Ophelia’s Fan

Written by Christine Balint
Review by Andrea Bell

Ophelia’s Fan is an enjoyable novelization of the life of Harriet Smithson (1800-1854), the Irish-born actress who rose to fame playing Shakespeare in France and inspired Hector Berlioz to write his Symphonie Fantastique before she married him. Harriet is born to poor, traveling actors who foster her out to a priest; she rarely sees them until she goes to live with them at fourteen. Her early life on stage in Ireland and England is not easy, and she does not rise to fame quickly before she achieves international celebrity.

The novel is broken into many different narratives and time periods: Harriet’s letters to her son Louis, later in life, which hint at some of the troubles of her marriage; her first-person recollections; third-person narrations; and monologue-like “autobiographies” of characters that Harriet played whose situations are relevant to Harriet’s own. In many cases (particularly the character autobiographies and the first half of the novel), the mix of styles is effective and entertaining, but it wears thin as the end nears.

Balint’s afterword states that Smithson’s “influence over French Romanticism has largely been overlooked,” because of her relationship with Berlioz, and that the novel attempts “to recreate her life and work in its own right”; her goal is only partially successful. Harriet’s childhood, family, relationships, and early work are fascinating and engaging; it makes me look forward to Balint’s previous novel and future titles, and creates a cherished, complete character. Unfortunately, the sections following Smithson’s arrival in France are often hazy, uneven, and unenlightening. It may be appropriate to Balint’s purpose that Berlioz is sparingly captured, but after so much rich detail and feeling during Smithson’s Irish and English days, it seems odd that her French stage work and influence should be so numb and elusive. Balint creates an interesting life and persona for Harriet Smithson, but I am less convinced that she has finally secured her a proper place among French Romantics.