Out of the killing sun


two sistersbuckAdam Buck, Two Sisters, print, 1796. London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Sense and sensibility, reason and passion, love and illusion, neoclassicism and romanticism dancing on the eve of cataclysm. During the years 1795 to 1797, while the two elder Siddons sisters were engaged in their own danse macabre with Thomas Lawrence, Jane Austen wrote her first draft of the novel that was eventually published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.

It should have been the end, the two beautiful girls consumed by passion and disease, but the Tragic Muse had another daughter, only nine years old when her eldest sister died, a child with a name like the peal of golden bells under a blue sky, a tiny Buddha with a ferocious will [1] and eyes that glared like a torch in the night on the charades and vacillations of grown ups.

NPG D21820; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons) by Richard James Lane, printed by  Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceAfter Sir Thomas Lawrence, Cecilia Combe, (née Siddons), 1798. Lithograph by Richard James Lane, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by Joseph Dickinson, May 1830. © National Portrait Gallery, London. She glares out of the picture with fanatical fervour, lowering her brows like her mother did in dramatic parts.

Her resemblance to the second of her elder sisters was so close in “all the dazzling, frightful sort of beauty that irradiated the countenance of Maria” [2] that she made the Tragic Muse shudder.

She was designated the last companion of the goddess, the comfort of her melancholy age, and custodian of her shrine. For twenty-eight years the purpose of her existence was to serve her mother, now a monolith in “apparent deadness and indifference to everything”, who stared back at her with vacant eyes. [3]

But the youngest daughter had a flame inside her that would not be quenched.  She had a gift denied her sisters. She did not breathe the same fatal air as they had done. Her mother fretted that her sickly last-born would die like the others, but the girl grew to be strong. She outlived her mother to write her own last act. She was determined that it would be not be a tragic one. Her sisters’ ghosts haunted her girlhood, her memory of them based more on other people’s accounts than her own recollections; they were cautionary figures from myth, glimpsed in faded portraits and drawings, girls who should have been entwined in their youthful loveliness, but were sundered by bitterness, wraiths who had strayed in the seductive heat of two other people’s imaginations, to fall and drown in the pool of Narcissus.

In 1798, the two elder daughters of the Tragic Muse had followed feeling in the belief it would grant them individual identity in a new dawn. They were the children of the Revolution of ideas that let them down. They had hoped, like the two step-sisters Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont who joined Shelley and Byron in an adventure of free love in the mountains and lakes of Europe a generation later, to find “an immortality of passion.”[4] Mary_Shelley_by_Reginald_Easton.

Mary Godwin Shelley, in a posthumous miniature by Reginald Easton, 1857, wearing a token of blue and yellow pansies in remembrance of Shelley. Bodleian Library. Image source: Wikipedia

Instead, they were cheated “into a swamp, a fire” and divided by jealousy and guilt. Claire outlived them all to write in bitterness that the free love practised by Shelley and Byron was an “evil passion”; she felt “what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge”. [5] Claire in retrospect saw herself as a victim of the poets’ egotism, but at the time she and Mary were willing participants, seeking self-determination, inspired by libertarian philosophy and the writings of Mary’s mother, Wollstonecraft, calling for the rights of women. The death of her infant daughter Allegra, neglected by Byron in whose care she had been entrusted, exploded Claire’s illusions.

Like the French Revolution, Romanticism failed to give women equality and liberty. The Romantic impulse, its heroic poses and talk of liberty were pernicious if they were not accompanied by practical reforms and consideration for other people’s feelings. Too often, these were treated as jarring details, like the stripes of Wellington’s military sash that Lawrence excluded from his portrait of the victorious general because they spoilt the aesthetic. [6] The seductive melancholy that Lawrence cast over all his male society sitters, making politicians look like poets, and actors like heroes, idealized self-preoccupation, and commodified the tormenting mood disorders that he suffered so acutely himself.

The surviving daughter of The Tragic Muse preferred to stay out of “the killing sun” [7] and live in the cooler air of reason. She was determined not to be a casualty of Romanticism. She reflected that the imaginative arts had failed to sufficiently console her family for their sorrows. Rather than rely on personal interpretation and intuition, she sought a scientific explanation for the vagaries of human nature. She had trained herself to greet life’s opportunities, disappointments and absurdities with equanimity. She did not believe in true lover’s knots or broken hearts. 

She was so used to living for another person that she lost her purpose when her mother died. Her inheritance gave her financial independence, and the freedom to follow her vocation. She wanted the companionship of an intellectual equal, at the very least, someone with whose ideas she could identify, someone with a mission she could help spread with the fervour of a convert. When Cecilia loved a person she loved a cause.

At the age of thirty-nine, when other people expected her to dwindle into an old maid, sustained only by her devotion to her mother’s memory, the youngest daughter of the Tragic Muse decided she’d had enough tragedy. She gave herself and her fortune away in marriage, not to an actor or artist or poet, but to a man who believed he could understand an individual’s personality from the shape of the bumps on their head.

