I had heard C.W. Gortner’s name long before I read his previous novel, The Romanov Empress. And really, as a historian of Russia (albeit specializing in a much earlier period), how could I resist a topic like that one?
I really enjoyed the novel, which examined the life of Maria Feodorovna, the Danish princess who became the wife of Emperor Alexander III after his older brother died, leaving Sasha (his family nickname), as heir to the throne—not least because Alexander III has a rather poor reputation as a reactionary ruler in stark contrast to his supposedly enlightened father and inoffensive but ultimately indecisive son. So when Gortner’s publicist offered me a digital copy of The First Actress, his latest book on the life of Sarah Bernhardt, I leaped at the chance.
Indeed, I enjoyed the new book even more than The Romanov Empress. It’s fast-moving, well researched, and fascinating. I certainly knew of Sarah Bernhardt, that she was considered a great actress and lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I realized by the beginning of chapter 2 how much more I had to learn, and I have seldom had a more pleasurable time filling in the gaps. So read on as C.W. Gortner answers my questions about this novel and where he plans to take us next. I bet you too will find out a few things you didn’t know!
You have written a wide range of historical fiction—including, most recently, The Romanov Empress. What drew you to Sarah Bernhardt’s story?
I’ve known about Sarah since childhood. Both my maternal grandparents were actors, so I’m attracted to the profession, and her name was often cited at home, usually when I was being overdramatic. In addition, I write about controversial women and have portrayed an actor before: Marlene Dietrich in Marlene. As a novelist, I love exploring both the art and its personalities, and Sarah was a pioneer in acting. She changed the rules, setting a more realistic standard, and became the first internationally renowned celebrity for it. But, as for most famous actors, her journey was full of challenges and setbacks. She’d always been on my radar as a potential subject, as many people have heard of her but don’t know her personal story. She turned out to be an ideal subject for me, a courageous and eccentric woman who refused to conform to the norms of her time.
Her early life was difficult, especially her relationship with her mother. What can you tell us about that?
Well, it was a rough era for women. The majority didn’t have access to education, while employment options were very limited, unless you wanted to be a governess or seamstress. The mid-nineteenth century in Paris is often referred to as the era of the courtesan for a reason. Without means to make a living, some enterprising women resorted to the world’s oldest trade, except becoming a courtesan required more than beauty and the willingness to put a price on your body. Courtesans had to excel not only in carnal expertise but also in social charms; they established salons to entertain and attract a loyal clientele, which paid the bills. These women were, in essence, entrepreneurs.
Sarah’s mother, Julie, never achieved great wealth as a courtesan, so she expected her daughters to follow in her footsteps. Age put an expiration date on a courtesan’s livelihood and a successor was necessary to see her through her maturity. Sarah’s refusal to be Julie’s successor put a lifelong strain on their relationship. When Sarah did enter the courtesan trade, it was forced on her and she paid a steep price. Julie disapproved of Sarah’s impulsive decision to pursue acting instead, as actors were not well-regarded; indeed, in some circles, they were less socially accepted than courtesans. For Julie, her daughter’s work on the stage was reckless and doomed to failure, given that most actresses never found success.
An important part of her childhood was spent in a convent, in part because of that conflict with her mother. What did the convent mean for Sarah, and what did she take away from it?
Being dispatched to the convent was the result of Sarah’s early rebelliousness yet it turned out to be a refuge, where, ironically, she discovered women could be self-sufficient. Anti-conception was primitive, so courtesans often bore illegitimate children, but again, the era was no easier on children. For a courtesan to raise her child at home, where she maintained her salon, was impossible; her suitors were usually married, with families of their own. The last thing they wanted was her child underfoot, though it should be noted that if the child turned out to be theirs, some of the men made financial provision for it. Still, courtesans fulfilled an expensive male fantasy, so many either gave up their children to orphanages or had them reared far away. It was standard practice, though it caused havoc on the child, who often never knew who their father was and never saw their mother until they were old enough to be useful. Sarah’s childhood wasn’t exceptional for her circumstances, but her experience in the convent was. She received a decent education, was introduced to acting through the Nativity play, and the nuns encouraged her artistic inclinations, recognizing something extraordinary in her. The convent’s effect on her was profound; because of her time there, Sarah learned she could create a different existence than the one her mother demanded of her.
Although we think of Sarah Bernhardt as the world’s first great actress, she had problems establishing herself in her craft. What held her back?
Sarah had a natural inclination toward realism and an innate sense of drama. If you watch extant fragments of her later filmed performances, her style is mannered from what we see today, but in her era, it was revolutionary because she didn’t conform to the standards. Because she was so intelligent and talented—she could memorize an entire play in less than a week and play both male and female roles—she caused immense friction with her directors, who, of course, didn’t think actors should have any say in how to interpret a part. Sarah’s resolve to perform as she thought best led to her dismissal from the most prestigious acting company in France and a very difficult time in her life. She was held back by her refusal to do as she was told, but in the end, this refusal would bring her fame.
Her situation wasn’t helped by her bearing a son out of wedlock, yet she was a devoted mother and did work her way back into the theater. Then the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 sent her life into turmoil once more. How did she react, and how did those experiences change her?
The Franco-Prussian war brought an end to the Second Empire in France. The siege on Paris was particularly brutal, lasting five months in the dead of winter, during which the blockade caused thousands to perish of starvation. Sarah elected to stay in Paris rather than flee and converted the theater where she was headlining into an infirmary. It brought her lasting patriotic acclaim, but she experienced firsthand the deprivations of the siege and was deeply affected by it. She became an anti-war activist for the rest of her life.
Both Alexandre Dumas (mostly père, but fils also makes an appearance) and Victor Hugo play important parts in what we might call the breakout phase of her career. Please summarize their contributions for us.
I don’t want to spoil the novel for readers, but Dumas and Hugo were vital in Sarah’s career because they recognized her unique approach to acting. They were both established figures. Dumas wrote many successful plays and novels, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, as did Hugo, most famous for Les Misérables. Dumas’s work was romantic, while Hugo focused on social inequities and was condemned for his anti-imperial stance. For Sarah, their championship ensured access to roles that elevated her profile. Dumas was her earliest supporter. Hugo came into her life later on and was her lover for a time, despite their significant difference in age.
And where does your literary journey go next?
I’m currently writing a novel about Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, the American-born mother of Sir Winston. It’s my first book with an American protagonist and it’s set in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, where my past two novels are also set. Jennie had a very different life from Empress Marie Feodorovna and Sarah Bernhardt. The daughter of a self-made New York millionaire, she was one of the first in the infamous wave of foreign brides who married into the British aristocracy. She blazed a trail of early feminism and controversy, surviving a difficult marriage to become a newspaper editor and theater entrepreneur, a wartime activist, as well as an inspirational force in her son’s political career. I’m having a lot of fun with her.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Thank you for inviting me!
Gortner holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis on Renaissance Studies
from the New College of California and a degree in fashion marketing.
In his extensive travels to research his books, he’s experienced life in
a Spanish castle and danced in a Tudor great hall. His novels have been
translated into over twenty languages to date. Find out more about him at
Images: Sarah Bernhardt in 1864, age twenty, photographed by Félix Nadar; Bernhardt with her mother—both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.