie Fantastique which persuaded the reluctant Mme Moke to allow Camille to marry Berlioz. But before that could happen he had to spend some time in Italy to fulfil the obligations placed upon him as winner of the Prix de Rome. Then came the letter from Mme Moke – Camille would after all be marrying M. Pleyel, a manufacturer of patent pianofortes and hence a bastion of economic and matrimonial desirability. Berlioz’s mind swarmed anew with thoughts of suicide and revenge. He obtained a maid’s outfit with the help of which he hoped to gain entry to the Moke household. Once inside he would shoot and/or poison Pleyel and Mme Moke before revealing himself to Camille and putting an end to himself. But the revenger’s coach-dash to Paris met with setbacks – the Sardinian police, taking him for a revolutionary, re-routed him via Nice. Momentum was lost, consolation discovered in writing the Roi Lear Overture and making love ‘to a girl on the shore’.

In 1831 Harriet had returned to demeaning provincial engagements (Norwich, Bristol, Lincoln, Liverpool); then back to the Royal Coburg Theatre in January 1832; and in June to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. None of this did anything for her reputation. Persistent overwork and the strain of perpetual travelling were taking their toll. The Age expressed its regret that not even the Duke of Devonshire could make Miss Smithson an actress: ‘she was a passable sentimental actress some years since at Drury Lane, and she is now grown too fat to be so any longer.’ Harriet turned again to Paris, this time setting up her own company at the Théâtre-Italien.

Berlioz, now also back in Paris, followed an impulse to take rooms at the same address where Harriet had first lived. To his amazement he discovered that she herself had just vacated the very apartment in which he now stood. Her company, he learnt, was opening the following week. What could he do but look forward to being seized again by ‘the old delirium tremens’: ‘I would give myself up to the destiny which seemed to pursue me, and not struggle any more.’

The circumstances of their eventual meeting were no less strange. Berlioz had capped the Symphonie Fantastique with a sequel, Lélio, in which the composer bared his heart not only in music but also quite explicitly in six spoken sections declaimed by an appropriately proud and soulful actor. Harriet, sitting at home in a state of ‘profound despondency’, and by no means aware of her part in the genesis of the entertainment, allowed herself to accept tickets for the Grand Concert Dramatique donné par M. Hector Berlioz where the Fantastique (‘Episode de la vie d’un artiste’) was to be followed by the premiere of Lélio (‘Le Retourà la vie’). It was a stage box which had been reserved, so that she found herself literally on stage for the most bizarre This is your life of them all. There to witness the fun were distinguished cognoscenti who had no need of a key to this choice roman – among them, Liszt, Chopin, Paganini, Hugo, Dumas, Vigny, George Sand, Heine and Gautier.

How much Harriet herself perceived we shall never know, but if she was still awake by the fourth ‘monologue de l’artiste’ in Lélio, she can no longer have been in any doubt as to the identity of the heroine for whom the artiste had suffered a march to the scaffold, the guillotine, a witches’ sabbath and a Dies irae: ‘Oh, if I could only find her, the Juliet, the Ophelia for whom my heart is searching. If only I could drink from the cup of joy and sorrow which true love offers, and then one autumn night, lulled by the north wind on some wild heath, to lie in her arms and sleep a deep, last sleep.’

Far from fleeing the hall, Harriet sent Berlioz a congratulatory note – probably her first positive gesture of recognition. It would be too much to credit the composer’s own version of her feelings that day: ‘she felt the room reel about her; she heard no more but sat in a dream, and at the end returned home like a sleepwalker with no clear notion of what was happening.’ But Berlioz secured an introduction and there followed a courtship whose flames were fanned by Harriet’s sense of propriety. Raby is unenlightening as to whether she was still a virgin. Despite the attentions of admirers and patrons it is likely that she was the exception that proved the rule in theatrical private lives. Here, as elsewhere, Harriet still gives even as diligent a researcher as Raby the slip.

Harriet herself had little energy when it came to taking up the pen. Her communications to theatre managers and government officials show no great confidence in the written word, or in the French language. What evidence there is suggests that her spoken command of French was no better than Berlioz’s command of English (in 1828 he had attended evening classes in English, but although he became a fluent reader, he learnt to speak it, according to David Cairns, no more than ‘tolerably well’). The idée fixe had been nourished by the actress’s total identification with her roles – ‘the Juliet, the Ophelia for whom my heart is searching’: now it must have been sustained by less exalted misunderstandings. Hector could never bring himself to call her Harriet: for him she was always ‘Henriette’, ‘Ophélie’, ‘Juliette’. The courtship survived the opposition of both families, Harriet breaking a leg in two places, procrastination on her part and, on his, a passing infatuation with an 18-year-old orphan. Civil marriage proceedings failed when Harriet’s sister tore up the contract. Allowing the programme of the Fantastique to show him the way, and perhaps remembering Ferrando and Guglielmo’s ploy in Cosi, Berlioz brought her round by taking a carefully calculated overdose of opium. They were married on 3 October 1833 in the British Embassy by the Rev. Luscombe, the resident Friar Lawrence. The guests included Ferdinand Hiller and Heine, while Liszt was one of those who signed the certificate. Thus far the idée fixe had possessed Berlioz for some six years. He was now 29, she 33. There were those who would have said that for Harriet, now noticeably past her prime, this was not such a bad match after all.

