It’s Rachel with a “sh”, not Rachel with a “ch”. Her full name was Elisa-Rachel Félix, but she was known to everyone by her professional stage name, Mademoiselle Rachel, or simply Rachel.
She was the biggest international theatre star of the mid-nineteenth century. Birthday, smurfday, but today is as good a day as any to be reminded of Rachel (21st February, 1821 – 3rd January, 1858), the Swiss-born Jewish actress whose passionate reinterpretations of French classical drama shook European audiences out of mannered Romanticism into the next cultural revolution of naturalism.
Portrait of Mlle Rachel, 1841-45, oil on millboard, by William Etty. York Art Gallery.
Image source: Wikipedia.
William Etty, in his usual way, found a melting feminine eroticism in the young Rachel’s huge eyes, curving lips, and glossy black ringlets, but the prettiness does not diminish her authority. In dark and ochre colours and rapid brushstrokes he evoked her intense, almost liquid mutability of expression, with those eyes like dark pools for anyone who dares look too deeply to drown in.
She was a social rebel, too, raised out of childhood poverty on the streets to commercial success and wealth by her own talent, and growing up determined to be owned by no-one but herself. She was contemptuous of bourgeois sexual morality and the patriarchal institution of marriage. Among her many lovers were a Bourbon prince and three members of the Bonaparte family, including Emperor Napoleon III, and was faithful to none of them.
Queen Victoria, a passionate woman herself, was a great fan of Rachel, but stopped receiving her after she was told about the actress’s prolific and democratic love life. For Rachel, personal freedom was worth a curtsey.
Scandal was good for business. The editor of The Milwaukee Journal in 1945 expected his readership to be as titillated by details of Rachel’s “wild love affairs” with “Princes, Paupers in parade of Sweethearts” as audiences had been during her American tour in 1855.
Rachel represented, and was, everything that fascinated and frightened Victorian society about female independence, creativity and sexuality – and Jewishness, a crucial part of her identity, for herself and many people in her audiences. She was the dark, exotic outsider of genius, who might be cast out of society any moment by bigots and idiots.
She is one of the actresses who changed perceptions of feminine and racial equality.
Like Sarah Siddons, the tragic actress who had embodied Neoclassical and Romantic ideals in Britain a generation earlier, Mademoiselle Rachel combined steely control over her purist technique with such a commanding delivery of fathomless, sometimes murderous, passions that it was described by some contemporaries as “masculine”.
This was not synonymous with being butch: “masculine” was the go-to word for any woman whose expression of emotions or ideas was louder than the rattle of teacups. It was used not only of tragic actresses in full flood, or female writers demanding equal rights, but of the boisterous behaviour of the heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte, the might-have-been queen instead of Victoria, who broke the nation’s heart by dying in childbirth in 1817.
The word Charlotte Brontë used for Rachel’s power of conveying emotion was “genuine”.
These labels – genuine, natural, romantic, masculine, feminine – are misleading, because they are subjective, meaning different things to different people at different times in history. Semantics shift as much as perception. There is a constant, and it’s not to do with whom is perceived as a good or a bad actor, because we, in the audience, choose our Best Actors in the same way we choose politicians, the ones that mirror our predilections, prejudices and fantasies.
Even the supernatural seems real to somebody occasionally: Rochester’s voice calling to Jane over the moors from a different part of Yorkshire is “genuine” because Jane Eyre heard it. All that matters is that we believe her. Dramatic truth is established by the realistic reproduction of intensity of feeling, not by the likelihood of something happening or not.
The experience of watching Rachel act for the auditors who dared to follow where she led them was as “terrible as if the earth had cracked deep at your feet and revealed a glimpse of hell.” (Charlotte Brontë quoted on NPG.)
For many observers and writers, she exposed psychological depths of human nature as it was before the creation of good and evil, far beyond the confines of society, reminiscent of Balzac’s creation, the criminal Vautrin, a force of nature, whose intelligence went “to the very bottom of all questions, to read all natures, all feelings and thoughts” (Le Père Goriot, 1835).
She excelled at wickedness and verse drama; she could not do comedy, a limitation she shared with Sarah Siddons.