L0015296 Phrenological head, G.A. Combe, 1824Phrenological head, G.A. Combe, 1824. Illustration from Combe’s Elements of Phrenology. © Wellcome Collection. Image source: Wikimedia

Cecilia was respected and esteemed by everyone who knew her for her wisdom, strong character and life of self-sacrifice. Still, her suitor took the precaution of checking their skulls for compatible mental faculties before they committed themselves. The phrenological evidence in favour of their union might have impressed his bride, but, in the opinion of their acquaintances, his mind had been made up by her income of £800 a year.

By this time, the songs of the eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse had been forgotten.

lawrence,possibly sally siddonsThomas Lawrence, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1800. Oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection. The identification of the sitter as Sally Siddons is uncertain. “I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv’d in my heart, in my head, in every idea…” (Sally Siddons)


1 Fanny Kemble recorded the “very decided character” of her cousin Cecilia’s face, in her memoirs, quoted Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons p.206 2 Letter from Sarah Siddons, quoted Parsons p. 206 3 Fanny Kemble, Memoirs, quoted in Sarah Siddons entry of Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 4 Quotes are from Claire Clairmont’s memoir, discovered and quoted by Daisy Hay, Young Romantics, Bloomsbury, 2010) recalling her and Mary Godwin Shelley’s experiences in free love with Shelley and Byron. Claire (originally Jane) accompanied Mary and Shelley on their elopement in 1814. 5 ibid 6 Shelley, Adonais: …On the withering flower The killing sun smiles brightly: on a cheek The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break. 7 Jacob Simon, NPG research programmes http://www.npg.org.uk


Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), of the Kemble acting dynasty, was regarded by contemporaries, including Byron and Hazlitt, as the greatest actor of her generation. No-one else commanded such a wide and diverse fan base. Her emotional range and power was persuasive enough to move George III to tears and even touch the Iron Duke of Wellington, as famous for ironic understatement as she was for grand pathos.

In private, she was principled, reserved, inclined to oversee herself as if she was still on-stage giving a dramatic performance. In manner unsuitable in many ways for early modern celebrity, and sophisticated contemporaries mocked her off-stage portentousness, but she was good at telling stories against herself. The anecdote about Gainsborough’s struggle to represent her facial features – “Damn the nose, there’s no end to it” – originates with her.

Friends including Sir Walter Scott, laughed at her behind her back for her compulsive habit, like her brother John Philip Kemble’s, of speaking in rhythmic phrases, the telling sign, not of affectation, but that their natural habitat was the stage, and the external world alien to them.

She outlived five of her seven children; she compared herself to Niobe. Her three daughters who survived infancy were: 

Sarah Martha (“Sally”) (1775-1803) Maria (1779-1798) Cecilia Siddons (1794 -1868) who married (in 1833) George Combe (1788-1858) lawyer and phrenologist, author of The Constitution of Man (1828).

According to surviving letters and Kemble family tradition the two elder daughters were both in love with Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the most successful society portrait painter of his time. He was self-taught and self-made. Outwardly urbane, Lawrence was subject to depressive episodes. He suffered insecurities about his status from childhood, when he was forced to financially support his feckless parents by sketching passers-by at an inn, and later as a child-artist in Bath, and the sexual ambivalence that his dependence on patronage and social acceptance prevented him from openly expressing.

He first met and painted Mrs Siddons when she was on tour in Bath in 1777. They remained friends for the rest of their lives. Famous among contemporaries as a high society flirt, he had emotionally intense relationships with several women, and never married. The closest female companions of his later years were Elizabeth Croft and Isabella Wolff, born Hutchinson.

At the time she first met Lawrence, when he was commissioned to paint her portrait in 1803, Isabella Anne Hutchinson (1771? – 1829) was unhappily married to the Danish diplomat and art collector Jens Wolff from whom she later separated in 1810.

The father of Sally, Maria and Cecilia, William Siddons (1744 -1808) was a far less successful actor and respected personality than his wife. He opposed Lawrence’s engagement to his younger daughter until she and Mrs Siddons wore him down with their passionate pleas. For once, at least, “Sid” had been right. He and Sarah Siddons separated amicably the year after Sally’s: they loved each other, but could not agree on trifles. Mrs Siddons by Joshua Reynolds

The epithet The Tragic Muse was attached to Sarah Siddons for posterity by Joshua Reynolds, in his 1784 portrait of the rising actress (Huntington Art Collections, San Marino). Thirty two years later, at the time of her formal retirement, William Hazlitt wrote of Sarah Siddons that “passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was tragedy personified”, and referred to her as a goddess in his article published in The Examiner, June 16, 1816. He described the effect of her acting on her audience as “startling its inmost thoughts” and “rousing deep and scarce-known feelings from their slumber.”

