In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

aszaraSarah Siddons as Zara in Congreve’s tragedy ‘The Mourning Bride’, engraving by after painting by Thomas Lawrence, 1783.
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.
“…she did look so beautiful! It is a part I like to see her act extremely.” Sally Siddons, writing in a letter on February 8th, 1799, about her mother as Zara.
This is the face of a determined, passionate, brave, intelligent individual, transcending gender.
“Independence I will ever secure…” Mary Wollstonecraft.

PART THREE: The Obvious Conclusion

“The conclusion which I make to draw is obvious: make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Sarah Siddons were socially acquainted, and only four years apart in age. Temperamentally, the reserved, social-climbing actress, who regulated her emotions on and off stage, and the younger, radical feminist, who acted on her impulses, were far apart. Siddons did not see herself as a rebel other than in being an actor, which, in the glory days, before it was confused with showing-off, was a form of rebellion in itself.

She craved social acceptance, for herself and her children. She was more interested in improving her life through her art than suffering for it. She wanted fame and fortune. In private, this passionate artist was conventional, religious and moral. She never compromised her right to have a career, children and a husband, and she earned it herself.

Frequently when Wollstonecraft wrote about an emancipated woman, independent of men and men’s money, she unintentionally described Siddons: “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners – time to restore to them their lost dignity – and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.”

“Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.”  Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the words; you can hear Sarah Siddons saying them. The actress was a realist who achieved independence, and avoided the heath.

NPG D7842; Mary Wollstonecraft by John Chapman, after  Unknown artistDeal with it: the great Mary Wollstonecraft, Mrs Godwin, feminine and equal in a man’s hat, by John Chapman, after unknown artist, stipple engraving, published 1798 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
“The conclusion which I make to draw is obvious: make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” and her other moral “Strictures” combined with the emotional turmoil of her free love affairs were condemned as the “masculine” aberration of a virago, even a madwoman; in contrast, the respectable actress’s interpretations of women driven by passion, whether it was from ambition or love, were universally admired.

Siddons’ own perceived masculine attributes of power and strength were exalted in serious portraiture, by Lawrence, and treated almost respectfully in caricature by Gillray. She excelled in pleading justice for women with her own mix of power and pathos: “…my drops of tears / I’ll turn to sparks of fire.” (Queen Katharine in Henry VIII)

Harlow Trial of KatherineThe Court for the Trial of Queen Katherine by George Henry Harlow, showing Mrs Siddons as Henry VIII’s wronged and defiant first wife, the Shakespearean role she told Dr Johnson she preferred above all others, because it was so “natural”. Image: Wikipedia

Sarah Siddons was the main breadwinner for her family, her star earnings far exceeding her husband’s. Her right to pursue her career was never disputed. He had been a touring actor, a rackety livelihood, still vagabondage, without the romance later associated with it; as his wife’s success grew, he adapted to the part of her agent and manager, helping to ensure that they raised their children in bourgeois security.

Her friends and biographers have not rated him highly, but he deserves sympathy because being Mr Sarah Siddons wasn’t an easy part for anybody to play. “She was too grand a Thing for him”, he said.

The marriage that had started as a passionate love match unravelled in domestic disharmony until they separated, amicably, in 1804. He moved to Bath for his rheumatism, she stayed in London or toured; they visited each other. They differed in trifles, Mrs Siddons wrote, but could “never cease to love one another”. He was an irritable critic of other people’s acting, particularly his wife’s; nowadays, he would be a director.

William Siddons null by John Opie 1761-1807

William Siddons (1744 – 1808) by John Opie © Tate Gallery London. A strong featured and vivid actor’s face, with a handsome, sensual mouth and tell-tale weakness in the expression, reveals the vestiges of the man with whom young Sarah Kemble had fallen passionately in love. His own career and public identity were eclipsed by hers, and after thirty years of marriage, and the deaths of two beloved daughters, he moved out of the marital home: she was too grand for him, he said, with his characteristically deflecting humour.

She had always carried on working during her many pregnancies; neither she nor her audiences expected her to be confined. They were moved by the maternal majesty she lent Lady Macbeth, they suspended disbelief when she played boyish Rosalind in As You Like It, even the virgin Isabella in Measure for Measure.

Part of her appeal was as a fecund and resilient mother-goddess; people only lost faith in her when she was past child-bearing age.

She was a devoted sister and mother, and one of those inspirational career women who do not want to share power with anyone else of her sex. She gave herself wholeheartedly in friendship, but her upright, uncompromising character was entirely unsuited to competition. Mrs Siddons did not brook rival actresses.

She was spared professional jealousy within her family, because her younger sisters were considered too vocally similar to her to be cast in London at the same time; any more Kemble nepotism would have made them unpopular. One of them, Elizabeth Whitlock, had to go to America to enjoy her greatest career successes as a tragedienne; when in England, she kept to a touring circuit well away from her sister.

Like many vocational actors, Sarah Siddons had an ambivalent attitude towards the profession, one which possesses you whether it’s good for you or not. Though her husband and all of the Kemble family – the indefatigable touring parents, the sisters and the brothers, one of her nieces – were on the stage, Mrs Siddons seems to have discouraged her daughters from emulating her. It spared them odious comparisons, and the theatre world from being completely overrun by a dynasty, in which some members were more talented than others.