In her tiny stature and titanic passions she resembled the Brontë sisters. Charlotte put Rachel into Villette as “Vashti”, a powerful artist beyond gender and moral definitions, “a great new planet…something neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength — for she was but a frail creature; and as the action rose and the stir deepened, how wildly they shook her with their passions of the pit! They wrote HELL on her straight, haughty brow. They tuned her voice to the note of torment. They writhed her regal face to a demoniac mask. Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate she stood.” (Villette, Chapter XXIII, published 1853.)
“The panther of the stage” (George Henry Lewes describing Rachel in ‘On Actors and the Art of Acting’, 1875)
Rachel as Phèdre, photographed by Mayer and Pierson. Image source: Wikipedia
Two things are immediately apparent: the prowling woman with a devil sitting in each of her eyes is consumed by guilty passion and the dominant tragic actress of her time was a slip of a thing. Rachel was under five feet tall, and whip-thin.
Her rags to riches rise was not achieved through talent alone, because no-one’s ever is; after being spotted aged nine performing on the street in Lyons, she was rigorously trained in Paris by the most influential music and drama teachers of the time, actively seeking them out herself to improve her acting, and her subsequent career was astutely managed by her father and later her brother.
The real Rachel is remembered vaguely in British theatre history, and is known more vividly in fiction, as Vashti in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and as Daniel Deronda’s rediscovered Jewish mother, the great actress Leonora Alcharisi, in George Eliot’s last novel (1876).
There was a tradition of sympathetic portrayals of beautiful young Jewesses in English literature – from Shakespeare’s Jessica to Walter Scott’s Rebecca in Ivanhoe (1820) – but they were ideals of passive femininity, redeeming moneylending fathers by marrying Christians, not these new individualists inspired by the career and personality of Rachel.
The intellectual movement towards tolerance and equality in the mid-nineteenth century helped shield Rachel from anti-semitism, but it was always there, festering, the plague of irrational hatred that is still not eradicated in our own New Dark Ages.
Inevitably, there was resentment in the French Establishment about the triumph of a Jewish pedlar’s daughter as “high priestess” in the temple of Racine and Corneille. The press coverage of her American tour in 1855 was scarred by racist aspersions.
Off-stage, the shockingly unconventional Rachel had her own moral code. She never forgot to thank God for taking her and her family “out of the gutter”. She had a strong sense of religious and family duty. She financially supported her parents, siblings and children.
She never abandoned Judaism by converting. When it came to her two illegitimate sons, by different aristocratic fathers, she put maternal responsibility before her faith, and had them baptized to safeguard their futures. She left them a fortune, amassed over her twenty-year career during which she had always known she was consumptive and unlikely to live long.
Rachel’s precautions are understandable. Her own life was lived brilliantly poised on a precipice; you cannot bequeath that gift. Only the elder boy was legally adopted by his father after Rachel’s death, an indication of the deep feelings that Count Colonna-Walewski had borne her; her younger son was never acknowledged by his father.
Both of them grew up far from street theatre and classical tragedy to prosper in the French State, one as a diplomat and the other as a naval consul.
As the 19th century progressed, anti-semitism re-erupted with greater virulence. The foundation of the Anti-semitic League of France in 1889, and the persecution and wrongful imprisonment of Dreyfus in 1894, happened within the lifetime of her elder son.
Just over a hundred years after her birth, the prose of the theatre critic and historian James Agate turned rancid as he struggled to reconcile his admiration for Rachel’s acting with his loathing for “Shylock’s” race: “her avarice and ostentation…her intellect… her wealth of temperament… her genius….were Jewish” (Rachel, 1928).
When George Eliot had tried to combat prejudice in her presentation of Jewish communities, the independent female artist and the controversial issue of Zionism in Daniel Deronda, she could not envision the subject without the magnetic presence of Rachel.
George Eliot was less enthusiastic than her partner G.H. Lewes and Charlotte Brontë about Rachel’s actual acting; her favourite actress was Helen Faucit, a home grown English rose.
There were some people in her audiences who were unconcerned by her origins and rapt in her performances alone – among them Queen Victoria, characteristically free of racial and class prejudice.
For Lewes, one of the most perceptive and intelligent of all theatre critics who reviewed many of Rachel’s performances in the 1840s, when she was at her best, before she became “careless” of her technique, her faith and private life were irrelevant to her significance as an “exquisitely natural” representational artist.
He found something elemental in Rachel’s acting, a connection to wild nature, “a panther’s terrible beauty and undulating grace.” Looking back On Actors and the Art of Acting he had seen in his lifetime, he concluded that “Tragedy ceased with Rachel”.