Smithson, Harriet Constance (DNB00)


SMITHSON, HARRIET CONSTANCE, afterwards Madame Berlioz (1800–1854), actress, born at Ennis, co. Clare, on 18 March 1800, was daughter of William Joseph Smithson, a man of Gloucestershire descent, who was for many years manager of the theatres in the Waterford and Kilkenny circuit. Adopted at the age of two by the Rev. Dr. James Barrett of Ennis, she lived with him, apart from stage knowledge or influences, until his death in 1809, when she was placed at Mrs. Tounier's school at Waterford. Her father's health failing, she was reluctantly induced to turn to the stage, and, through the influence of Lord and Lady Castle-Coote, was engaged by Frederick Edward Jones [q. v.], and made her first appearance at the Crow Street Theatre about 1815 as Albina Mandeville, Mrs. Jordan's part in Reynolds's ‘Will.’ She also played Lady Teazle. At Belfast on 1 Jan. 1816 she joined Montagu Talbot's company, of which during the previous season her father and mother had been members, and on the 3rd played Mrs. Mortimer, Mrs. Pope's part in Reynolds's ‘Laugh when you can.’ During the season, which ended on 3 July, she was seen as Albina Mandeville, Aurelia in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Lovers' Vows,’ Floranthe in Colman's ‘Mountaineers,’ Lady Emily Gerald in Mrs. C. Kemble's ‘Smiles and Tears,’ and for her benefit, on 1 April, as Letitia Hardy in the ‘Belle's Stratagem,’ to the Doricourt of her manager, Montagu Talbot [q. v.] She was seen to be inexperienced, but praised for naïveté and promise. With Talbot's company she visited Cork and Limerick, returning to Dublin, where she played Lady Contest in the ‘Wedding Day,’ Yarico in ‘Inkle and Yarico,’ Cora in ‘Pizarro,’ Mrs. Haller and Miss Woodburn in ‘Every one has his Fault.’

On the recommendation of the Castle-Cootes she was next engaged by Elliston at Birmingham, where she was seen by Henry Erskine Johnston [q. v.], and through him obtained an introduction to the committee of management at Drury Lane. There, under the title of Miss Smithson from Dublin, she made, as Letitia Hardy, her first appearance on 20 Jan. 1818. The theatre was at the nadir of poverty and in disrepute, and her performance attracted little attention. The ‘Theatrical Inquisitor,’ however, spoke of her as tall and well formed, with a handsome countenance, and a voice distinct rather than powerful. She ‘acted with spirit, over acting a little in the broadly comic scenes, singing with more humour than sweetness, and dancing gracefully in the Minuet de la Cour.’ As Ellen, in the ‘Falls of the Clyde,’ she won from the ‘Morning Herald’ a more favourable opinion. Her voice had the ‘tremulous and thrilling tones giving an irresistible charm to expressions of grief and tenderness.’ She played Lady Racket in ‘Three Weeks after Marriage,’ Eliza in the ‘Jew,’ and other parts, and was on 25 March the original Diana Vernon in Soane's ‘Rob Roy the Gregarach.’ After revisiting Dublin in the summer, she reappeared at Drury Lane, now under the management of Stephen Kemble at reduced prices, and was on 26 Sept. the original Eugenia in Walker's ‘Sigesmar the Switzer.’ She played Julia in the ‘Way to get married;’ Mary in the ‘Innkeeper's Daughter;’ on 3 April the original Scipio, an improvisatore, in Buck's ‘Italians;’ 3 May, the original Lillian Eden in Moncrieff's ‘Wanted a Wife;’ 11 May, the original Jella in Milner's ‘Jew of Lubeck;’ and the original Amestris in Joddrell's ‘Persian Heroine’ on 2 June. Next season Elliston took Drury Lane, and Miss Smithson went to the Coburg, where she played Selima in a version of ‘Selima and Azur.’ On 7 Nov. 1820, as Rosalie Summers in ‘Town and Country,’ she reappeared at Drury Lane. On the 21st she was the original Maria in Jameson's ‘Wild Goose Chace,’ on 24 March 1821 the first Rhoda in ‘Mother and Son,’ on 2 July Lavinia in Moncrieff's ‘Spectre Bridegroom,’ and on 8 Sept. Countess in ‘Giraldi Duval, or the Bandit of Bohemia.’ For her benefit she played ‘Lydia Languish.’ She subsequently appeared in Liverpool, Manchester, Margate, and elsewhere in the provinces. Oxberry charges the management of Drury Lane with studied neglect in keeping her out of parts such as Desdemona, in which she was excellent, and Cordelia, Juliet, and Imogen, to which she was well suited; but she played Lady Anne to Kean's Richard III, and Desdemona to his Othello. In Howard Payne's ‘Adeline, or the Victim of Seduction,’ she was, on 9 Feb. 1822, the original Countess; on 15 Feb. 1823 she was the first Amy Templeton in Poole's ‘Deaf as a Post.’ Lady Percy in the ‘First Part of Henry IV,’ Louisa in the ‘Dramatist,’ Lisette, an original part in Beazley's ‘Philandering,’ Margaret in ‘A New Way to pay Old Debts,’ Ellen in ‘A Cure for the Heartache,’ Anne Bullen in ‘King Henry VIII,’ Virgilia in ‘Coriolanus’ were assigned her during 1823–4. For three seasons longer she remained at Drury Lane without adding to her reputation. The only parts worth mentioning are Blanche in ‘King John,’ Florimel in the ‘Fatal Dowry,’ Princess Eglantine in ‘Valentine and Orson,’ Amanda (an original part) in ‘Oberon, or the Charmed House’ (27 March 1826), and Helen in the ‘Iron Chest’ (26 June 1827).

