The First Actress by C. W. Gortner
English | 2020 | General Fiction/Classics | ePUB | 4.8 MB
From her beginnings as the daughter of a courtesan to her extraordinary transformation into the most celebrated actress of her era, Sarah Bernhardt is brought to life by an internationally bestselling author praised for his historical novels featuring famous women.
Sarah’s highly dramatic life starts when she returns to Paris after her convent schooling and is confronted by her mother’s demand to follow in the family trade as a courtesan. To escape this fate, Sarah pursues a career onstage at the esteemed Comédie-Française, until her rebellious acting style leads to her scandalous dismissal. Only nineteen years old and unemployed, Sarah is forced to submit to her mother’s wishes. But her seductive ease as a courtesan comes to an abrupt end when she discovers she is pregnant. Unwilling to give up her child, Sarah defies social condemnation and is cast adrift, penniless and alone.
With her striking beauty and innovative performances in a bohemian theater, Sarah catapults to unexpected success; suddenly, audiences clamor to see this controversial young actress. But her world is torn asunder by the brutal 1870 siege of Paris. Sarah refuses to abandon the ravaged city, nursing wounded soldiers and risking her life.
Her return to the Comédie and her tempestuous affair with her leading man plunge Sarah into a fierce quest for independence. Undeterred, she risks everything to become France’s most acclaimed actress, enthralling audiences with her shocking portrayals of female and male characters. Sarah’s daring talent and outrageous London engagement pave her path to worldwide celebrity, with sold-out tours in Europe and America.
Told in her own voice, this is Sarah Bernhardt’s incandescent story-a fascinating, intimate account of a woman whose unrivaled talent and indomitable spirit has enshrined her in history as the Divine Sarah.
Meeting my mother’s regard, I felt as soiled as my feet. She was…pristine. Immaculate. Like the statue of the Virgin in the town church, with the same marble pallor. I almost expected to see a single translucent tear on her cheek, like a drop of frozen sap.
“Well?” said Nana. “What do we say to Mademoiselle Bernhardt?”
I muttered, “Good day, mademoiselle.”
My mother smiled. Or did she? It was hard to tell. Her pink lips, so bud-like they resembled an unfurled rose, twitched but didn’t show any teeth. Still, I suspected her teeth must be as perfect as the rest of her, not like Nana’s, who was forever complaining about her rotten molars and how even biting into a chunk of bread hurt.
“She doesn’t recognize me.” My mother’s smooth forehead puckered. “And she’s so thin. Has she been ill?”
Nana harrumphed. “She’s not been sick a day in her life. You gave her over to me to suckle, Mademoiselle Bernhardt. And suckle she did. Like a starving runt. I’ve done as you asked. Nothing more, nothing less. She’s thin, yes, but she eats more than a mule.”
“And apparently bathes almost as often,” replied my mother.
Nana shrugged. “Children get dirty. Why waste water? She takes a bath once a week.”
“I see.” My mother regarded me as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do. “Does she speak any French?”
“When she has a mind to. We’ve not much occasion to use it here, as you can see. Cows don’t care if you milk them in French or Breton.” With a grimace, Nana said to me, “Say something to your mother in French.”
I didn’t want to say anything to her, in French or otherwise. Why should I indulge this woman’s peevish requests, when in less than an hour, she’d be on her way back to wherever she’d come from? But Nana gave me a stern nod and I found myself muttering, “Pitou est ma chien.”
“See?” Nana planted her hands on her wide hips. “She’s not stupid. Just stubborn. Girls like her need a firm hand.”
She’d started to trudge back into the house when my mother said, “It’s mon chien.” She let out a sigh. “Perhaps this isn’t the right time. I’m so occupied these days….I can offer you more to keep her for another year—”
Nana came to a halt, glaring over her shoulder with a determination I knew all too well. “It is the right time for me. I’m getting old. I must sell this house and move into town with my son. You will take her today, as we agreed. Her bag is already packed.”
I stood frozen, my hand on Pitou’s ragged ears, hearing Nana’s words but not believing my own ears. After all this time, my mother had returned to take me away? Before I could stop myself, I burst out, “I can’t leave! What about my Pitou?”
My dog whimpered. My mother turned her blue eyes to me. I saw coldness surface in her gaze. “Your Pitou? Do you think I should take you and your cur with me to Paris?”