When Roland Barthes wrote that “biography is a fiction that dare not tell its name,” he perfectly described the paradox of a genre that sits uncomfortably between interpretation and fact. Barthes understood all too well that biographers can easily be seduced away from slippery, unfashionable objectivity. In Tragic Muse, her biography of the 19th-century French tragedienne Rachel Felix, Rachel Brownstein ambitiously sets out to deconstruct ideas of biography, gender and fame. Along the way, however, she gets distracted by her own life and times; awkwardly juggling confession and social history, Brownstein indiscriminately drops one only to pick up the other. The most damaging effect of this sleight of hand on this otherwise compelling study is the distracting imposition of the author’s life on her subject.
When she deftly navigates between the fascinating contradictions Rachel Felix embodies, Brownstein tells her story with style and ease. There is plenty to tell: Born in 1821 to a poor family of Jewish peddlers, Rachel became one of the wealthiest women in France. She was a sort of social activist of her day, supporting the murderous Madame DeFarge and throwing copper to the indigent. Yet she was also a symbol of the State; one of her most famous roles has her as a patriot, falling on her knees to sing the “Marseillaise.”
Everything to everyone
Her most important contribution to the regime of Louis Phillipe, however–and the reason she remains known to this day–was her ability to resuscitate the Comedie Francaise by breathing life into the great heroines of Racine and Corneille and Voltaire. Rachel never managed to be convincing in the boulevard melodramas of her time, but her larger-than-life acting style was perfectly suited to the roles of Phedre, Athalie and Camille. In her own life, she was alternately adored for her spiritual quality and condemned for her polymorphous sex life. Unlike other actresses of her time, she was not particularly attractive, yet she was sought after by many powerful men, including Napoleon’s son Count Walewski.
After visiting America, Moscow and Egypt, Rachel obliged her public by dying young of tuberculosis, as all good tragediennes were supposed to do. But her influence did not stop with her death. Having attracted the interest of figures as diverse as the Goncourt Brothers, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, Theophile Gautier, Queen Victoria and Dumas pere during her life, after her death she became the subject of many biographies, memoirs, novels and stories. She seems to have been everything to everyone.
It is not clear, however, whether it was Rachel’s cipher-like quality or the dearth of factual material about her (as opposed to the abundance of more personal writings) that has encouraged such a farrago of contradictory interpretations. To Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Forward at the turn of the century, she was a victim of a grasping father; to Alfred de Musset, a belle dame sans merci; to Matthew Arnold, a frivolous woman, and a sign of the decadence of her world.
While Brownstein deftly puts each of these voices into proper critical perspective, they seem occasionally to overwhelm her. Early on, Brownstein asks whether Rachel the character can really be separated from Rachel Felix the person: “Is it possible to locate Rachel’s specificity, individuality, uniqueness–the person herself rather than what she represented or seemed to stand for?” The question, however, belies the book’s very purpose, as if Brownstein had forgotten that this is precisely the biographer’s task. The significant problems of Tragic Muse (the title of which is taken from a novel by Henry James, which itself offers a veiled biography of the actress) are not so much with her telling of Rachel’s story, as with her tendency to bring in examples about her own life and times in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to illustrate Rachel’s world through personal anecdotes and disquieting modern references better suited to a 20th-century subject.
As an epigraph to her first chapter, “Tragedy,” for instance, Brownstein quotes Aristotle’s Poetics to enhance her discussion of Rachel’s art–but then, in an almost confessional aside, draws an irrelevant parallel to some cocktail-party chat between herself and a man who has asked her about the subject of her latest book, Equally jarring is her reference to movie magnate Sam Spiegel’s odd love of Proust to show that Rachel’s supposedly domineering father was not what he may have seemed.
Despite such lapses, Brownstein’s criticism is often astute (as when she explores ways in which gender can determine character to illustrate the difference between Rachel as she was in life, and Rachel as she was perceived by her public) and her writing can be moving, as when she describes how the auctioning of Rachel’s possessions after her death reduced a lifetime of glamour to a moment of rage. Death, Brownstein points out, is a great equalizer. At its best, Tragic Muse conjures up the complexity of one who can only be remembered from the literature she inspired, since the performances she gave have long since vanished.