Saturday, 22 November 2014

Out of the killing sun


 Adam Buck, Two Sisters, print, 1796. London.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sense and sensibility, reason and passion, love and illusion, neoclassicism and romanticism dancing on the eve of cataclysm.
During the years 1795 to 1797, while the two elder Siddons sisters were engaged in their own danse macabre with Thomas Lawrence, Jane Austen wrote her first draft of the novel that was eventually published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.

It should have been the end, the two beautiful girls consumed by passion and disease, but the Tragic Muse had another daughter, only nine years old when her eldest sister died, a child with a name like the peal of golden bells under a blue sky, a tiny Buddha with a ferocious will [1] and eyes that glared like a torch in the night on the charades and vacillations of grown ups. 

After Sir Thomas Lawrence, Cecilia Combe, (née Siddons), 1798. Lithograph by Richard James Lane, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by Joseph Dickinson,
May 1830. © National Portrait Gallery, London. She glares out of the picture
with fanatical fervour, lowering her brows like her mother did in dramatic parts.

Her resemblance to the second of her elder sisters was so close in "all the dazzling, frightful sort of beauty that irradiated the countenance of Maria" [2] that she made the Tragic Muse shudder.

She was designated the last companion of the goddess, the comfort of her melancholy age, and custodian of her shrine. For twenty-eight years the purpose of her existence was to serve her mother, who stared back at her with vacant eyes, in "apparent deadness and indifference to everything". [3]

But the youngest daughter had a flame inside her that would not be quenched.  She had a gift denied her sisters. She did not breathe the same fatal air as they had done. She outlived her mother to write her own last act. She was determined that it would be not be a tragic one.

Her sisters' ghosts haunted her girlhood, her memory of them based more on other people’s accounts than her own recollections; they were 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 their mother's and an artist's imaginations, to fall and drown in the pool of Narcissus.

In 1798, the two elder daughters of the Tragic Muse had pursued love to give them individual identity in a revolutionary world that seemed to offer a new dawn to men and women. They had hoped, like the two young step-sisters who wnent on an adventure of free love with Shelley and Byron in the lakes and mountains of Europe sixteen years later, to find "an immortality of passion."[4]

 Mary Godwin Shelley, in a posthumous miniature by Reginald Easton, 1857, wearing a token of blue and yellow pansies in remembrance of Shelley. Bodleian Library.
Image source: Wikipedia

Claire outlived them all to write in bitterness that the free love practised by Shelley and Byron was an "evil passion"; she felt "what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and balm of life, into a destroying scourge". [5]

Claire in retrospect saw herself as a victim, but at the time she and Mary were willing participants, seeking self-determination, inspired by libertarian philosophy and the writings of Mary's mother, Wollstonecraft, calling for the rights of women. The death of her infant daughter Allegra, neglected by Byron in whose care she had been entrusted, exploded Claire's illusions. Like the French Revolution, Romanticism failed to give women equality and liberty.

The Romantic impulse, its heroic poses and talk of liberty were pernicious if they were not accompanied by practical reforms and consideration for other people’s feelings. Too often, these were treated as jarring details, like the stripes of Wellington’s military sash that Lawrence excluded from his portrait of the victorious general because they spoilt the aesthetic. [6] The seductive melancholy that Lawrence cast over all his male society sitters, making politicians look like poets, and actors like heroes, idealized self-preoccupation, and commodified the tormenting mood disorders that he suffered so acutely himself.

The surviving daughter of The Tragic Muse preferred to stay out of "the killing sun" [6] and live in the cooler air of reason. She was determined not to be a casualty of Romantic egotism.
She reflected that the imaginative arts had failed to sufficiently console her family for their sorrows. Rather than rely on personal interpretation and intuition, she sought a scientific explanation for the vagaries of human nature.

She had trained herself to greet life's opportunities, disappointments and absurdities with equanimity. She did not believe in true lover’s knots or broken hearts. 

She was so used to living for another person that she lost her purpose when her mother died. Her inheritance gave her financial independence, and the freedom to follow her vocation. She wanted the companionship of an intellectual equal, at the very least, someone with whose ideas she could identify, someone with a mission she could help spread with the fervour of a convert. When Cecilia loved a person she loved a cause.

