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

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.” SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

NPG D22010; Fanny Kemble by Richard James Lane, after  Sir Thomas Lawrence

 Fanny Kemble (1809 – 1893) transatlantic actress, writer, abolitionist and feminist, in a print by Richard James Lane after drawing by Lawrence, published 1829 -1830. She was the fourth woman in her family to be taken over by, in her words, a”dangerous fascination” for the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, forty years older than her. He flirted with her, as he did every woman who sat for him. He noticed, while sketching her face, that she had the same eyes as her aunt and his close friend, the dominant tragic actress of the British stage, Sarah Siddons.

PART SIX – The Opposite of People “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sarah Siddons and her two eldest daughters can be excused for their infatuation with Thomas Lawrence, because he was notoriously charming, an homme fatale “using sex as a sort of shrimping net”, like the “self-conscious vampire” Myra Arundel in Hay Fever one hundred and thirty years later. Gifted with more than just bedroom eyes, he had that rare knack of making usually sensible men and women feel sorry for him even when he was being mad and bad.

Noone, not even Sally and Maria, could think him of as a villain. He was a catalyst, an accidental destroyer, a personality who would have been invented by Romanticism if he had not existed. He wanted to please, not provoke other people, because he wanted to be loved, without understanding how to love in return.

The cracks in the habitual seducer’s charm showed when he was older – he “had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile had the appearance of being set in enamel” – but at the time he was playing for the Siddons sisters, the philosopher William Godwin, whose wife Mary Wollstonecraft was a depressive, was so worried about the younger man that he warned him of the dangers of giving in to melancholy.

It was the worm in the bud of sensibility, the morbid strain in Romanticism, that we are heir to, not the suicidal depression, which is par for the course, but the narcissistic failure of compassion, of which empathy is the easy and therefore overrated part. Imagining someone else’s suffering is not the same as feeling it, as any good actor knows. Lawrence, as needy for worldly success as sexual conquest, was careful to never leave such an indiscreet trail of heartbroken virgins again. His anxiety to please was bad for his art, but secured him commercial popularity as a fashionable society portrait painter with a sophisticated fanbase. He needed female companionship and approval. He was happiest in the company of sophisticated, independent, intelligent women, an entourage of beautiful Boswells whose passionate interest in his art and personality did not include marriage expectations. His debts made him ineligible, as Mr Siddons had recognized.

Under the enamelled surface, the darkness was still discernible. When he died, suddenly, having shown no obvious symptoms of illness, a lot of people wondered if he had committed suicide. Lawrence was the only man who aroused such reckless feelings in Sarah Siddons after her girlhood attachment to her husband; he was a soulmate, an artistic equal.

He was an actor by nature. He would have been put on the stage as a boy if his precocious talent for drawing and painting had not saved him, but it might have been safer for everyone else if his histrionic personality had been confined to the artificial world. Real life was his stage. He made very few self-portraits, as if he did not want anyone, including himself, to look too deeply inside.

NPG D37213; Sir Thomas Lawrence by Richard James Lane, printed by  Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by  Colnaghi, Son & CoSir Thomas Lawrence’s death mask, lithograph by Richard James Lane, published April 1830 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Lawrence believed he was the victim, rejected by Sally, the woman for whom he had “play’d deeply” because he was compelled to capture people’s affection, with the same intensity he captured their likeness in a drawing. He only cared about the effect he had on them, not the consequences. From boyhood, when he had first seen Mrs Siddons act at the Bath theatre, he envied her power to transport people’s emotions, to make them sob, or tremble, or faint.

Mrs Siddons by Joshua ReynoldsThe quintessence of dramatic acting: Sarah Siddons as The Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California. Image: Wikipedia

Coquetry is a form of power, to which he became addicted. He had been her daughter Sally’s ideal man; he might have been the greatest love of Mrs Siddons’ life as well. In most respects, Mrs Siddons was a rational woman who observed the distinction between reality and pretence. She used her home to prepare for parts, she studied her sensations and reactions during emotional extremes so as to replicate them authentically on stage, she practised intonations, she drew on her own experience for public performance, but she did not fake emotions or manipulate other people in private life.

Sally knew her mother continued to see Lawrence, “and could never cease to look upon him with the partiality she always did, and I believe always will feel for him”. It says a lot about the devotion and respect that Sarah Siddons commanded from the people who knew her best, and about the steadfast character of her eldest daughter, that during and after the Lawrence crisis, Sally never uttered or wrote a word of reproach against the mother she adored. She only betrayed her hurt by her continued allusions to Lawrence in her letters to friends. NPG D2098; Sarah Martha ('Sally') Siddons by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after  Sir Thomas Lawrence

Sally Siddons, eldest daughter of Sarah Siddons, by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, stipple engraving, published 1841. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sally loved her mother to the point of idolatry. She aspired to moral conduct worthy of the great Sarah Siddons. She was deeply involved in her mother’s career and performances, never ceasing to be moved when Mrs Siddons acted “divinely” or when audiences were as “mad about my mother as if they had never seen her” act before.

