“I have no chance of seeing Mrs. Siddons. – She did act on Monday, but Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would, the places, & all thought of it, were given up. I should have particularly liked to see her in Constance, & could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me. Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 25 April 1811, London, The Letters of Jane Austen
Jane Austen took every opportunity to enjoy the London theatre scene when she stayed in town with her brother Henry Austen. In 1811, she was looking forward to seeing the great tragedienne actress of the day, Mrs. Siddons, who was currently playing Constance in King John at Covent Garden. Imagine her excitement at the prospect of seeing the icon of British theatre who was nearing the end of her long and infamous career. When their best laid plans were spoiled by a misinformed Boxkeeper, (an attendant at the theatre who was responsible for managing the box seats), I pity poor Henry the arduous task of breaking the bad news to his sister. Their disappointment must have been doubled when they later learned that Mrs. Siddons had performed, but in another production! No wonder Jane Austen wants to swear at her!
Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) and Jane Austen (1775-1817) share three coincidences together; 1.) They both resided in Bath and Southampton, but not at the same time; – Mrs. Siddons lived in Bath early in her career and in Southampton after her retirement in 1812. 2.) They also shared an affinity for Shakespeare; – Siddons by her portrayals of his tragic heroines such as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Desdemona in Othello, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Ophelia in Hamlet, and Austen by reading and studying of his works, and referencing them in her novels. 3.) They are both considered by critics and the public to be early icons of their genre; Mrs. Siddons as the first modern ‘star’, and Miss Austen as the first modern novelist.
Siddons’ meteoric fame resulted in a demand for her portraits by the prominent painters of the day, including Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. I have had the great good fortune to see Mr. Reynolds’ interpretation of her as the character Melpomene, in the portrait entitled Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784) many times. It resides at my favorite place in the world (so far) The Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California. The painting is huge, and takes up the prominent position alone on the far wall of the long gallery, a room filled with some of the most incredible Regency era paintings outside of Britain. In 1999, the painting herself became a muse, inspiring an 1999 exhibition and book published by the Getty Museum, A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists (Robyn Asleson, ed)
Sarah Kemble Siddons has been considered the first ‘modern’ star; strikingly beautiful with large expressive eyes, deeply talented and a clever publicist of her accomplishments and acclaim. She was famous just being famous and people flocked to her performances, stalked her about town and invaded her home. Sound familiar Brittany? When she died in 1831, 5000 mourners attended her funeral. She is buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery at Paddington Green (central London), and in 1897 a marble statue was commissioned portraying her in the ‘Tragic Muse’ pose and erected near the cemetery.
Even though Jane Austen missed her opportunity to see Mrs. Siddons, if fair weather and fine roads are at hand, you can visit her as the ‘Tragic Muse’ in the newly renovated main gallery at the Huntington Library and Gardens when it reopens on the 28th of May, 2008. Janeites will be lined up for blocks to see all of the ‘improvements’ to one of the most beautiful Georgian residences this side of the pond. Oh, and if you are so inclined, you can see other Regency masterpieces such as the Blue Boy and Pinkie, and Mr. Romney’s coyish portrait of Emma Hart, (later Lady Emma Hamilton) the renown mistress of Lord Nelson, which is my avitar image!
Trivia tidbit. For fans of the classic movie All About Eve, Sarah Siddons is a key figure in the opening scene of the movie. Writer, director and producer Joseph Mankiewicz was also inspired by the ‘Tragic Muse’ portrait. You can read more about it here.