At the age of thirty-nine, when other people expected her to dwindle into an old maid, sustained only by her devotion to her mother's memory, 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 an individual's personality from the shape of the bumps on their head.

Phrenological head, G.A. Combe, 1824. Illustration from Combe's Elements of Phrenology. © Wellcome Collection. Image source: Wikimedia

Cecilia was esteemed by those who knew her for her wisdom, strong character and life of self-sacrifice. Still, her suitor took the precaution of checking their skulls for compatible mental faculties before they committed themselves. The phrenological evidence in favour of their union might have impressed his bride, but, in the opinion of their acquaintances, his mind had been made up by her income of £800 a year.

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

Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of a Lady, c.1800. Oil on canvas © The Wallace Collection.
The identification of the sitter as Sally Siddons is disputed. 

 “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…” (Sally Siddons)

1 Fanny Kemble recorded the "very decided character" of her cousin Cecilia's face, in her memoirs, quoted Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons p.206
2 Letter from Sarah Siddons, quoted Parsons p. 206
3 Fanny Kemble, Memoirs, quoted in Sarah Siddons entry of Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
4 Quotes are from Claire Clairmont’s memoir, discovered and quoted by Daisy Hay, Young Romantics, Bloomsbury, 2010) recalling her and Mary Godwin Shelley's experiences in free love with Shelley and Byron.
5 ibid
6 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.

7 Jacob Simon, NPG research programmes

Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), of the Kemble acting dynasty, was regarded by contemporaries, including Byron and Hazlitt, as the greatest actor of her generation. No-one else commanded such a wide and diverse fan base. Her emotional range and power was persuasive enough to move George III to tears and even touch the Iron Duke of Wellington, as famous for ironic understatement as she was for grand pathos.

In private, she was principled, reserved, inclined to oversee herself as if she was still on-stage giving a dramatic performance.
The epithet “The Tragic Muse” was attached to Sarah Siddons for posterity by Joshua Reynolds, in his 1784 portrait of the rising actress (Huntington Art Collections, San Marino). 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.”

She outlived five of her seven children, and compared herself to Niobe. She had three daughters who survived infancy: 

Sarah Martha (“Sally”) Siddons (1775-1803)
Maria Siddons (1779-1798)
Cecilia Siddons (1794 -1868) married (in 1833) George Combe (1788-1858) lawyer and phrenologist, author of The Constitution of Man (1828).

According to surviving letters and Kemble family tradition the two elder daughters were both in love with:
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the most successful society portrait painter of his time. He was self-taught and self-made. Outwardly urbane, Lawrence was subject to depressive episodes. He suffered insecurities about his status from childhood, when he was forced to financially support his feckless parents by sketching passers-by at an inn, and later as a child-artist in Bath, and the sexual ambivalence that his dependence on patronage and social acceptance prevented him from openly expressing. 

He first met and painted Mrs Siddons when she was on tour in Bath in 1777. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Famous among contemporaries as a high society flirt, he had emotionally intense relationships with several women, and never married. The closest female companions of his later years were Elizabeth Croft and Isabella Wolff, born Hutchinson.

At the time she first met Lawrence, when he was commissioned to paint her portrait in 1803, Isabella Anne Hutchinson (1771? -1829) was unhappily married to the Danish diplomat and art collector Jens Wolff from whom she later separated in 1810. 

Sally and Maria's father, William Siddons (1744 -1808), a far less successful actor and respected personality than his wife, from whom he separated after Sally's death, opposed Lawrence’s engagement to his younger daughter until she and Mrs Siddons wore him down with their passionate pleas. For once, at least, "Sid" had been right.

Claire Clairmont (1798 - 1879) accompanied her step-sister Mary Godwin Shelley (1797 - 1851) and Shelley on their elopement in 1814. There is no proof that she had a sexual relationship with Shelley, but her always emotionally competitive relationship with her step-sister was soured. Aged 16 she started an affair with Byron, by whom she had a daughter, Allegra (1817 -22).

Mary Shelley's father, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin (1756 - 1836) had befriended the young Thomas Lawrence, and took a fatherly interest in his welfare during his emotional embroilment with the Siddons sisters, warning him at the time of the switch from the elder to the younger, of the dangers of giving in to "discontent and melancholy." (Letter from Godwin, 20 February, 1796, quoted in Sir Thomas Lawrence's Letter-bag, ed. G.S. Layard, 1906)