This stunning novel illuminates the passionate and stormy union of great Romantic composer, Hector Berlioz, and Anglo-Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, his muse, who inspired his Symphonie Fantastique. Though penniless, Hector eventually marries Harriet when she is past her prime and down on her luck, thus creating a scandal which leaves him disinherited and banished to the fringes of respectable society. The most interesting part is what comes next – what happens when a genius marries his muse and the muse is a brilliant artist in her own right, not content to be frozen upon a pedestal? Hector’s opium and infidelity and Harriet’s drinking and jealousy shatter their idyll.
In the hands of a lesser author, their story would be reduced to a sad melodrama. Morgan, however, lifts the narrative to another level, starting with Harriet and Hector’s childhoods. They do not even become lovers until the last third of the book. Instead we meet each of them as individual artists heroically struggling to make their mark in an indifferent world. Morgan’s great gift to the reader is in rescuing Harriet Smithson from the footnotes of history and presenting her as an accomplished actress who, after years of obscurity, electrifies Paris and inspires a whole generation of young writers and artists, even though she can barely speak French. This dignified portrait of Harriet makes the tragedy of her marriage all the more heart-breaking.
Interludes narrated from the perspectives of Chopin and Mendelssohn prevent the story from becoming too claustrophobic or heavy-handed. Ultimately this book is a transcendent meditation on the redemptive power of love and art. The finest historical novel I have read this year, Symphony is best savoured with Berlioz’s music playing in the background.