Sunday, 4 August 2013

Romantic fictions and casualties

“I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv'd in my heart, in my head, in every idea…” 

The Art of Loving or The Pleasant Lesson, furnishing fabric,
Favre Petitpierre et Cie (possibly, maker), ca.1785-1790, detail © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
One autumn long ago, while Britain was at war with revolutionary France, and was rejoicing at the Royal Navy’s victory under Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, which thwarted Napoleon's ambitions to conquer the Middle East as he had done mainland Europe, and Irish rebels with French help were fighting their English oppressors, when Jenner had recently published his findings on small-pox vaccination, while a new poetry in Lyrical Ballads was being read for the first time, and a new kind of woman had appeared in a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft called Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman, the eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse renounced forever the man she loved. 

He was a charming young artist who painted everyone as if he was in love with them. His pencil, chalk and brush had the power of Cupid's arrows to pierce men and women with the flushed, breathless heat of desire. When he looked at someone, however dull they had felt the moment before, they saw the reflection of beauty in his eyes.

He was....

graceful, dark and delicately featured, with soulful eyes, an inclination to melancholy and a talent to please that all women, including her sister and mother, found irresistible.

The daughters of the Tragic Muse were sheltered from the world by their mother’s earnings,  which came from years of touring the British Isles being “Tragedy, personified”.[1] She had the gift of simulating passions that aroused edifying feelings in other people, temporarily making them forget their own anxieties, and achieving a communion of souls; but she could not save her daughters from their own passions. 

The Tragic Muse guarded her power jealously, and, knowing it was as great a burden as a boon, discouraged her daughters from following her vocation. As a goddess, she did not want rivals to succeed; as a mother, she did not want her daughters to feel the humiliation of public rejection, which she had endured before her deification, and
be pushed into the dismal pit of domestic service as ladies' maids. Even now, "the stateliest ornament of the public mind",[2] felt in her heart that she was only as good as her last performance.  

She loved her daughters, and she loved the artist. She saw they were alike, in the boldness of their talent and in their fear of being found out, she saw inside the man there was a little boy, frantically drawing portraits to please passers-by in return for pennies to buy his family's bread. 

He was exhilarated by the grandeur of emotions that had been barely recognized before she articulated them. Watching her, listening to her voice, he felt that he was discovering himself. His art was to catch walking likenesses of living people, hers to reveal their souls. 

Like him, the prophetess expressed masculine and feminine qualities in a single identity. By attaching himself to her, he felt folded in the wings of immortality; there is no goddess who would not have indulged such a handsome, adoring friend, her Adonis, beloved of every woman who saw him, but understood fully by her alone.
 The male coquet: Adonis, his face erased by time, reclining between two goddesses, Aphrodite and Persephone, competing for his love. 
Mixing vessel, attributed to the Meleager Painter, Greek, Athens, 390 - 380 B.C. Terracotta. 
Getty Musuem. Detail. Original Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Her eldest daughter had loved the artist steadfastly even after he had forsaken her for her younger sister, a pretty, heedless, preening girl of sixteen he asked to marry. Yet a kindling took place within her during this gaping wound in time, two years of "mortification, grief, agony". Under layers of suffering, she heard more clearly the music of her calling. Passion reverberated in her, enriching her voice with sweetness, her melodies with mortal yearning: “I never should have sung as I do had I never seen you; I never should have composed at all. . . You then liv'd in my heart, in my head, in every idea…”. She had turned a fallible man into her muse, and given birth to her own art.
Sarah Martha (“Sally”) Siddons by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Sir Thomas Lawrence
stipple engraving, published 1841 © National Portrait Gallery, London

A few weeks after his engagement to the younger daughter was made official, the chilling proximity to reality cleared the artist's vision. He saw that he had mistaken his feelings. He was certain that he had always loved the elder sister, broke off his engagement to the younger, and re-declared his earlier attachment. He did not declaim - she would not have believed him - and always spoke of true love in a low whisper, intensity of feeling shining in his eyes.

The eldest daughter had rehearsed this consummation of hope in her imagination for so long, that his love felt real to her, too. She pretended to herself that her sister, no longer caring for the man himself, would not feel the loss, and she gave the artist a ring made of "a TRUE LOVER’S KNOT" to bind him safely this time, convinced that she could feed him on her love alone. In the blinding light of infatuation, she, usually the temperate one of her family, grasped the pleasures of unreflected life like a forbidden fruit.

