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)

as euphrasia - Copy

Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia in ‘The Grecian Daughter’. Print of Pine’s painting by the female engraver, Caroline Watson. Published in London by John Boydell, 1st May, 1784. © Victoria & Albert Museum. Euphrasia was one of the parts in which she conquered the London stage on her return in 1782. The heroine triumphs in restoring peace to her country after an extraordinary, even gross, display of filial duty, when she suckles her own father rather than escape to safety from despotic tyranny with her husband and infant son.

The mix of sensationalism – the audience enjoyed shrieking along with the heroine – and serious moral about debate a woman’s right to determine her public and domestic roles, without becoming a victim, were ideal for Sarah Siddons’ stage persona.

PART TWO – A Woman’s Tragedy

Mrs Siddons understood the value of art, both as an aesthetic and a publicity tool. Her collaboration with all the leading portraitists of the day and the subsequent national distribution of prints spread her fame.

Though she became a cultural icon, she was not an easy subject; she was considered a beautiful woman, with her bold features, long nose, Romantically fashionable cleft chin, large dark eyes, and lithe figure, but like many expressive, charismatic people, her beauty could not be captured in repose.

It was the beauty that lies in conveying passion and intellect, not in stimulating sexual fantasies or decorating a wall. Her physical appearance was fit for dramatic purpose, and she used it to full effect without personal vanity.

Mary Wollstonecraft reminded the readers of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that in “history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”

Many of the heroic qualities that she was admired for on stage were regarded as unsuitable for a lady in real life. The power she conveyed with the grandeur of her elocution and sweeping, authoritative movements, were supposed to be exclusively masculine attributes.

Except for Thomas Lawrence, society portraitists shied away from her forcefulness, emphasizing instead her willowy grace, and the tender beseeching pathos of her raised eyes, rather than showing them blazing with passion under frowning brows.

Sitting in her elegant black plumed hat and blue-striped dress in Gainsborough’s 1785 portrait, she looks uneasy, coiled, as if she’d rather spring up and throw that muff like a dagger at a villain, and save her country, defy a tyrant, or murder Duncan. Social comedy and kitchen sink drama, at home or on stage, did not suit Mrs Siddons.

When Lawrence painted Mrs Siddons, rather than avoiding the challenging masculine aspects of her stage persona, the fierce concentration of her gaze, her imposing height and the athletic build of her shoulders and arms (reminiscent of Mrs Freke’s “masculine arms” in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda), he celebrated them. Continue reading