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)

Mrs Siddons by Joshua ReynoldsMrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse, Melpomene, with the figures of Pity and Terror behind her, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California. Image: Wikipedia

PART SEVEN – “Keep your mind on your art.”
Sarah Siddons’ advice to Macready (1793 – 1873)

After her formal retirement from the stage, Mrs Siddons gave readings from Shakespeare at soirées given in her home, at which her daughter Cecilia acted as a fierce usher, making sure the audience behaved, and reassuring her mother that her powers were intact.

Rustling, coughing, munching, and the bathetic sounds of mobile phones, are distracting enough in a large theatre nowadays, but it is even harder to maintain dramatic illusion in small domestic settings, lit by oil lamps and candles, where refreshments are being served on a table in the interval.

Once, the suave portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, summoned back to the reading sooner than expected, suffered the embarrassment of having to finish eating a slice of toast as inaudibly as possible while the Tragic Muse resumed her platform performance.

Despite such incidents, the readings were not ridiculous; somehow, Mrs Siddons made them sublime. They inaugurated the Victorian popularity of public readings later in the century, most famously the ones by her niece Fanny Kemble (reputedly better at impersonating male characters than her father Charles) and Charles Dickens, part of a dubious dramatic tradition that still thrives in one-woman/man shows, book readings on radio and celebrity promotional tours of today.

Mrs Siddons was able to do more hold her audience; she transported them to a different plane of apprehension. Maria Edgworth, listening to Mrs Siddons as Queen Catherine felt she “had never before fully understood or sufficiently admired Shakespeare, or known the full powers of the human voice and the English language”.

She and her fellow guests were so rapt that they forgot to applaud; their “perfect illusion” was “interrupted by a hint from her daughter or niece, I forget which, that Mrs Siddons would be encouraged by having some demonstration given of our feelings”.

The crash landing of her willing disbelief made Maria Edgworth feel let down by actorly vanity. Audiences wanted Mrs Siddons to be above mortal needs. A great actor has godlike powers on stage to alter audiences’ states of mind, but only a stupid actor thinks they are a god. The gap between the power of acting and the personal vulnerability of the actor is as unbridgeable as the distinction between the reigning sovereign and their private person, completely separate entities, often, in the days of couchee and levee, occupying separate beds.

Mrs Siddons was grand, but she was not conceited. You are only as good as the performance you have just given. You cannot please everyone in the audience. There is always someone unmoved, someone else unpicking you, someone else disappointed that you are fatter and not as good as you were twenty years ago. The emotional effects for which you are famous might flop any day. She had made herself a great actress through patient application and subjective observation, not divine inspiration.
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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)

maria

The Gipsy Girl by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1794
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
A disturbing piece of erotica by Lawrence, for which Maria Siddons, aged fifteen, has been suggested as the model. It is a plausible theory: the girl has the intense, dark-eyed and tousle-haired look of the Siddons family. If it is not Maria, it is representative of a physical type which fascinated Lawrence.

The RA website notes that the genre to which the picture belongs in art history is “fancy”, a sentimental objectification of rural life for rich people, but this wild, half-naked boyish girl with her flushed cheeks, parted lips and fierce gaze – “the frightful sort of beauty” that pierced her mother when she looked at her daughters – is inviting a far more sexually ambivalent response, such as what on earth Lawrence really wanted out of the Siddons sisters, let alone what she is doing with that chicken pressed to her bosom.

PART FIVE – Portrayal and Betrayal

At the beginning of Lawrence’s invasion of their peace, as Sally described it, Mrs Siddons was too blinded by her own affection for him to see the whirlpool into which he was pulling them; perhaps, unconsciously, she was enjoying one of the undercurrents too much, that his feelings were flowing towards her, not her daughters.

The fact so clear to us, that Lawrence was protesting his feelings for Sally too much because he was basically gay, explains but does not excuse his emotional abuse of the two sisters. It was probably just as apparent to Mrs Siddons, who was, after all, in the theatrical profession and not stupid. Eighteenth century and Regency perceptions of sexuality were more fluid than ours, even while the laws governing behaviour were barbarously repressive.

You were not defined in enlightened artistic and aristocratic circles by the sex of whom you slept with, so long as you didn’t make a scandal, or annoy the wrong people, who would use the law vindictively against you, as the “foul thing”, Lord Queensberry, did to Oscar Wilde in 1895. It is no wonder that the pressure of confused feelings and double lives, and often blackmail, drove so many to suicide.

Lawrence, as a self-made professional society portrait painter, dependent on respectable fee-paying clients for his livelihood, could not take the same risks as the aristocratic bisexual Lord Byron a generation later, and flee abroad to countries where the Napoleonic Penal Code had decriminalized homosexuality.

Intelligent women continued to fall in love with Lawrence for the rest of his life, just as they have loved and married sensitive, handsome gay men since. He made women look good and feel good about themselves. Like a lot of narcissistic people, he was probably a very skilled lover: he made love to women the way he would have liked to have been loved if he was a woman.

Like Byron, he used his sex-appeal to further his career. Sittings with Lawrence felt like seductions; sometimes they were seductions.

Marriage was the predominant career option for women without independent means, but the ones who could afford to love and live with each other openly were left relatively free of salacious and legal interference. Queen Charlotte got the Ladies of Llangollen a pension, which would never have been granted a male couple living together, because the concept of lesbianism as a sexual preference did not exist – while women who married conventionally lost their individual rights to their husbands. Defiance meant risking subsistence, reputation, children.

In 1849, Sarah Siddons’ niece, the actress, abolitionist and feminist Fanny Kemble, was one of the first women to challenge the divorce laws of the United States, but she still had to suffer the loss of custody of her daughters to her slave-owning, philandering husband.

NPG D21827; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons); Sarah Siddons (nÈe Kemble); Charles Kemble; Maria Siddons by Richard James Lane, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceSarah Siddons and members of her family by Richard James Lane, published by Joseph Dickinson, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, lithograph, published May 1830  © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The print has Lawrence’s sketch of Mrs Siddons as Sigismunda at its centre, a figure of brooding intensity with three of her children and one of her younger brothers revolving like satellites around her.
Clockwise: Cecilia Combe (née Siddons); Sarah Siddons (née Kemble); Sally Siddons (identified sometimes as Maria); George John Siddons; Charles Kemble (the actor)

Mrs Siddons had had a soft spot for Lawrence since their first meeting in Bath when he was a pretty nine year old boy earning a living as a portrait painter and she was establishing her reputation as a leading actress.

The adult Lawrence incited a heightened erotic self-consciousness in nearly every woman he met, regardless of age and type; flirting was his primary means of social interaction with both sexes; a friend who knew him very well called him a male coquet.

At the time he ruptured her daughters’ lives, Mrs Siddons was in her early forties, still slim and splendidly handsome, she was the most famous actress in the country, a conscientious, hard-working mother who needed assurance that she could still be loved as a woman, not just a national monument. Continue reading