My tour of Historical Fiction Around the World continues with The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardt by C.W. Gortner. Gortner was originally born in Spain but now lives in California. This 418 page book took me a solid week to read, spending more time reading it than I had originally thought I would. Partly I wanted to finish it in one week, but also partly it’s such an interesting story!
It’s written in first person past tense, which helps give it an air of a memoir written by Sarah herself. I found myself wondering about the real person as I read this fictionalized account. The author does provide a short list of references he referred to while writing the story so I could satisfy my curiosity by reading one of the biographies if I choose to do so. It’s interesting to me that the author is a man but writes from a female’s persona, proof positive that a good writer can and does become their character to portray them authentically.
This book yielded some interesting insights into life as an actress in 19th century France. I was surprised to learn of Sarah Bernhardt’s many sexual affairs, an aspect of her life I was unfamiliar with. I don’t honestly pay much attention to any celebrity’s relationships, though, so even if I’d heard of her many exploits I wouldn’t have focused on them. I think I remembered something about her eccentricities but not the particulars, so it was entertaining to read about her menagerie of animals. She owned everything from birds, cats, and dogs to chameleons, a puma, and a cheetah!
Part of the story takes place during the Franco-Prussian War and depicts life in besieged Paris. Reading about her life within war-torn France of the 19th century brought to mind the perilous existence of the Ukrainian people in our current time. Living such a precarious life through reading is obviously a far cry from the reality. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to doing so, or at least I hope that’s the closest I ever come to experiencing life in a battleground.
Overall, the story is well-written and engaging. I feel like I learned more about France, Paris in particular, and about what it was like to be an actress and courtesan in order to survive.
Next up, I’ll read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke. Chin Yoke is of Malaysian-Chinese heritage and I’m looking forward to see what her story is all about!
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