The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt

Written by C.W. Gortner
Review by Fiona Alison

“I saw myself at Hugo’s side, the daughter of a courtesan, whom no one save my dear Dumas had believed would amount to anything, the defamed girl of the Slap, of the frivolities of the Gymnase, the frightened mother who nearly lost everything to bear her illicit child. Every humiliation had brought me to this hour; I could revel in my achievement. I was the toast of Paris.”

Actress, sculptor, and painter Sarah Bernhardt’s life was full of scandal, disaster and triumph. The First Actress is a fictional biography of the years she spent striving to become the most acclaimed actress in France. The writing is compelling as we are drawn into her world, seeing the events of her life through her eyes, feeling the exhausting demands of her chosen profession and her drive for recognition.

Her venomous mother, Julie, and Sarah detest each other equally. To escape the family ‘profession’ practiced by mother, aunt and later, her sister, Sarah knows that she must become ‘someone else’. Despite setbacks and ridicule, she remains uncompromising in her art, loathes the time-honored traditions of theatre, and never takes well to instruction on how to play a scene. Lead actress at the Odéon and, later, the Comédie, she surpasses all other talent. With success firmly in her grasp, Sarah plays male and female roles in an equally innovative way, engaging with her fellow actors rather than emoting at the audience. Sarah is beautiful and vivacious, scandalous and unconventional. Offstage she is courageous, loving and beloved, kind and fiercely loyal – a force of nature and a fascinating woman who leaves a trail of lovers in her wake but never truly finds love.

Gortner’s fluid first-person prose paints a vivid portrait in an immersive, hard-to-put-down drama about the ‘divine Sarah’ who continued to mesmerize the world almost until her death in 1923. Highly recommended.