The one where Rachel rattles the teacups

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.

MlleRachelbyWilliamEtty

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”. 

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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)

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

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