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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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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