Poor Jane Austen. The evidence from her letters is that despite being desperate to see Mrs Siddons on the stage, she missed every opportunity she had to see her perform.
In her letter to Cassandra Austen of the 25th April 1811, written from her brother Henry Austen’s home in Sloane Street, Jane Austen bemoaned her lot :
I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons.She did act on Monday but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would all the places and all the thought of it were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance and could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me.
Mrs Siddons was quite simply the most accomplished and most acclaimed actress of her day. She is still remembered today for her interpretation of tragic roles. No wonder Jane Austen was desperate to see her on stage..
Let’s find out some more about her….and why her fame has endured…
Sarah Kemble was born on 5 July 1755 at the Shoulder of Mutton inn in Brecon, Wales. She was the first of the twelve children of Roger Kemble an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Sarah Ward. Like her sisters, she was baptized into her mother’s religion as a protestant, while her brothers were baptized, in their father’s faith , as Catholics . Seven of her siblings (four sisters and three brothers), including Charles Kemble, Ann Julia Hatton, and Stephen George Kemble, also followed family tradition and entered the acting profession.
Her brother, John Philip Kemble became the most important actor and manager of his time. This is a picture, now in the Garrick Club, London, is of them both, Mrs Siddons and John Phillip Kemble, in Macbeth, and was painted by Thomas Beach in 1786.
Sarah Siddons was to establish herself as the most acclaimed tragic actress of her own age, and she has subsequently been widely regarded as the greatest female performer in English theatrical history. In her own lifetime she achieved the status of a popular icon. Her popularity among influential people- most notably the patronage of King and Queen Charlotte- played a key role in the social legitimation of the acting profession.
She could affect people in a most surprising way-the reports of her audiences crying hysterically and fainting with grief at her portrayals of bereft, heartbroken or grateful mothers are legion. Siddon-imania was the term used to describe her audience’s reactions. They were considered victims of The Siddons Fever.
She moved from the reputedly disreputable world of provincial touring theatre , tainted with its associations with prostitution and low life, to the salons of the aristocracy and royalty. King George III and Queen Charlotte were avid fans, though they were not in particular fans of the theatre. In January 1783 they went to see her five times in one month, weeping though every performance. Suitably impressed with her manner of delivery they subsequently appointed Mrs Siddons to be the Reader in English to the royal children.
As a result of her fame she amassed a substantial personal wealth: in 1786 she confided to a friend that she had saved the magnificent sum of £10,000 on which she had initially planned to retire,but wrote
“My riches are incredible, for I will go on as long as I am able”
By 1801 this fortune was estimated to be as much as £53,000.
Her public success, however, was attended by a great deal of personal sadness: her marriage to the philandering and feckless William Siddons, was an unhappy one and ended in informal separation, and she outlived five of her seven children, suffering numerous miscarriages in addition to this dreadful loss.
The roles Jane Austen so wanted to see her perform were her most famous.
Deirdre Le Faye, in her note to the quoted letter above in Jane Austen’s Letters (3rd edition) explains that King John by Shakespeare had been announced to be performed at Covent Garden on Saturday 20th April.
However a day or two before, Hamlet was substituted. Mrs Siddons made her first appearance since December 1810 in Macbeth (she had many “retirements” and “combacks” though her career) on the following Monday.
During the remainder of the time Jane Austen was in London staying with her brother Henry, Mrs Siddons performed in The Gamester
and as Lady Randolph in Douglas,
Jane Austen does not appear to have been able to get to any of these performances .
The role of Constance in King John was one of her most acclaimed, and the original text was revised by her brother to emphasise Constance’s role as the dominant force in the play, even though Constance appears in only three scenes.
Mrs Siddons herself noted that she would leave her dressing-room door open between her scenes, and therefore was able to overhear events on stage so that she could work herself into an appropriate frenzy, as they would cause
‘bitter tears of rage, disappointment, betrayed confidence, baffled ambition, and, above all, the agonizing feelings of maternal affection to gush into my eyes‘.
Her interpretation of the role Lady Macbeth was her triumph ,as William Hazlitt, the critic wrote::
If we have seen Mrs Siddons in Lady Macbeth only once, it is enough. The impression is stamped there for ever, and any after-experiments and critical inquiries only serve to fritter away and tamper with the sacredness of the early recollection.
No wonder Jane Austen was virtually grinding her teeth in frustration at having missed seeing Mrs Siddons in her iconic roles….