In the meantime, through her brother, who was manager of the English theatre at Boulogne, Miss Smithson appeared there on 9 Oct. 1824 as Juliana in the ‘Honeymoon,’ and Ellen Enfield in the ‘Falls of Clyde.’ She also played at Calais. Subsequently she played in the country with Macready, was with him in Dublin, and acted with him in Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1829–30; she was thus seen in ‘Jane Shore’ by Christopher North, who describes her in the ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ’ as ‘an actress not only of great talent, but of genius—a very lovely woman—and, like Miss Jarman, altogether a lady in private life.’

In April 1828 Miss Smithson accompanied Macready to Paris, and appeared at the Salle Favart (Théâtre Italien) in Desdemona, in which character she made a profound impression, further strengthened by her appearance as Virginia in ‘Virginius.’ Next spring she returned to London, and made her first appearance at Covent Garden as Belvidera in ‘Venice Preserved’ on 11 April, when Genest declared her much improved. In November 1832 she was again in Paris, and engaged the Théâtre Italien and the Odéon, acting on alternate nights; opening the former house with ‘Jane Shore,’ in which she played the heroine, and the latter with Kenney's ‘Raising the Wind.’ An effort to engage Macready failed in consequence of the terms he demanded, and the actress, who was supported by an actor named Archer, remained the chief attraction. ‘Jane Shore’ ran for twenty-five nights. Macready states that when in that piece she declared that she had not tasted food for three long days, a deep murmur ‘Oh, mon Dieu!’ audible through the house, showed how complete was the illusion she created. In Juliet and in Ophelia she achieved her greatest triumphs. It was the period when in France romanticism was rampant, and Miss Smithson raised the enthusiasm on behalf of Shakespeare to its height. Her Irish accent, an obstacle to her success in London, was unperceived in Paris, and she was for some months the rage with the enthusiastic but volatile public of that city. Years later her name survived, and her pathetic outbursts and powerful gestures were commended by Théophile Gautier.