Never before had she lived on the feelings of the moment, like he did. She felt reborn. They met in secret in the breaking light of April mornings, before anyone else was up, to recite the catechisms of reconciled love under the pink and white blossom of the cherry and almond trees of Soho Square Gardens, their self-absorption anointed with the scent of lilac and honeysuckle.[3]This was a very long time ago, in 1798, when a city public garden in spring was as full of innocent hope as Eden. 

But when she got home, drunk as a bee in summer, giddy from suspending reason and conscience, she could no longer deny to herself that her sister, no longer lighthearted, was growing pale and spectre-thin.[4] Vying with the debilitation of her illness, the misery of jealousy, more lasting than the sweetness of a lover's kiss, had poisoned the younger woman. Though she was only nineteen, she began to look like an old woman.

Watching her sister die, the elder girl saw her love for the artist was tainted, there was no hope of harmonious union with her sister's ghost always between them, and she resolved never to marry him. Unable to bear her sister's pain and her own, suffocated by her emotions and asthma attacks, the Muse's daughter took to her bed, lulling the storms of her troubled mind with opium.

Her rejected lover gave her no peace, profaning the family's mourning with threats of suicide unless she revoked her decision. Suddenly denied the trophy of complete conquest his self-love demanded, he panicked. All his life, he would only feel at ease centre-stage, because that was where he stood in his imagination; anywhere else, he was afraid he would disappear; to the resentment of other painters, he always insisted that his pictures be hung in the most prominent positions at exhibitions.
The swagger self-portrait he created in his mind never included the detail that he did not want to be married to any woman at all. 

His anguish felt real to him; he mistook the cause. It was not through fear of losing her, but through fear that he was losing face, his image fading like old oil paintings into dullness. He implored the Tragic Muse to make sure her daughter would never marry anyone else. In all the confusion of his impulses and desires, and his bright shiny painted layers of consciousness, he never penetrated the darkness of other people's feelings. He wanted to feel the feel of being loved; he courted women the way he imagined he would have liked to have been; representation was the reality of love for him, far more than desire for another person; he loved with all the sincerity of a great actor, immersing himself in his role of the season. 

The daughter of tragedy recoiled from his excess of emotion. She was not callous; she felt for him, but she had been raised by her parents in the temple of dramatic art to hear the false notes of over-acting. "I fly with HORROR from such a passion" she declared, building the word into a fortress in her head, with pillars, capitals and rotundas, to suppress her guilty pleasure in the thought he might be her true love still, desire being harder to kill than truth, her tenderness for him aching in her flesh.
She turned her mind against love born of the "summer's burning heats" and lied to herself that he was dead to her. One day a few months later, she saw him by chance, walking in Kensington Gardens, decorated with another young woman leaning on his arm, and when she "met his eyes with that glance that pierces through and through one, it [was] like an electric stroke to me".

The lightning struck, and receded, the earth quaked and settled again. Resolute, she never spoke again of love and betrayal. She began to believe that the artist had never loved her for her own sake, but more for the sensation of passion, a drama of love, in which she and her sister had been no more to him than sparks of her mother's fire. She knew her mother and he still met, two magicians dazzled by each other, an ageing goddess and her acolyte, and she did not say a word of reproach. 

But the worm had entered the bud. During the next five years, while his fame as an artist and a lover spread, and queens and princes were seduced by him, and still he wore his sweet-sad smile, she started to wither away until her own muse fled - “I sing but little now to what I did once”. She had lived only to give joy to those she loved, and she had no joy left. She had reached the limits of feeling. She lived, but it was the posthumous existence of despair. She yielded to invalidism as if it was a lover. 

She never lost faith in her mother, she would always be the chief priestess of the Tragic Muse, ensuring nothing distracted the goddess, knowing that the slightest shift of wind might upset the sacred artifice of her art, causing the goddess to misjudge her timing or overreach her power to represent emotion from feeling too much, performing worst when she most ardently wished to do better than ever.[5]

Even while she was dying, consumed by the same illness that had killed her sister, she did not want her mother inconvenienced. There was never any question that the goddess- provider had to work. Hearing that her daughter was dying, the Tragic Muse rushed home, breaking her contract to perform tragedy for worshippers across the sea, but she was delayed by storms, and when she arrived, her daughter was already dead. 

