Sometimes, there’s just nothing like a good biography—just as focus on one character can make a novel go smoothly, spending an entire book with a historical figure is just as rewarding. Today, we’re looking at two women who were roughly contemporary with each other (they were alive at the same time; that counts, right?)—Queen Victoria herself and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
Written in 1921, Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria revolutionized the art of biography by using elements of romantic fiction and melodrama to create a warm, humorous, and very human portrait of an iconic figure. We see Victoria as a strong–willed child with a famous temper, as the eighteen–year–old girl–Queen, as a monarch, wife, mother, and widow. Equally fascinating are the depictions of her relationships: with her governess “precious Lehzen,” with Peel, Gladstone, and Disraeli, with her beloved Albert, and, in later life, her legendary devotion to her Highland servant John Brown, all of which illuminate an altogether different side to Victoria’s staid, pious image.
This is the first time I’ve featured a biography that’s, apparently, a classic in its own right; Strachey himself is the subject of a biography, as his biography Eminent Victorians, was a wild success and revolutionized biographies. I’m fairly sure this is one of the Nancy Pearl recommendations, based on how I didn’t write down the recommender (as it was transferred from a paper copy), and I’m very heartened to discover it’s out of copyright in the United States, giving me a free copy to read on my computer. Yay!
Like a lot of older books, it’s difficult to find book blogger reviews of Queen Victoria. It tends to rate four stars on Amazon—the six reviews note that it can be a little dry, but that’s to be expected of the time period. Lyn at I Prefer Reading enjoyed it, if you must have a book blogger review.
Queen Victoria was published in 1921.
Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb
Everything about Sarah Bernhardt is fascinating, from her obscure birth to her glorious career—redefining the very nature of her art—to her amazing (and highly public) romantic life to her indomitable spirit. Well into her seventies, after the amputation of her leg, she was performing under bombardment for soldiers during World War I, as well as crisscrossing America on her ninth American tour.
Her family was also a source of curiosity: the mother she adored and who scorned her; her two half-sisters, who died young after lives of dissipation; and most of all, her son, Maurice, whom she worshiped and raised as an aristocrat, in the style appropriate to his presumed father, the Belgian Prince de Ligne. Only once did they quarrel—over the Dreyfus Affair. Maurice was a right-wing snob; Sarah, always proud of her Jewish heritage, was a passionate Dreyfusard and Zolaist.
Though the Bernhardt literature is vast, Gottlieb’s Sarah is the first English-language biography to appear in decades. Brilliantly, it tracks the trajectory through which an illegitimate—and scandalous—daughter of a courtesan transformed herself into the most famous actress who ever lived, and into a national icon, a symbol of France.
What I know of Sarah Bernhardt comes through in bits and pieces; I’ve seen photos of her in costume for Hamlet in books like Vested Interests, and I’ve encountered one of her sculptures—I want to say here in Atlanta but it may have been elsewhere; I’ve no geographic memory at all. While she’s always struck me as an interesting woman, I’ve never really known much about her, which is, of course, the perfect reason to pick up a biography about her.
Possibly because of either its newness or academic slant—Sarah is part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series—I haven’t come across any book blogger reviews for this biography. Emma Brockes, writing for The New York Times Book Review, found it admirable, although her review rehashes Bernhardt’s life instead of examining the book as thoroughly as a review ought. Olivia Luang, writing for The Observer, found it to be fast-paced and wonderful, especially how Gottlieb dissects several of Bernhardt’s mostly fictional anecdotes to find the thin spine of reality of them.
Sarah was published on September 21, 2010.