Mrs Siddons’ financial independence was rare enough for a working woman of her times, and especially for an actress. She had tasted humiliating failure at the beginning of her career, and knew as well as any actor that the stage was a cruelly unjust profession, where no-one felt secure, particularly women.

Actresses were damned if they failed, damned if they succeeded. However talented and dedicated to their careers they were, there were some who felt they could only escape the abyss by becoming the mistresses of rich men, aristocrats, or royal princes, though that offered only short-term security while beauty and good luck lasted.

Mrs Siddons was not the first virtuous actress, but she was the most famous, and her personal life proved that acting could be pursued as a serious artistic profession, no longer synonymous with prostitution in the public’s mind.

Dorothy Jordan, the brilliantly natural comedienne who had the best pair of legs seen in breeches parts at Drury Lane since Nell Gwynn’s, was the only contemporary actress whose popularity and earnings approached Siddons’ own.

They were the perfect antithesis, light and dark, the one irrepressibly spontaneous, the other regally studied, and they were able to shine in a mutually advantageous binary system. The comic and tragic muses occupied their respective niches, blocking the advance of any other talented actresses.

We rarely learn more from history than that there is nothing new under the sun.

NPG D20567; Dorothy Jordan as Viola in 'Twelfth Night' by Unknown artist

Dorothy Jordan as Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ by Unknown artist, hand-coloured line engraving,
late 18th century © National Portrait Gallery, London

Mrs Jordan often financially supported her lover and father of ten of her children, the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, during their twenty years of domestic life together – people joked that she kept him, not the other way round. After he abandoned her on his hunt for a rich wife, and respectability, she died in exile, virtually destitute, denied access to her children, victim of Hanoverian hypocrisy and negligence of duty which would have been unconscionable to the great royal lover of actresses, Charles II.

Like Sarah Siddons, acting was her calling, not just a means of earning money; it was an essential urge of her personality, the only way she could be completely herself and completely happy. Delight bubbled out of her on stage, as sombre passion emanated from Mrs Siddons.

NPG 5159; Sarah Siddons (nÈe Kemble) ('Mrs Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy') by Sir William BeecheyMrs Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy
by Sir William Beechey
oil on canvas, 1793
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Contemporary opinion soon pushed Mrs Siddons out of comedic parts because of her slow delivery and grand manner. There was no Morecambe and Wise to reveal to the world how hilarious her straightness could be.


9 comments on “In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

  1. […] the power of influence, some of them were acknowledged (by a brave minority) to be the equals, even on rare occasions the superiors, to men in their wit and intelligence, their literary, acting and artistic talents, their […]


  2. erickeyswriter says:

    “This is becoming an 18th century Epistolary Erotic Novel like Liaisons Dangereuses…too enjoyable.”

    Ah, good! I was concerned I was having all the fun.

    “The last two posts of Nothing, BTW, are cold and dusty, no Rochesters or Ruperts or Keatses or Lawrences. Eric has, of course, already revealed why it has to end like that in an earlier comment.”

    Even the cold and the dusty things of this world can have beauty. I’m sure I will gobble them up like a fat Texan and be hungry for more.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. PJR says:

    This is becoming an 18th century Epistolary Erotic Novel like Liaisons Dangereuses…too enjoyable. The last two posts of Nothing, BTW, are cold and dusty, no Rochesters or Ruperts or Keatses or Lawrences. Eric has, of course, already revealed why it has to end like that in an earlier comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. erickeyswriter says:

    I concur with Pete. You’ve got us hook, line and sinker.

    Sorry to hear about the bad jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. beetleypete says:

    I think you have Eric hooked for good…Me too…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. PJR says:

    The jobs are just as bad as I feared – but let off early today to try and catch up with you! Back to turpitude again tomorrow for 10 days, with posts of Nothing scheduled in advance – I’m waiting for you to fall out of love by the time I get back.


  7. erickeyswriter says:

    “We rarely learn more from history than that there is nothing new under the sun.”

    Ah, more from The Preacher! It’s probably the most honest book in the bible – at least as far as experience goes.

    I hope your “horrid terrestrial jobs” are going better than you hoped.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. PJR says:

    Hello, Pete – I can’t overstate how happy your comments make me. From what I’ve read, contemporaries who knew the Siddonses shared your assessment of his character! He was also known to sleep around. According to an unreliable friend of theirs – one of those bright, voluble mischief-makers Jane Austen would have torn to bits – he gave his wife a dose of the clap, making her ill enough to miss an entire acting season. Mrs Siddons herself said her illness was a nervous disorder; her symptoms suggest neuritis.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. beetleypete says:

    How true, there is nothing new at all.
    The acting dynasties portrayed here are reminiscent of the Redgraves, though I can sense that Sarah Siddons enjoyed much greater fame and social importance. I see her husband as a canny man, realising what side his bread is buttered on, readily eschewing his own career for a life of comfort financed by his famous wife. I can also imagine how unusual all this must have seemed, at a time when the lot of women was generally unenviable.
    I continue to be enthralled, and I am moving on to the next part. (I saved them, as a treat…x)

    Liked by 1 person

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