The great nineteenth-century tragedienne known simply as Rachel was the first dramatic actress to achieve international fame. Composing her own persona with the same brilliance and passion she demonstrated on stage, she virtually invented the role of "star." Rumors of her extravagant life offstage delighted the audiences who flocked to theaters in Boston and Paris, London and Moscow, to see her perform in the tragedies of Racine and Corneille. In Tragic Muse, Rachel M. Brownstein reveals the life of la grande Rachel and explores—at the boundary of biography, fiction, and cultural history—the connections between this self-dramatizing woman and her image.
Born to itinerant Jewish peddlers in 1821, Rachel arrived on the Paris stage at the age of fifteen. She became both a symbol of her culture’s highest art and a clue to its values and obsessions. Fascinated with all things Napoleonic, she was the mother of Napoleon’s grandson and the lover of many men connected to the emperor. Her story—the rise from humble beginnings to queen of the French state theater—echoes and parodies Napoleon’s own. She decisively controlled her career, her time, and finances despite the actions and claims of managers, suitors, and lovers. A woman of exceptional charisma, Rachel embodied contradiction and paradox. She captured the attention of her time and was memorialized in the works of Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Henry James.
Richly illustrated with portraits, photographs, and caricatures, Tragic Muse combines brilliant literary analysis and exceptional historical research. With great skill and acuity, Rachel M. Brownstein presents Rachel—her brief intense life and the image that was both self-fashioned and, outliving her, fashioned by others. First published by Knopf (1993), this book will attract a broad audience interested in matters as wide ranging as the construction of character, the cult of celebrity, women’s lives, and Jewish history. It will also be of enduring interest to readers concerned with nineteenth-century French culture, history, literature, theater, and Romanticism. Tragic Muse won the 1993 George Freedley Award presented by the Theater Library Association.