Claire Clairmont (1798 – 1879) accompanied her step-sister Mary Godwin Shelley (1797 – 1851) and Shelley on their elopement in 1814. There is no proof that she had a sexual relationship with Shelley, but her always emotionally competitive relationship with her step-sister was soured. Aged 16 she started an affair with Byron, by whom she had a daughter, Allegra (1817 -22).

Mary Shelley’s father, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin (1756 – 1836) had befriended the young Thomas Lawrence, and took a fatherly interest in his welfare during his emotional embroilment with the Siddons sisters, warning him at the time he was switching from the elder to the younger of the dangers of giving in to “discontent and melancholy.” (Letter from Godwin, 20 February, 1796, quoted in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-bag, ed. G.S. Layard, 1906)

Click here to read an alternative account of the Siddons family and Sir Thomas Lawrence

10 comments on “Out of the killing sun

  1. […] is another casualty in the line of emotionally abandoned girls, like Ophelia, driven out of her mind by grief from a lover’s desertion and a father’s […]


  2. […] contemporary phrenologist, like George Combe, would have wanted to examine the woman’s head for a prominent Organ of Amativeness to […]


  3. erickeyswriter says:

    “Her sisters’ ghosts haunted her girlhood, her memory of them based more on other people’s accounts than her own recollections; they were cautionary figures from myth, glimpsed in faded portraits and drawings, girls who should have been entwined in their youthful loveliness, but were sundered by bitterness, wraiths who had strayed in the seductive heat of two other people’s imaginations, to fall and drown in the pool of Narcissus.”

    Amazing how such borrowed memories can influence us, isn’t it? Stories told over and over seep into your brain just as much as actual events.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is the VERY first thing I read this morning! And it’s a compliment! *blushing* Thank you so much…it’s nice when somebody notices your hard work.

    Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. PJR says:

    Yes, it is a beguiling painting – one of those delicious 18th century bitesizes – of the Cara & Whoever of their day – and I was very tempted to use it as an illustration, but felt that the allusion to the Georgiana/Elizabeth Foster/Duke of Devonshire triangle would have over-egged my pudding. Theirs is such a rich story in its own right, and they were so worldly-wise compared to the innocent Siddons sisters, that I thought it was better be keep them out in favour of something more vague/universal. Thank you for looking at my blog, by the way! I love yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. this painting reminds me of another done of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster. Let me see if I can post the link. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Jean-Urbain_Guérin_-_Georgiana%2C_Duchess_of_Devonshire%2C_with_Lady_Elizabeth_Foster_-_WGA10966.jpg

    Er…let’s see if that works.


  7. beetleypete says:

    Please don’t sell yourself short. Many people wrap articles around quotes and witty sayings, and it is all too clear that they are the only thing of substance worth reading. This does not apply to you. The way you thread it all together, and the words that are yours, make it stand out from the crowd, and to become a thing of beauty, in its own right.
    I am immensely gratified that my reading of the work matched your intentions in writing it. I have given myself a metaphorical pat on the back for that!
    If there is no more to come, so be it. I will be grateful for what has already been published. My best wishes to you, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. PJR says:

    Your comment demands a fuller reply than is appropriate here – I have so much to thank you and apologize to you for. I can’t write up to your expectations! Like Tunbridge Wells’ Chalybeate spring, my trickle of inspiration is drying up (yes, it’s true, and a scandal worth blogging about – “poor water flow” is the apathetic Council’s excuse for Royal Tunbridge Unwell). I haven’t got your and other excellent bloggers’ facility for producing regular posts. You are using web-logging properly; I suspect myself of using this platform as a substitute for not being able to write and publish a full-length book.

    All I’ve got to offer in the next few weeks is a more straightforward biographical take on Mrs Siddons, but it keeps growing sprouts and straggling out of its frame. I think the best has been and gone.

    In the New Year, I don’t expect to produce anything new for a while – there will be a lot of reblogs – while I take the opportunity to READ and research. I hope something will crystallize.

    You are an extraordinary reader, Pete – you unwrap the layers and assimilate the writer’s intentions – I was worried that the Rom Fictions & Casualties thing would come over as arch – but you read it exactly as I hoped. Remember, it’s not original material – it’s all true and out there already – it’s like historical dramatic reconstruction (the bits of TV documentaries I usually detest) – the fine phrases are quotes, not my own – I would like to write fiction but I struggle with the form, my first chapters turn me off and I disown them.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. beetleypete says:

    As always, I enjoyed this article at a level previously reserved for classical literature, though I will refrain from listing examples. Perhaps my lack of knowledge of the featured characters went a long way to increasing my fascination. I knew little or nothing of them, so approached it with no preconceptions. The style, the interweaving of people and events, the telling portraits and paintings, all left me numb with appreciation. It also left me wondering why I bother to write anything at all, when I can read this instead. I wonder if you know just how good it is?
    More please. Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

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