Among those most passionately enamoured of her and her art was Hector Berlioz, the musical composer, whose memoirs are full of extravagant utterances concerning ‘la belle Smidson,’ the ‘artiste inspirée dont tout Paris délirait.’ Poor, and as yet unknown, he dared to make advances to her which filled her with consternation rather than delight. But the success of the English theatre in Paris was not sustained. A trip to Amsterdam and to French provincial towns—such as Havre, Rouen, and Bordeaux—had an effect upon Miss Smithson's finances opposite to that desired, and her company had to be disbanded. Vanity had led her into many extravagances. The Parisian public proved fickle, and she had the misfortune to break her leg above the ankle in getting out of her carriage. Berlioz returned from Italy in the summer of 1833, and found her burdened with debts. He chivalrously renewed his offer, and was married to Miss Smithson early in October at the British Embassy, Paris. The announcement in the ‘Court Journal’ is ungraciously coupled with the expression of a wish that the marriage would prevent her reappearance on the English boards. Though Horace Smith wrote of her ‘picturesque variety’ of pose, English opinion was almost uniformly hostile to her, and even attributed her accident to a theatrical ruse. It is scarcely surprising that she had no wish in later life to revisit Great Britain.

A special performance was given in Paris at the Théâtre Italien with a view towards paying the debts of the bride. The programme comprised the ‘Antony’ of Alexandre Dumas, supported by Madame Dorval and Firmin, the fourth act of ‘Hamlet,’ and a performance of Berlioz's ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’ ‘Sardanapale,’ and an overture to ‘Les Francs-Juges.’ The sum obtained, seven thousand francs, was inadequate, and the result was mortification to the actress, who, on her rising with difficulty from the stage as Ophelia, did not even receive a call, and saw all the homage accorded to Madame Dorval. She did not again appear on the stage. Sharing her husband's privations, she became, according to his statement, sharp-tempered, jealous, and exacting. In 1840 husband and wife separated by mutual consent, and Berlioz chose another partner. He saw his wife occasionally, and contributed to her support. During the last four years of her life she suffered from paralysis, depriving her of speech and motion. An inscription in the cemetery of Montmartre reads: ‘Henriette Constance Berlioz Smithson, neé à Ennis en Irlande, morte à Montmartre le 3 mars 1854.’ Ten years later her remains were disinterred and placed in a vault in the larger cemetery of Montmartre, next those of the second wife of Berlioz. By Berlioz she left a son, Louis, who entered the navy and was with the French fleet in the Baltic in 1855, but predeceased his father; the latter died at Paris on 8 March 1869.

A portrait of her, described as of Henrietta Smithson, by R. E. Drummond, stippled by J. Thomson, is among the engraved portraits at South Kensington. A portrait of her as Maria, presumably in the ‘Wild Goose Chase,’ accompanies her life in Oxberry's ‘Dramatic Biography. A portrait as Margaret in ‘A New Way to pay Old Debts’ is in Cumberland's ‘British Theatre,’ vol. vii., and another, a coloured print after Clint, as Miss Dorillon in ‘Wives as they were and Maids as they are,’ is in Terry's ‘British Theatrical Gallery.’

[Particulars of Miss Smithson's early life were supplied by herself to Oxberry, and appear in the second volume of his Dramatic Biography. Information concerning her performances in Ireland is kindly supplied by Mr. W. J. Lawrence, who is engaged on a History of the Belfast Stage. Her characters in London are taken from Genest's Account of the English Stage. Genest, however, omits much. Such few particulars as can be gleaned concerning her performances in France are taken from the Court Journal (1832 and 1833), Lady's Magazine, and Gautier's Histoire de l'Art Dramatique en France. Her life as Madame Berlioz appears in the Mémoires de Hector Berlioz, 1878, i. 292–4 sq., and is summarised in a paper by Dutton Cook in the Gent. Mag. June 1879. The Autobiography of Hector Berlioz, from 1803 to 1865, and published in 1884, supplies some further details. A short memoir is in Cumberland's British Theatre, vol. vii. See also Grove's Dict. of Musicians; Marshall's Cat. of Engraved National Portraits; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Dramatic Magazine, 1829 and 1830; Pollock's Macready; New Monthly Magazine, various years; Dibdin's Hist. of the Scottish Stage; Hist. of the Theatre Royal, Dublin, 1870; and the Theatrical Censor, 1818–20.]

J. K.