The First Actress by C W Gortner

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I was amused to read C W Gortner’s comment in the afterword about how he became interested in Sarah Bernhardt, the subject of this book, when he was being a melodramatic little boy and his grandma would say that he was “doing a Bernhardt”.  When I was being a melodramatic little girl, my grandad would say that I was “a Sarah Bernhardt”.  I used to think that it was just a quirky saying of his, but Gortner says that it was a comment made by a lot of parents and grandparents at one time.

Gortner is obviously a huge fan, and waxes lyrical about how Sarah can be credited with creating modern, natural acting, as opposed to the more overblown acting seen in earlier times.  I’m not quite sure how that fits with the idea of her as being melodramatic, but I’m not an expert in theatre so I’m not going to worry about that too much!

The book’s written in the first person, and it’s quite short: it doesn’t cover all of Sarah’s life, and omits some fairly important parts of it, notably her marriage and her strong support for Alfred Dreyfus.  But it does give you a very good sense of the person, and what a fascinating life she led.

She was the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan living in Paris.  No-one’s entirely sure whom either her father was or who the father of her own illegitimate son was, but Gortner’s taken a view on both.  We see her difficult childhood and the start of her theatrical career – and how it was disrupted by her slapping a well-known but very irritating senior actress, which Gortner repeatedly refers to as “The Slap” … which kept making me think of Darrell Rivers slapping Gwendoline Mary Lacey, but never mind.

There’s quite a bit about the plays, but most of the book’s about her personal life – her family, and her friendships with a wide range of people including the Prince of Wales, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.  There’s quite a bit about her lovers, too, but not as much as you might expect.

I think Gortner was quite keen to focus on aspects of her life with which he identifies – her Jewish background, her love of animals, and the possibility that she might have had a same sex relationship – but I think he just generally finds her very interesting and very admirable.  The book doesn’t go as far as her work during the Great War, but we do see her work during the Franco-Prussian War, which is obviously something completely different to her acting career: she was certainly an unusual woman.

As I said, the book’s quite short, and there’s certainly enough material about her to have filled a much longer book, but what there is makes for very entertaining reading, and I really enjoyed it.

Paris in Ruins by M K Tun

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Hopefully there will be triumph and definitely no ruin in Paris during the French Open, but it was a different story 150 years ago.  The Paris Commune, currently in the French news as the anniversary is marked – it collapsed on 28th May 1871 – has been rather romanticised over the years.  It’s even got an ’80s group named after it, which is rather confusing because my brain kept going “Baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you” whilst I was reading about shootings and arson, which was completely inappropriate 🙂 .  However, this novel, unusually, goes for the view taken by most of the international press at the time, i.e. that it was mainly about violence and anarchy, which is interesting.

We see the events of the Prussian siege of Paris and then the Paris Commune through the eyes of two young women from well-to-do families, who both become involved in war work.  The unfortunately-named Camille Noisette becomes a nurse at a hospital set up (and this hospital did really exist) at the Paris Odeon by the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and her brother’s fiancee Mariele de Crecy looks after young children at a creche set up by another of Camille’s brothers, a priest.  Other members of both families become caught up in events in various different ways, and not all of them survive.

The main message of the book is that atrocities were committed by all sides, that both the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune happened largely because of the egos of powerful men, and that it was innocent civilians who suffered as a result.  And poor Paris, which suffered terrible damage from bombing and arson. The Commune does still sharply divide opinion, but I was surprised that the book was quite so strongly against it.  It’s a bit wooden in parts, and some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well, but it’s very well-researched and historically accurate, and a good read.

It starts with Camille being a bit of a rebel, and sneaking off to bars with her friend Andre (who she eventually marries).  I think most readers will assume that she’s secretly involved with the radicals, but, in fact, she’s working undercover and spying on them – especially on Louise Michel, one of the most famous figures of the Commune.  Like many other Communards, Michel was deported to New Caledonia.     But the spying story falls by the wayside, as Camille goes to work at the hospital.

I was a rather melodramatic little girl – you’d never have guessed that, would you 😁? – and, when I was really overdoing it, my grandad always used to say that I was being like Sarah Bernhardt.  At the time, I assumed she must have been a famous film star from the inter-war years, so I was rather bemused when I found out that she was a French stage actress whose heyday was long before Grandad was even born.  I know she did play in Northern England, more than once, so I’ve wondered if an older relative or friend – maybe my great-great-grandma, who seems to have been quite into theatricals – saw her on stage and raved about her, and that was why he had this bee in his bonnet about her, but I’ll never know now 😢,  But, because of that, I was quite interested to see her appear in this book, and to learn about the important humanitarian work she did at a very difficult time in Parisian history.

Meanwhile, Mariele and her mother attempt to escape and are captured by Prussian soldiers, in a slightly OTT bit of the book, but they make it safely back to Paris, and we see shy Mariele grow in confidence as she insists on helping out with the children.  There’s definitely a sense that both girls are rebelling against what’s expected of young ladies, but the narrative is vehemently opposed to the more radical approach taken by the Communards.  The emphasis is all on the taking of hostages, the attacks on the Church and the imprisonment of people for very little reason, and not much is said about more positive actions such as attempts to help the poor.

Certainly, the romanticisation of the Communards, like the romanticisation of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is inappropriate, but I thought the book was a bit too biased against them and could have tried to give a more balanced view.   But point taken about unnecessary wars and unnecessary violence, and the same can be said about the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Dano-Prussian War.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but, as I said, it was well-researched and accurate, and really got me thinking.  Not bad at all.