Not long after, in the same year of 1803, the artist found his ideal of physical and intellectual femininity again, in an elegant and composed woman, tall and dark and willowy, a refined and independent spirit who understood his passionate nature and his art, and made no demands, a model of discretion as much as beauty. She was about the same age as the daughter of tragedy, perhaps a few years older, uninfected by family loyalties and disease, she was conveniently disenchanted with her diplomat husband, and she did not need marriage to consummate love and friendship. 

He spent twelve years painting her portrait, and it was the most emotionally tender image of a woman he ever created. The éclat of her splendid aquiline profile, gracefully bent in contemplation of Michelangelo's drawings, recalled the artlessly drooping head of the dead girl he had tried to love, looking into her own dreams, listening to her thoughts, composing her songs. If he had been a woman, this was how he would like to have been painted, and loved.

The shining culmination of the artist's love:
Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs. Jens Wolff, 1803 - 1815. 
The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.
The Tragic Muse carried on working for a few more years after her eldest daughter's death, but she had lost some of her elemental power.  The people no longer worshipped as before. They demanded to see her in the same parts, then criticized her for using “her great guns” too soon, never caring that the goddess in person really was "in paroxysms of agony".[6] Her presence had always been monumental, but she grew heavy in person; gallant officiants had to help her out of her chair. Occasionally, her appearances were more embarrassing than edifying. 

Mortality had overrun her divine gift, either her own emotions had burst the banks and flooded the character she was pretending to be, or public taste in deities was changing. If she did not retire soon, her voice would be no longer an invisible wave rolling plangently into the hearts of her audience from her shining island shrine; it would be the human voice of a large, middle-aged woman, over-made up and gesticulating on a gaudy stage.

For many believers, among them poets and painters, she remained Immortal and Incomparable. The affinity between the Tragic Muse and her daughters’ lover was unbroken, a fiery trail that could not be quenched, two comets blazing through the sky, never colliding. They would never be rivals because they professed different arts. 

Radiant in mutual admiration, they could not believe in themselves unless everyone believed in them. Even in their majesty, they craved applause like two children performing at an adults' party, relieved that they were still not found out. By the time he was an old man, the ingratiating charm of his melancholic smile was set like enamel on his face.[7]

Private passions did not burn the acclaimed actress and artist, because they transmuted them, she into speech and gesture, he into colour and shape, melding them into flaming brush strokes of red and black, showing her to the world as he saw her on stage, a goddess in a mortal setting, glowing in fire and sulphur.


 THE PROPHETESS of Romanticism
Mrs Siddons, oil on canvas by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1804 © Tate
This should have been the end, but the Tragic Muse had another daughter, only nine years old when her sister died, a child with a name like the peal of golden bells under a blue sky,  a tiny Buddha with a ferocious will [8] and eyes that glared like a torch in the night on her elders' charades and vacillations, who was designated the last companion of the heart and custodian of the shrine.

Cecilia Combe, (née Siddons) by Richard James Lane, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by Joseph Dickinson, after Sir Thomas Lawrence
lithograph, published May 1830 (1798) published May 1830 (1798)
21 1/8 in. x 14 3/8 in. (538 mm x 364 mm) paper size
Given by Austin Lane Poole, 1956 © National Portrait Gallery, London

After twenty-eight years of vocational filial service, the youngest daughter outlived her mother and her mourning to write her own last act. She was determined that it would be not be a tragic one.

She would not share the fate of her dead sisters', her memory of them based more on other people’s accounts than her own recollections, cautionary figures from myth, glimpsed in faded portraits and drawings, girls who should have been entwined in their youthful loveliness, but were sundered by bitterness, wraiths straying in the seductive heat of an artist's imagination, eternally falling into Narcissus's pool as he gazed down at his reflection, not at them. He saw the hero of dramatic tragedy, ruled by his passions; worldly observers saw an ageing male coquet.[9]

The surviving sister preferred to stay out of the killing sun[10] and live in the cooler air of reason, preferring a prosaic life to a passionate one, in readiness of its serendipities, disappointments, longueurs and absurdities. Her inheritance gave her independence, and the freedom to choose, not always congruent. She did not believe in true lover’s knots. She wanted companionship, she would not settle for less than an intellectual equal, she was self-trained to be patient and tolerant. 

