Friday, 14 November 2014

Romantic fictions and casualties


 Silence by Fuseli, 1799-1801
Oil on canvas, Kunsthaus, Zurich. Image source: WGA

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, an ageing goddess and her acolyte, and she did not say a word of reproach to either of them.

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.
Every asthma attack was like a drowning, in which to die would be easier than the struggle for breath. 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.[1]

Her breath got shorter and shorter. Even when she knew she was dying, the eldest daughter did not want to cause her mother trouble. There was never any question that the goddess must continue working while her daughter was ill, often travelling far away, giving spiritual sustenance to her worshippers on other islands to pay for medicine, food, clothing and lodgings for her family.  All her life the girl had suffered in her mother's absence which created a vacancy in her heart that nothing else could fill [2] but she and her father, a mere mortal player, not a god, who relied on his wife's earnings to maintain their household, kept the worst news to themselves.

Drawing of Sarah Siddons, artist and date unknown  © Victoria and Albert Museum 

At last there came a day when an attendant dared tell the Tragic Muse that her daughter was dying. "Will you believe I must play tonight!" [3] exclaimed the distraught mother. She had always known that she was not immortal, as people wanted her to be, but rather an heroic victim of her own powers of arousing emotion. She broke her contract so she could rush home, but her journey across the sea was delayed by great storms, which neither her dramatic arts nor maternal appeals could appease, and when she arrived, her lovely child, her sweet Sally, was already dead.

Claude-Joseph Vernet, Nocturnal Seastorm 1752
Oil on canvas. Private collection. Image source WGA

[1] 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"[2] Paraphrasing Letter from Sally Siddons to Miss Bird, 15 September, 1798, quoted by F.M.W. Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, 1909, p.199.
[3] Paraphrasing Letter from Mrs Siddons to Mrs Fitzhugh, quoted by Parsons, p.204