With true love showers

Ophelia’s Fan is the second novel by the young, prize-winning Australian author Christine Balint. In it, she explores the life of Harriet Smithson, the Shakespearean actress and wife of the romantic composer Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was inspired to write his most famous symphony, the Symphonie Fantastique after seeing Smithson performing the roles of Ophelia and Juliet on stage at the Theatre Odeon in Paris.

Beautifully written, Balint’s novel has captured well the life of the Irish actress Harriet Smithson and in particular gives the reader a vivid sense of what it must have been like to be a woman of the stage in 19th-century England and France. We see the whole precarious nature of the theatre, its fickleness and cruelty, and how rapidly the fortunes of the actors can rise and then fall. As working women, female actors were associated in the public mind as being almost dangerous and akin to prostitutes. Men often treated them as such, and Harriet Smithson had to fight hard to preserve her ‘honour’. She must deal with a series of suitors, who want her not for a wife but as a mistress.

The choice of a non-linear narrative style, has allowed Balint to move seamlessly in and out of Harriet’s life as a child and as an adult. We see her growing up in the green sodden landscape of County Clare and enter into her dream life as a solitary and creative child who was born already play-acting Shakespearean
drama. We see her as a young woman who is forced to work in order to support her family and we follow her through the drudgery of line learning and performance—night after night after night. Her own life-story is interspersed with the stories of those women whose lives she performed: Ophelia, Juliet, Desdemona. Juliet comes to life when she speaks, ‘When I look back upon this night I like to pause here, for this was the last hour of my contentment. My life was a straight line, the past still visible and the future an unwavering road into the distance, uncluttered, uncomplicated and whole …’. The past and the present merge and what is dream, reality, fact or fiction in Harriet Smithson’s difficult life becomes hard to discern.

Balint’s lyrical and sensitive prose also awakens us to the near hysteria of the burgeoning Romantic movement in 19th-century Paris. As an artistic community, the Romantics were not known for their restraint. The French Romantics—Berlioz, Victor Hugo, the artist Delacroix—could certainly not be described as tame. In direct reaction to the cool-headedness and clarity of the Enlightenment, these men went all out to live passionate lives that reflected their art. It was the time of the birth of Artist as Hero. It was almost a requirement for a ‘real’ artist to be seen falling in love, fighting duels, having affairs, climbing mountains and poisoning rival suitors. Without such experiences, it was believed that the creative spark could not really exist. The artistic dictum was: ‘not Rule but direct Reaction to Feeling’.

As one of the leaders of the movement, Hector Berlioz appears to have embodied the whole Romantic sentiment. Berlioz’s life and his art merge into one vast obsession after seeing Harriet Smithson perform her Juliet and Ophelia. Balint describes well the way in which Berlioz mistakes Harriet Smithson for Ophelia. Ophelia, who trails in and out of scenes with straw through her dishevelled hair and whose voice can be heard faintly singing: ‘larded with sweet flowers;/ Which beswept to the grave did go/With true-love showers’. Berlioz falls in love not with the woman but instead with the mad, frail and above all tragic figures that she portrays on stage.


The role of beautiful women as muse for the male artist is not a particularly appealing one. Berlioz wears down Harriet Smithson’s lack of interest in him by sheer force of will and attentiveness. Yet he very quickly loses interest in her once she has finally agreed to marry him. A muse must remain unattainable. Once attained  she can be discarded like one of Ophelia’s dead flowers.

Berlioz went on to marry several times over.

In this novel, Christine Balint has skilfully recreated the life and voice of Smithson, who was lauded as one of the most accomplished Shakespearean actresses of her time. With a high degree of historical accuracy, Balint has coloured in the background to Smithson’s life and exposed the poverty and degradation that lay beneath the Romantic façade. Harriet Smithson may have been the muse who inspired Berlioz’s most celebrated symphony but she herself dies in obscurity and misery. She goes the way of many women who have been courted and captured by artistic genius.        
 
Kirsty Sangster is a poet. Her book Midden Places will be published this year by Black Pepper press.

Ophelia’s Fan: A story about dreams, Shakespeare and love, Christine Balint. Allen & Unwin, 2004.
 isbn 1 741 14444 2, rrp $22.95 Allen & Unwin, 2004. isbn 1 741 14382 9, rrp $24.95

 

 

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