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The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt


The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt

With his signature attention to detail and penchant for writing strong female characters, C. W. Gortner returns with THE FIRST ACTRESS, the story of the inimitable Sarah Bernhardt, the world’s first modern actress and international celebrity.

Beginning with her lonely childhood, the novel is made up of six separate “acts,” each discernible by a major shift in Sarah’s life. The unwanted child of a beautiful, but cold, high-class courtesan, Sarah grew up in the farmlands of Brittany, France, under the watchful, if not exactly loving, eyes of Nana Hubert, a farm woman hired by Sarah’s mother to raise her. When we meet Sarah, she is only eight years old and likely can count the number of meetings she has had with her mother on one hand. But her mother has finally come to collect her, pulling her from all she holds dear, and raise her in Paris.

There, Sarah meets her Aunt Rosine, and though she still suffers her mother’s cruel jabs and unconventional lifestyle, she finds some semblance of comfort, especially when Rosine takes her on day trips to explore Paris with all its sights and sounds. But of course, her happiness cannot last, and she soon finds herself unceremoniously en route to a convent boarding school after inciting the ire of one of her mother’s wealthier “clients.” Having been neglected for so long, Sarah finds her first inklings of home in the convent, falling easily into the routines and studies and discovering, perhaps for the first time in her life, a calling: God. Being Jewish, her mother cannot accept this and makes plans to pull her from the convent for what she deems an even greater calling: marrying a wealthy man who will keep the family comfortable.

"Gortner’s account of Sarah Bernhardt’s life is deeply intimate and immersive, his characters richly written and wholly realized."

Desperate to avoid the same career choices and failings as her mother, Sarah finds an escape in the theater. Although naturally talented and uniquely beautiful, she has a rough start for a woman who would come to be known as the first actress. She has a bold, unconventional approach to acting that frustrates and enrages her professors and earns her classmates’ respect as well as their jealousy. Against all odds, she is hired by the famed Comédie-Française, but still cannot find her niche. She is too skinny, too Jewish and, above all, too resistant to the accepted methods of acting. On one terrible night she effectively ends her own career by fighting with a senior actress, and finds herself once again held to her mother’s vicious standards and wishes. With little else to grasp onto, she tries her hand at becoming a courtesan, quickly catching the eye of a wealthy and sensual man --- though he, too, is not all that he appears to be.

Ever the innovator, Sarah manages to make a life for herself despite everything against her: her mother’s hatred, her social class, an unwanted pregnancy, and even her own attitude. But all her determination and creativity can do nothing to protect her when the Siege of Paris occurs, and she finds her life ripped open and torn apart. Though acting can no longer save her, Sarah again turns inward and finds an ability to survive, no matter what, and begins nursing wounded soldiers. As she does, she matures in a way that focuses her stubbornness, amplifies her creativity and allows her to finally stop standing in her own way. Finally, she is able to access her talent for acting and starts taking the steps to becoming the world’s first modern actress. But don’t worry, there are plenty more stops and starts --- and lots of leading lady attitude --- along the way.

C. W. Gortner is a favorite author of mine when it comes to historical fiction. Without making his writing feel detail-heavy or overly absorbed in the history, he is able to completely immerse his readers in the worlds that his characters inhabit. Early on in THE FIRST ACTRESS, Sarah strikes up a casual friendship with Alexandre Dumas, and though he has already penned THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, Gortner portrays him not as someone who will be remembered as a famous author, but rather as a man of scintillating wit, endless kindness and an innate humanness that makes him leap off the page. Similarly, George Sand is not just a famous writer, but an “intolerable woman in pants” who distracts attendees of the opera with her forward-thinking wardrobe. Though Gortner is comfortable enough with the time period to toss in several well-known names and locations, it never feels like he is name-dropping; instead, it seems as if he is recounting a night he had just last week in Paris. He is that skilled in immersion, detail and characterization.

However, there is not very much in the plot about Sarah’s career in acting or her love for it. Just as in her life, it appears that Gortner sometimes struggles to find her place on the page. She was, by all accounts, a difficult woman, and though he is unflinching in his portrayal of her stubbornness and hard-headedness, I found the plot veering from its original intention at times. Rather than highlighting her path to stardom, Gortner focuses instead on her actual day-to-day life, showing us much more of the woman she was rather than the woman she is now remembered for being. In my eyes, THE FIRST ACTRESS is a much more interesting novel for it, but I can see how other readers might be put off by the contradiction between the plot and the title.

Still, I think even those looking for a biography of the actress rather than a biography of the woman will find themselves absolutely swept away by this lady and her tumultuous existence. Gortner’s account of Sarah Bernhardt’s life is deeply intimate and immersive, his characters richly written and wholly realized. Although this may not be his most historically educational novel, I do believe it is one of his most enjoyable.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 29, 2020

The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt
by C. W. Gortner