But of course it was. Berlioz found his Ophelia tender, sweet and rather shy, almost too good to be true. Her musical taste was limited; she enjoyed tunes by Auber and other meretricious fancies which were anathema to Berlioz. The composer’s star was in the ascendant, hers in decline. Other actresses were usurping the roles with which she had made her name. The damaged leg still gave trouble so that she could only lurch awkwardly to her feet after kneeling beside Polonius’s shroud. Berlioz tried to persuade George Sand to write a play for her. Harriet’s persistent problems with the French language were a serious handicap. The repertoire of mime and dumb-show parts was restricted, even at a period when there was quite a vogue for them – the most celebrated being Fenella in Cherubini’s opera La Muette de Portici. The Berlioz’ close friend Victor Hugo agreed to help, but could turn up nothing new. There was one successful comeback as Ophelia in a private theatre in March 1836. Later that year, Harriet unadvisedly said farewell to the Paris stage in the same favourite role at a benefit for another actor. This was a disaster, not least because the evening’s vaudeville context could not have been better chosen to mock her gifts. Janin, a critic who had not ceased to admire her, felt compelled to warn her never again to appear in excerpts, saying that he could not let the occasion pass ‘without referring to a woman of great talent who is abused without compassion or respect.... We owe to her, to her first of all, our understanding of Shakespeare in the theatre.’ That debt was magnificently repaid by Berlioz three years after Harriet’s retirement when he wrote the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, dedicating it ‘to the glorious artist’ who had first brought Shakespeare to life for him.

Once Harriet’s career was over she had no idea what to do with herself. Although she worked hard at supporting Berlioz, this was an unromantic role for which she was not in the least cut out. As mother (of their son Louis) and housekeeper she was hopeless. Bitterness at the collapse of her career did not help the cause of domestic harmony. She became ever more demanding, was nearly always ill in one way or another, and grew jealous of the ease with which Berlioz moved among his friends. No longer able to be their Juliet and Ophelia, she had run out of script – henceforth she had to play the mute on the stage of lives moving noisily in every direction but hers. It was not long before Berlioz gave her just cause for suspicion. He began travelling with Marie Recio, a mezzo-soprano, though the relationship developed despite rather than because of her voice – he freely admitted that she sang no better than a cat. Berlioz seemed to be caught between the two women, but it was plain who would win. Harriet took to brandy. ‘It’s awful,’ Berlioz wrote to his sister Adèle, ‘she’s become vast. They say spirits make you fat, and here is the proof.’

From then on Berlioz lived apart from Harriet, though he continued to visit and support her. He seems to have felt no bitterness, only sadness and regret. She had to bear on her own the burdens of the last ten years of her life, though it was characteristic that Berlioz should nurse her through a serious illness attributed to a cholera epidemic. She narrowly escaped an early release when a bandit shot at her while she was walking in the garden – the bullet came to rest two inches away in a tree. She suffered a prolonged series of strokes, became partly paralysed, and died on 3 March 1854. Her life had gone on too long past its prime.

In one of the finest passages in the Memoirs, Berlioz honoured her memory – ‘her broken heart; her vanished beauty; her ruined health; her growing physical suffering; the loss of speech and movement; the impossibility of making herself understood in anyway; the long vista of death and oblivion stretching before her as she lay slowly, inexorably dying’. When he was on his way to make the funeral arrangements, fate decreed that the cab should make a detour past the brightly lit Odéon:

There, 26 years before, I had seen Hamlet for the first time. It was there one night that the fame of my poor dead wife blazed up like a meteor; there that I had seen a whole audience break down and weep at the sight of Ophelia in the ecstasy of her grief and heart-rending madness. Through that door I saw her enter for a rehearsal of Othello. At that time she was unaware of my existence; and had anyone pointed to the pale, dishevelled youth leaning against a pillar of the Odéon, staring after her with haunted eyes, and prophesied that this unknown young man would one day become her husband, she would have considered him an impertinent fool.

Berlioz married his Marie Recio, who died eight years after Harriet, in 1862. But before the composer could say a last farewell to his wives, he had to witness the most horrible Hamlet variation of all – the disinterment of Harriet’s remains so that they might be removed to another cemetery: ‘The gravedigger bent down and with his two hands picked up the head, already parted from the body – the ungarlanded, hairless head of “poor Ophelia” – and placed it in a new coffin ready for it at the edge of the grave. Then, bending down again, with difficulty he gathered in his arms the headless trunk and limbs, a blackish mass which the shroud still clung to, like a damp sack with a lump of pitch in it. It came away with a dull sound, and a smell.’ The epitaph was a distressingly accurate verbal slip by the attendant municipal official: ‘Ah, pauvre inhumanité!