At the age of thirty-nine, just when other people expected her to dwindle into an old maid, the youngest daughter of the Tragic Muse gave herself and her fortune away in marriage, not to an actor or artist or poet, but to a man who believed he could understand the minds of people from the shape of the bumps on their heads.

She was an accomplished woman, like her sisters, and esteemed by those who knew her for her wisdom, strong character and life of self-sacrifice. Still, her suitor insisted on the precaution of checking their skulls for compatible mental faculties before they committed to their union. The phrenological evidence might have convinced his bride, but, in the opinion of their acquaintances, his mind had been made up already by her proven income of £800 a year.

By this time, the songs of the eldest daughter of the Tragic Muse had been forgotten.

[1] Hazlitt, trying to convey Mrs Siddons' effect on audiences, described her as a goddess and a prophetess in two articles, The Examiner (16 June 1816) and London Magazine (January 1820).
[2] Hazlitt, The Examiner
[3] Not a myth: Soho Square Gardens had been recently improved, replanted with trees and shrubs in the early 1790s, probably under the guidance of the great botanist, Joseph Banks, and its paths altered and relaid.
[4] Keats, Ode To a Nightingale: “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies” 
[5] paraphrasing Sarah Siddons' much quoted piece of self-criticism that holds true for all actors, from her letter to Rev. Whalley, 16 July, 1781, published in The Kembles, Percy Fitzgerald, 1871: "Sorry am I to say, that I have often observed I have performed worst when I have most ardently wished to do better than ever"
[6] Melesina St George, née Chevenix, later Mrs Trench, commenting in her Journal, 1799, quoted in F.M.W. Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, 1909, p.255.
[7] Benjamin Haydon wrote in his diary, 9 January, 1830, about Sir Thomas Lawrence: "he had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile wore the appearance of being set in enamel".
[8] Fanny Kemble recorded the "very decided character" of her cousin Cecilia's face, in her memoirs, quoted Parsons, p.206
[9] Joseph Farington, minor landscape painter and gossipy diarist, described Thomas Lawrence as a "male coquet",  quoted by Richard Holmes in his essay for Thomas Lawrence Portraits exhibition guide, NPG, 2010
[10] Shelley, Adonais:
...On the withering flower
The killing sun smiles brightly: on a cheek
The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break.

Quotes from Sally Siddons’ letters are from F.M.W. Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, 1909.

Sally Siddons’ song ‘When summer’s burning heats arise’ was described by a witness
who heard her sing as “sweet and melancholy”, and in 1801, her mother’s admirer
and future biographer, Thomas Campbell, visiting the Siddons family at home, 
compared the palpable sincerity of her compositions to Haydn’s collections of folk
songs: “Miss Siddons . . . sings with incomparable sweetness melodies of her own
composition. Except our own Scotch airs, and some of Haydn's, I have heard none
more affecting or simple." Parsons,pp 195-6
Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), regarded by contemporaries, including Byron and Hazlitt,
as the greatest actor of her generation, had three daughters who survived infancy: 
Sarah Martha (“Sally”) Siddons (1775-1803)
Maria Siddons (1779-1798)
who, according to surviving letters and Kemble family tradition, were both in love with Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). Their father, William Siddons (1744 -1808), opposed Lawrence’s engagement to his younger daughter until broken down by her and his wife’s pleas.
Cecilia Siddons (1794 -1868) married (in 1833) George Combe (1788-1858) lawyer and phrenologist, author of The Constitution of Man (1828).

The epithet “The Tragic Muse” was first attached to Sarah Siddons by Joshua Reynolds, in his 1784 portrait of the rising actress. Thirty two years later, at the time of her formal retirement, William Hazlitt wrote of Sarah Siddons that “passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was tragedy personified”, and referred to her as a goddess in his article published in The Examiner, June 16, 1816. He described the effect of her acting on her audience as “startling its inmost thoughts” and “rousing deep and scarce-known feelings from their slumber.”