I’m back from the London fairs with forty books and a sunburn, and will be at my desk for the next month, cataloguing and regaining my pallor.
On that desk, at my right hand, is my new favorite book: a handsome 1809 edition of Elegant Extracts: or, Useful and Entertaining Pieces of Poetry, edited by Vicesimus Knox, who produced a series of popular literary anthologies in the late eighteenth century. It’s a lively, eclectic collection of English poetry — but that’s not why I love it.
This copy of Elegant Extracts is warmly inscribed by Sarah Siddons, née Kemble (1755-1831), the greatest tragic actress of the English stage, to her niece Frances Crawford Kemble: “My dear Fanny / Accept from my hand this just tribute to your taste and judgment — but pray let it not be necessary to remind you sometimes of / Your affectionate Aunt / Sarah Siddons! / Dec’r 26 1819.”
“The Siddons” dominated the London stage for thirty years, captivating the crowds and counting Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, and Edward Gibbon among her admirers. William Hazlitt wrote of her: “Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was Tragedy personified. She was the stateliest ornament of the public mind.” Tall and regal, capable of projecting great anguish and strength at once, Siddons owned the English tragic repertoire as no single actress ever had.
Joseph Roach writes at length about the cult of Siddons in It (2007), his terrific study of “abnormally interesting people”: “she was recommended to tourists as one of the obligatory sights of London, like the Abbey or the Tower Lions. On days when she acted at Drury Lane, crushes occurred at the box office hours before it opened. When she toured the provincial cities, London pickpockets followed her to work the large (and presumably less street-wise) crowds that they knew she would draw there. When she played opposite John Wesley’s sermons, she decimated his attendance. She sat for every major artist of the age.” Joshua Reynolds, who painted Siddons in character as the Tragic Muse, signed his name at the base of her dress: “I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment.”
Charles Lamb testified to her uncanny power when he remarked, with mixed feelings: “We speak of Lady Macbeth, while in reality we are thinking of Mrs. S.” Her defining role was captured in the Wedgwood chess set, designed by John Flaxman, which used Siddons as Lady Macbeth as the model for the Queen. The set is still produced by hand, and you can add your name to the waiting list on the Wedgwood website; the price today is $32,000.
Her talented niece Frances Crawford Kemble, the book’s recipient, had also been a stage actress before marrying Robert Arkwright, whose Sutton Scarsdale bookplate appears on the pastedown.
Frances would go on to make a name for herself as a composer of songs, and was painted in the role of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. (Her younger cousin, Frances Anne Kemble, daughter of Charles Kemble, would succeed their aunt as the most celebrated Shakespearean actress of her day.) Siddons inscribed this copy of Elegant Extracts in 1819, some years into her retirement from the stage. Even then, Hazlitt remarked, her occasional appearance at the theater as a patron stole the show from the actors: “in herself she is as great as any being she ever represented.”
Elegant Extracts includes a hundred pages drawn from Shakespeare’s plays, including speeches that Sarah Siddons had made her own on the London stage: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty!” On that note, I leave you with the sharpest twentieth-century tribute to Sarah Siddons, the tragic muse’s fall into Hollywood: “I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.”