The love her daughters had for Sarah Siddons and their respect for her vocation were the most sincere of all accolades paid this much-acclaimed woman, because they understood her natural and unalienable right to be herself and dramatize feelings that would otherwise be unbearable. She was beyond criticism. They accommodated the absolutism of her maternal power, and rather than rebelling against her, guarded themselves against emotional damage, hiding any violent internal battles from everyone, including us, the raiders of their private lives.

Thirty years after Sally and Maria’s lives had been “embittered” by their inconstant lover, a fourth woman of the Kemble dynasty found herself taken over by, in her own words, a “dangerous fascination” for Thomas Lawrence. Sarah Siddons’ nineteen year old niece, Fanny Kemble, sat for her portrait, and the inevitable happened.

Sentimentally moved by her resemblance to her two dead cousins, he flirted with the talented young actress. Sally and Maria were now ghosts in a titillating gothic fantasy of forbidden love whipped up by two brilliant egocentrics, forty years apart in age, one at the beginning of her creative life, the other at the end of his.

© Pippa Rathborne 2015


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

  1. erickeyswriter says:

    “It doesn’t feel like “talent”, it feels like lugging a suitcase up a hill, or Laurel & Hardy delivering a piano up a flight of stairs.”

    That’s what writing is like, Pippa.

    “I’m not earning a £ from writing”

    I think I made a grand total of $18 from my writing in 2014. I suppose that makes me a professional of sorts. So, let me tell you, in my professional judgment, you have talent.

    “It’s a surprise every time a tiny group of people really like something I’ve written.”

    Once again, that’s writing for you. The fact that I ever connect with anyone just blows me over.

    “Every blogger knows…”

    Excuse my French, but Fuck “every blogger”. I know some of the folks who wrote – literally! – the books on blogging. It’s all fine and good to follow the conventional wisdom if you are a conventional sort. I’d rather a Pippa than an “every blogger” any day of the week.

    “I thank you, and cannot promise you more delight another day.”

    Haven’t you been reading Ecclesiastes? We can’t promise anything to anyone but death.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beetleypete says:

    I don’t need promises Pippa. I have what is already there. If there should be no more, then that will suffice. Everything you have ever published will only benefit from re-reading, and enjoying once more. Like the favourite course in the best restaurant you ever ate in
    (That quote made me think of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman by the way…I love the colours that Sirk got on screen, even if the stories were so-so. x)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. PJR says:

    Embalm me now, boys, while I still look good in your eyes!

    I respect your opinions, and am luxuriating in your appreciation while I’ve still got it – but you are both extraordinarily well-tuned readers – you hear the contrapuntal stuff – you intuit the writer’s intentions and improve on their material with your own perceptions.

    The view looks very different from where I am. It doesn’t feel like “talent”, it feels like lugging a suitcase up a hill, or Laurel & Hardy delivering a piano up a flight of stairs.

    I know how shallow my talent is – and I’m not as versatile and observant as Pete or as visceral and elegant as Eric.

    I’m not earning a £ from writing, but I’m not blogging for fun. I suspect my motives. It’s a substitute – or at best a public rehearsal for a show that will never happen. It looks like failure to me: I don’t make the cut. It’s a surprise every time a tiny group of people really like something I’ve written.

    Every blogger knows they should keep posts short (I can’t) and should be keeping their best back – and I haven’t – I’ve given you everything – too many sacred things I care about – I’ve got nothing to sell except what’s already in the window.

    If for a live-long minute you have loved my writing,””Tis all that Heaven allows””, as Rochester said, so I thank you, and cannot promise you more delight another day.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. beetleypete says:

    I have to agree. If it’s at all possible as a concept, sometimes, all this is just too good to bear.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. erickeyswriter says:

    “Sally and Maria were now ghosts in a titillating gothic fantasy of forbidden love whipped up by two brilliant egocentrics, forty years apart in age, one at the beginning of her creative life, the other at the end of his.”

    Pippa, your evocative prose is driving me to distraction. Please try not to be so damn talented for a few posts. Show some mercy for us.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Rogues & Vagabonds and commented:
    Another glorious dissertation by Pippa Rathborne about Sarah Siddons and her milieu. I’m particularly struck by Pippa’s line about Thomas Lawrence: “…He would have been put on the stage as a boy if his precocious talent for drawing and painting had not saved him…” It says so much about attitudes to theatre then and now.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. beetleypete says:

    I think that I am struck most by Sarah’s refusal to use her public talents in her private life. Thinking of so many others who do just this, and appear shallow at all times as a result, it becomes her greatest attraction as a person to me.
    On a different note, the profile of Lawrence (from a death mask, I presume) looks uncannily like me when I was younger.
    Looking forward to part seven.
    My best wishes to you as always, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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