silencefuseliSilence by Fuseli, 1799-1801 Oil on canvas, Kunsthaus, Zurich.
Image source: WGA

The lightning struck, and receded, the earth quaked and settled again. Resolute, she never spoke again of love and betrayal. She began to believe that the artist had never loved her for her own sake, but more for the sensation of passion, a drama of love, in which she and her sister had been no more to him than sparks of her mother’s fire.

She knew they still met, an ageing goddess and her acolyte, and that her mother “could never cease to look upon him with the partiality she always did” [1] and always would feel for him. She did not say a word of reproach to either of them, though she was cut to the quick. He never sent a loving message to her.

The worm had entered the bud. During the next five years, while his fame as an artist and a lover spread, a queen seduced him while he painted her portrait, and still he wore his sweet-sad smile, the daughter of tragedy started to wither away until her own muse fled. “I sing but little now to what I did once”.

She had lived only to give joy to those she loved, and she had no joy left. She had reached the limits of feeling. She lived, but it was the posthumous existence of despair. Every asthma attack was like a drowning, in which to die would be easier than the struggle for breath. She yielded to invalidism as if it was a lover.

She never lost faith in her mother, she would always be the chief priestess of the Tragic Muse, ensuring nothing distracted the goddess from her mission, knowing that the slightest shift of wind might upset the sacred artifice of her art, causing the goddess to misjudge her timing or overreach her power to act feelings by feeling too much, performing worst when she most ardently wished to do better than ever.[2]

Her breaths got shorter and shorter. Even when she knew was dying, the eldest daughter did not want to cause her mother trouble. There was never any question that the goddess must continue working while her daughter was ill, often travelling far away, arduous tours which paid for medicine, food, clothing for her family, and redecorating the family’s house.

The young woman had thought and felt for the Tragic Muse as if they had one mind, one heart, one calling, and though she suffered in her mother’s absence a vacancy in her heart that nothing else could fill [3], she and her father, a mere mortal player, who relied on his wife’s earnings to maintain their household, kept the worst news about her condition to themselves.

The Tragic Muse was performing for worshippers on another island when at last an attendant dared tell her that her daughter was dying. “Will you believe I must play tonight!” [4] exclaimed the distraught mother. She had always known that she was not immortal, as people wanted her to be, but rather an heroic victim of her own powers of arousing emotion.


Drawing of Sarah Siddons, artist and date unknown  © Victoria and Albert Museum

She broke her contract so she could rush home, but her journey across the sea was delayed by great storms, which neither her dramatic arts nor maternal appeals could appease, and when she arrived, her lovely child, her sweet Sally, was already dead.

seastormvernetClaude-Joseph Vernet, Nocturnal Seastorm 1752
Oil on canvas. Private collection. Image source WGA

[1] Letter from Sally Siddons, 23 January, 1801 quoted in An Artist’s Love Story told in the letters of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mrs. Siddons, and her daughters, ed. by Oswald G. Knapp, 1904.
[2] Paraphrasing Sarah Siddons’ much quoted piece of self-criticism that holds true for all actors, from her letter to Rev. Whalley, 16 July, 1781, published in The Kembles, Percy Fitzgerald, 1871: “Sorry am I to say, that I have often observed I have performed worst when I have most ardently wished to do better than ever”
[3] Paraphrasing Letter from Sally Siddons to Miss Bird, 15 September, 1798, quoted by F.M.W. Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, 1909, p.199.
[4] Paraphrasing Letter from Mrs Siddons to Mrs Fitzhugh, quoted by Parsons, p.204

5 comments on “Silence

  1. erickeyswriter says:

    I think you are right.

    I have more to say on this, but I need to get back to some of my own writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PJR says:

    I want you to inhabit them, the mother and daughter, while you read. Maybe you – all of us, when we read someone else’s history – do have to die, just for a moment, to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. erickeyswriter says:

    I’ve changed my mind since my last comment. You are trying to kill me, Pippa. Don’t deny it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. PJR says:

    Thank you, Pete, for your vigilance – and essential quality control. The V&A images, though legitimately downloaded, seem to be heavily encrypted, a warning to me that I might be over-seasoning these histories with too many precious spices.


  5. beetleypete says:

    Even as the tale descends into yet more tragedy, I remain entranced by the prose, and the story that it tells. This is fine, very fine.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    (The drawing of Sarah is missing. There is just a large gap where it should be.)

    Liked by 1 person

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