The First Actress by C.W. Gortner
Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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Born the illegitimate daughter of a French courtesan, Sarah Bernhardt didn’t even live with her mother until she was eight years old. When she did move in with her, Sarah caught the eye of one of her mother’s patrons and was shipped off to convent boarding school. Not for her safety, but because her mother didn’t want the competition. When she returned to Paris at 15 her mother gave her two choices: become a courtesan and hope to find a wealthy man to support her or marry a stranger and live a respectable life far from Paris. Sarah thumbed her nose at both and left to study acting—a choice only slightly more acceptable than courtesan, but significantly less profitable. Unless you were the Sarah Bernhardt, who went on to become one of theater’s best known actresses. C.W. Gortner traces her life through its most tumultuous years in his novel The First Actress.
As inappropriate as her mother’s patron was in leering at a little girl, he turned out to be a man of great influence, which he exerted to not only get Sarah accepted at the finest acting school in Paris, the Conservatoire, but to get her hired at the Comèdie-Française as well. Not that she wasn’t talented, but as it is even today, connections matter. Sadly, she was not a woman who was going to fit in well anywhere and in her first appearance with the troupe she insulted one of the lead senior actresses and was immediately fired. From this point on, her talent and obsession were all she had. Both would lead her to the pinnacle of worldwide success in the theater, but not without a great deal of sacrifice. Along the way, she met and worked with some of France’s most famous writers, including Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.
There is much to recommend The First Actress, especially right now. Bernhardt’s achievements were unparalleled for the time, but she was also as outrageous as any modern-day reality star. She had a menagerie of pets, including a cheetah that she let roam in her urban backyard, she had a coffin in her salon where she reclined and even slept, she got pregnant from a lover and kept the child (not farming it out to be raised as her own mother did to her). Frivolity aside, she was also tireless in fighting for the people and causes important to her. She was in Paris at the time of its siege by the Prussians in 1870 and rather than run away to a spa on the coast as so many others did, she turned the Odeon theater into a hospital, nursing the wounded herself.
For as much as I was intrigued and entertained by Bernhardt’s life I was also fascinated by the entire French system of acting. Apparently, the French are very fond of regimentation. There is the brigade system for restaurant chefs, the tiers of wine quality designations, and the rigid classifications in the workrooms of French couturiers. It was the same for acting. Bernhardt had no patience for being a ‘junior’ anything and flouted the system repeatedly.
I’m not going to claim The First Actress is a scholarly work of depth about Sarah Bernhardt. Rather, much like the actress herself, it is a dramatic rendition of the choicest bits of her life, carefully strung together in a way to maximize impact. Still, at a time when I’m picking up and discarding novels left and right, I thoroughly enjoyed The First Actress and recommend it is a good introduction to one of the great stage actresses of all time.
Backlist Beauty: White Truffles in Winter is a fabulous novel that combines the father of French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, the war of 1870, and Sarah Bernhardt. Delicious reading!
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