ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES
One autumn long ago, while Britain was at war with revolutionary France, whose armies under Napoleon had conquered most of mainland Europe, and the people at home were rejoicing at Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile that saved the Middle East, while Irish rebels were fighting their English oppressors with the help of the French, while Jenner’s findings on vaccination against the mass killer small-pox were newly in print, while Haydn completed Die Schöpfung, inspired by hearing Handel’s oratorio’s in England, and Beethoven, gripped by fears of deafness, composed his ‘Pathétique’ Piano Sonata, while quietly in a Hampshire village Jane Austen was writing Northanger Abbey, while readers were being introduced to a new kind of poetry in Coleridge and Wordsworth’s collection of Lyrical Ballads, and to a new kind of woman in a novel called Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft; in that autumn of 1798 while the world was turning upside down, the eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse renounced forever the man she loved.
He was a charming young artist who painted everyone as if he was in love with them. His pencil, chalk and brush had the power of Cupid’s arrows to pierce men and women with the flushed, breathless heat of desire. As soon as he looked at someone, however dull they had felt the moment before, they saw the reflection of beauty in his eyes.
He was handsome, dark haired and graceful, with delicate features, soulful eyes, an inclination to melancholy and a talent to please that all women, including her sister and mother, found irresistible.
The daughters of the Tragic Muse were sheltered from the world by their mother’s earnings, which came from years of touring the British Isles being “Tragedy, personified” * for everyone who saw her, from the poorest to the richest, kings, queens, generals, shopkeepers, poets, artists and critics.
Canova, The Three Graces Dancing c. 1799 Tempera on paper. Canova Museum, Possagno. Image source: WGA
She had the gift of simulating passions that aroused edifying feelings in other people, temporarily making them forget their own anxieties, and achieve a communion of souls that in real life, rent by inequality and injustice, was impossible; she could show people their ideal selves, but she could not save her daughters from their own passions.
Mrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse, Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784.
with the figures of Pity and Terror looming behind her. Huntington Art Collections, California. The second, 1789, version is at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia.
The Tragic Muse guarded her power jealously, and, knowing it was as great a burden as a boon, discouraged her daughters from following her vocation. As a goddess, she did not want rivals to succeed; as a mother, she did not want her daughters to feel the humiliation of public rejection, which she had endured before her deification, and be pushed into the dismal pit of domestic service as ladies’ maids. Even now, “the stateliest ornament of the public mind”,* felt in her heart that she was only as good as her last performance.
Lady Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1784
Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Mrs Siddons first played the part in Bath in 1779; London audiences did not see her until 1785, when she was dressed in white robes for the sleepwalking scene. Fuseli’s interpretation has the same horror struck eyes, and the physical spontaneity with which Siddons imbued rhetorical gesture, demonstrating the outward signs of a mind subjected to violent and rapid changes of imagery.
She loved her daughters, and she loved the artist. She saw they were alike, in the boldness of their talent and in their fear of being found out, she saw inside the man there was a little boy, frantically drawing portraits to please passers-by in return for pennies to buy his family’s bread.
He was exhilarated by the grandeur of emotions that had been barely recognized before she articulated them. Watching her, listening to her voice, he felt that he was discovering himself. His art was to catch walking likenesses of living people, hers to reveal their souls.
Like him, the prophetess expressed masculine and feminine qualities in a single identity, strength and tenderness intermingled. By attaching himself to her, he felt folded in the wings of immortality; there is no goddess who would not have indulged such a handsome, adoring friend, her Adonis, beloved of every woman who saw him, but understood fully by her alone.
The male coquet: Adonis, his face erased by time, reclining between two goddesses, Aphrodite and Persephone, competing for his love.
Mixing vessel, attributed to the Meleager Painter, Greek, Athens, 390 – 380 B.C. Detail.
Original Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
*William Hazlitt, who analysed the public attitude to Sarah Siddons’ performances as a form of mother-goddess worship, was a sincere, not besotted, admirer of her acting. He was embarrassed by her come-back after several years in retirement, during which age and private tragedies had added too much weight to her body and a diminishment of her ability to inhabit parts rather than merely declaim them.
The immortal player had become a camp turn, a grossly bloated travesty of her former self, too heavy to get out of a chair unaided. He prayed for her to stay away from the stage so the public’s image of their idol would not be destroyed.