by Aoife Sutton
Iconic, eccentric, and eventually ‘divine’ – Sarah Bernhardt was a woman that went down in history. Rising from humble beginnings to international stardom, Sarah is thought to have been the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan called Judith Bernard. As a woman of Dutch Jewish origin, Sarah faced antisemitism in her professional and personal life. She never denied her Jewish identity, proudly stating in a letter quoted by a journalist in 1899, ‘I am a daughter of the great Jewish race’.
Her father was likely a French naval officer who died abroad in the mid 1850s and Sarah did not make any attempt to dispel the rumours linked to her unconventional background at a time when conventional values were the societal norm. She was born Henriette Rosine Bernard in France in October 1844 and described her childhood as lonely in her autobiography Ma double vie. She spent time in religious education in a convent school near Versailles as a child and had serious thoughts about becoming a nun before falling in love with the theatre.
Sarah quickly developed a love of acting, beginning her dramatic training with a determination to earn a living without the need of a rich husband. She spent two years at the Conservatoire de Musique et Declamation in Paris with the assistance of the Duc de Morny (the half-brother of Napoleon), who was in the same social circles as her mother.
Sarah’s strong personality became apparent in her initial training and she often clashed with instructors. Her first performance in Racine’s Iphigenie en Aulide in 1862 resulted in critics focusing mainly on her physique rather than her performance – a frustrating review for a woman longed to be taken seriously.
She left the country after the start of an unpromising acting career and had an affair with a Belgian aristocrat, the Prince de Ligne, which resulted in the birth of her only child, Maurice, in December 1864. Berhardt was pushing societal boundaries by giving birth to an illegitimate child, just as her mother did.
In 1868 she starred in her first successful role as Anna Damby in the play Kean by Alexandre Dumas. By the 1870s she had become a celebrity and had developed her own acting style, becoming known for using her ‘golden voice’ on the stage.
Among her friends were author Victor Hugo and painter Gustave Moreau. She contributed to the bohemian artworld exhibiting her own artwork at the Paris Salon in the late 1870s. As well as creating her own artwork, she also wrote poetry, plays, novels and autobiographies.
Her fame in France was also fuelled by the support she received from a Parisian group called ‘les saradoteurs’, the female youth of the late 19th century theatre, who clapped and cheered for Sarah at her performances. She became one of the most famous actresses in the world, later touring Europe, as well as North and South America, and was eventually one of the pioneers of early silent film.
She even took on the role of Hamlet in a one-minute silent film, further questioning convention by taking on a traditionally male part on screen. By the late 1890s her net worth was in the millions, having ran her own theatre company and starred as a young virginal Joan of Arc in Le Proces de Jeanne d’Arc, at the age of 45.
Sarah is reported to have brought a coffin with her on tour, which she posed for in photographs and is reported to have slept in on occasion, (these rumours were likely fuelled by the fact she married the man who was reportedly the inspiration for Count Dracula). She had a taxidermied bat created to wear as part of a hat, wore diamonds and furs, and collected exotic animals – apparently one of her pet alligators died after consuming too much champagne. Promiscuous, eccentric, and pioneering – her work on stage and on screen was innovative. Her adoring fans bestowed upon her the nickname of ‘Divine Sarah’.
With the outbreak of World War I, Sarah visited French soldiers at the front. At the age 70, she was still performing internationally on stage despite having to undergo a leg amputation due to an accident she had sustained on tour some years previously.
Before she died of uremia in 1923, she was also involved in philanthropy, raising money for the lab of Madame Curie (both women were the first women to appear on a French postage stamp), and became a well-known patronage of the arts.
Sarah will go down in history as one of the first celebrity A-listers and as a remarkable woman who lived life by her own rules. She controlled her own narrative (likely creating some of the mystique surrounding her personality) and earned the title ‘divine’ without question.
Sarah Bernhardt: Was she the first ‘A-list’ actress? – https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20171214-sarah-bernhardt-was-she-the-first-a-list-actress
Sarah Bernhardt 1844-1923 – https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernhardt-sarah
Sarah Bernhardt – https://wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/sarah-bernhardt/
Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage by Elaine Aston, (1989)
Sarah: the life of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb, (2010).
About the Author:
My name is Aoife Sutton, and I am PhD student in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford, my thesis is entitled ‘Pathological Bodies: Specimen Preservation, Death, and Display in Britain, 18-19th centuries’. My topic will investigate the origins, ethics and attitudes towards the retention of fluid preserved human remains in museums and universities (i.e. anatomical specimens), and whether or not they can help open up discussion on todays’ organ donations. Having completed my MSc. in Bioarchaeology at University of York, I went on to work as a lab technician in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds (2016-2017). Since March 2020, I have worked as a project assistant on the AHRC funded project ‘The Continuing Bonds Project’ at the University of Bradford which uses archaeological material to open up conversations about death and dying in todays’ society. I also run my own blog called The Pathological Bodies Project (pathologicalbodiesproject.home.blog), here I write about topics such as the archaeology, the history of medicine, embalming, death, and disease. I have undertaken training with an embalmer in a local undertaker, and I have also undertaken training at the Digital Autopsy Suite at the Bradford Mortuary. I have always had an interest in history since I was a teenager, my first job was a tour guide in the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, Hook Lighthouse (built c. 1200) in Wexford, Ireland. Working here part time for eight years allowed me to appreciate the past, and I went on to pursue my love of archaeology and history.