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With true love showers

  • 10 May 2006

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