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)

Part Eight: Out of clay

siddons self-portrait

Self-portrait by Sarah Siddons, plaster bust c 1820 © Victoria and Albert Museum

At first, her mother’s death robbed Cecilia’s life of purpose. Two years later, she found a new mission when she married the phrenologist George Combe. She adopted his theories with evangelical zeal.

When she married, she surrendered all her worldly possessions, everything that her mother had earned by her own talents, to her husband, according to the matrimonial laws which did not give women rights over their property owned prior to marriage until 1882.

Under her mother’s influence, Cecilia had been brought up looking for the source of human character and behaviour in the passions; when she married she moved her enquiry into what she believed was a new science of the mind. Cecilia had lived all her life looking at her mother’s sculpted heads and watching her performances; now she examined the bumps on her husband’s collection of skulls and accompanied him on lecture tours.

There would be more than a pang of disappointment if the only surviving daughter of the Tragic Muse had given herself away to a pseudo-scientific quack. Not all of phrenology was rubbish: some of its elements survive in modern neuroscience which accepts that different mental abilities are localized in different areas of the brain.

Though his theories were flawed, and he was a shameless self-promoter, Combe was an influential and respected moral philosopher who, financed by his wife’s fortune, did valuable work towards education and prison reform.

A portrait by George Clint (which this blog has been refused permission by a national collection to upload for free) of Cecilia in her late twenties shows the same dark hair and dark eyes, the rich colouring and strong features of her mother, in a softer version; nothing like a subdued Regency ‘Miss’, which her brother George was worried she was doomed to be, she looks intelligent and penetrating; there is warm humour in her expression, a touch of wry amusement in her way of looking at the rest of a world; glowing in a composition of mature russets and golds, nothing superficial or trivial about her, she has a majestic presence of her own. She looks capable of anything she might set her mind to.

There being no use in a blog without pictures, and this blogger being a bad loser, here is an illustration of Romney’s soft-focus treatment of Sarah Siddons at about the same age as Cecilia in the forbidden portrait, with grateful acknowledgments to the ever-gracious V&A.

As Lawrence observed, the deep-set eyes and mobile brows that he knew so well are the same as Siddons’ niece, Fanny Kemble:

Romneyprint - CopyPrint of George Romney’s portrait of Sarah Siddons, 1783. Published in The Connoisseur magazine, ca. early 20th c. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Mrs Siddons was a serious-minded, religious person with artistic and intellectual interests and friends outside the acting profession. She had been fascinated by sculpture since she had first seen the collection at Guys Cliffe where she had been a maid. In 1789, during an enforced break from acting, due to bad health, she took up sculpture as an alternative creative outlet. Her first and chief subject was herself.

She was dissatisfied with the often flattering distortions of her by professional portraitists and was sure she could make a closer likeness. She discovered in her face an even more powerful intensity than any of the artists who had portrayed her, a fuller underlip and jutting jaw, a heavier weight of melancholy: it is the Shakespearean head of Brutus, a brooding Romantic hero, a philosopher or leader, a grieving mother or warrior queen, a guilty Lady Macbeth reliving her crimes in her sleep; beyond the confines of a single gender, it is human. 

Outwardly, she endured the death of her son Henry with Christian resignation. In private, she turned to sculpture for therapy. She had been officially retired from acting for three years; deprived of her profession, moulding clay was the only thing she had left “which forced [her] out of herself”, “a resource which fortunately never fails me”.

The physical activity of “puddling with my clay” relieved her tension as she struggled to make sense out of the meaningless void of bereavement. She began a full-length figure of her youngest surviving child, twenty-year old Cecilia, as if by totemic transference the representation, being stronger than death, would keep the girl alive.

In her acting and her sculpture, she rendered characters in the round. She refined her dramatic art to affect a broad audience in both sensationally emotional and profoundly intellectual ways. She offered the possibility of bringing peace to warring states of mind through the reconciliation of reason and passion, the elixir sought by all the writers of her age.

She lived in fear of obsolesence, and was always insecure about being supplanted by rival actresses; she was lucky to die before the debut of the extraordinary Rachel (1821 – 1858), the Swiss-born Jewish actress whose passionate reinterpretations of French classical drama shook European audiences out of mannered Romanticism into the next revolution of Naturalism.

Rachel as Phèdre

Rachel as Phèdre, photographed by Mayer and Pierson. Image source: Wikipedia

Like Sarah Siddons, Rachel combined steely control over her technique with a fathomless emotional power, as fearless of evil as good, delivered with persuasive force described by some contemporaries as “masculine”. Charlotte Brontë’s word for this quality was “genuine”.

The esteem in which Mrs Siddons was held by the British public and critics was higher than that of any other actor, male or female, in her lifetime. In 1817, her brother John Philip Kemble was given grander public honours on his official retirement than she had received on her own, five years earlier.

Stung by this proof of inequality, Mrs Siddons remarked that “perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this”.


 Mrs Siddons in the Character of the Tragic Muse engraved by Cook, 1783. © Victoria and Albert Museum. She walks regally into the next world, as the most famous tragedienne in English-speaking history

© Pippa Rathborne 2015

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

  1. […] They were not worried about commercial failure, or shocking people; they were worried about not being taken seriously. […]


  2. I know the feeling. 🙂 Your words come out very fluently to me!

    All the best~

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I might just simply force you to! There may be all those scholarly tomes but there is always room for something that comes between them and facile articles in the odd publications here and there and while what you cover has been done in depth before you, your slant on the characters makes your writing zing with life.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. beetleypete says:

    Like you, I ‘see’ what i want to write, like watching a film. I then have to transform that into words, hoping to be able to convey the reality of my visions in print.
    You do this magically, without a sign of the effort that I know must go into it, and you do it so much better than I can ever imagine being able to do myself.

    You have brought these characters from history to life, made them flesh, and made sense of their quotations, and still images. When I read, I see Lawrence flirting as he paints, and Sarah acting out her greatest triumphs, before retiring to the loneliness of her grief and fears.
    It is quite simply one of the best things I have ever read.

    As always, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. PJR says:

    I’d love to do that – though unlikely I’ll get off my arse. And maybe it’s too slight, too facile, as my history tutor once said. While researching, I was frustrated that most of the aspects of Siddons that interested me had already been covered in proper scholarly depth – the embodiment of an era – her collaboration with portraitists – the effect on audiences – the whole Lawrence thing has been done every which way, in fiction and biography. I’m not interested in her and the children as a theatrical family – but in how much their private Sturm und Drang interacted with the universal tensions and urges of the day – and how those daughters helped make the Sarah Siddons myth. Thank god it’s over….EXCEPT…….

    Liked by 1 person

  6. PJR says:

    That means so much coming from you. Thank you, Adrienne. The story of those women is so powerful it writes itself. My job was to forge the links, and hope they were not too clunky. Writing is an elusive process, I find – I see rather than hear in my head what I want to say, grope for the words, and none of it ever reads back as fluently as it looked.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Exquisite, Pippa. I think you should Indie publish this Siddons collection. As Adrienne says, you write beautifully as I’ve told you that from the off!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Beautifully written. I’m in awe.

    Liked by 1 person

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