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The Cultivation of Love

The Bloomsbury circle in particular was part of a wider trend in the latter half of the nineteenth century, which started with the Free Love Movement in America in the mid-nineteenth century (Stoehr 1979) and spread to Europe to captivate artists and the communities around them. In Russia, such a community was set up by nihilists, who proclaimed freedom of love in the 1860s (Stites 1978, 89-114). This is not to say that other groups did not entertain free love. As we have seen, many in the nobility yielded to free love long before the Free Love Movement was created. And the point was this: the Free Love Movement and the artist circles were committed to spreading the message that life was to be directed by feelings. This is exactly what the Bloomsberries did in regarding the unrestrained expression of feelings as their ultimate right

(Gadd 1974, 4), assuming the absence of jealousy because it would bar the free expression of feelings (Annan 1990, 85). But many other artists also joined in this choral acclamation of feelings, including those who built their dynasties family-wise in successive generations.

The histories of the Strauss and the Wagner dynasties are indeed replete with love affairs, showing that stardom was not only key to upgrading artists to a higher status, but it also added to their sex appeal, much in the same way as in the case of kings. Let us start with Cosima Wagner’s family of origin (Wilson 2003, 90-1). Cosimas father, Franz Listz (1811-86), was praised as the best pianist of his time, which apparently made him very attractive to women. One of his seductions was Marie de Flavigny, Countess of Agoult (1805-76), who even left her family and bore three children by her famous lover, one of whom was Cosima. However, Listz began to turn his amorous attentions to other women, including another noblewoman, Princess Carolyne Sayne Wittgenstein. After separation, Listz and Marie’s children were shuttled between nurses, boarding schools and long stays with Listz’s mother in Paris. At the age of 19, Cosima married her father’s ex-pupil Hans von Bulow (1830-94). In this her story echoes those coming out of dynasties in the first half of the nineteenth century, when sons and daughters often found their spouses from their father’s social circles. While still married to von Bulow, she fell in love with Richard Wagner, a married man, who was much more famous than her then husband. Cosima found her new beloved not from her father’s, but her husband’s social circle: Richard was von Bulow’s friend. This was like a scene from the Bloomsbury and the Tuusula artist groups. In 1870, Cosima and Richard married, but two daughters were born before the marriage vows, causing some questions about the identity of the father.

Richard Wagner’s birth family was equally replete with love affairs. His mother Johanna, a baker’s daughter, was in her earlier years a mistress to a local prince. This love affair was typical of the time: noblemen often took women of lower status as their mistresses. Johanna’s husband, Richard’s legal father, in turn dilly-dallied with local actresses. And Johanna herself started a relationship with Ludwig Geyer, an actor and family friend, when she was still married. Persistent rumours suggested that Richard was Geyer’s son, and these rumours gathered strength when Johanna married him six months after her husband’s death. Richard’s own intimate life before his marriage to Cosima was equally agitated: his marriage to his first wife was burdened with numerous mistresses, many of them actresses and singers (Carr 2008, 24-5). This was no doubt in large part due to his family’s close involvement with theatre, but to no insignificant degree to his own position as the opera’s leading figure.

The Strausses had their own stories of extramarital love. Johann I’s marriage to Anna Streim did not stand the strain of Johann’s repeated absences due to his touring or of his several brief affairs, of which Anna was aware. Their marriage turned for the worse around 1833 when Johann met Emilie Trambusch, the daughter of a military surgeon. This relationship finally broke Johann and Anna’s marriage. Divorce was granted in 1846, but even before that Emilie had borne a total of seven illegitimate children by Strauss. After his divorce Johann set up home with Emilie and their common children, but they are not included in the genealogical table presented in Kemp’s (1985) book on the Strauss dynasty, a typical performance of dynasticity. Johann I’s son from his legal marriage, Johann II, had an equally colourful marriage history. For example, his first wife in a series of three marriages, Henriette Chalupetzky (1818-78), who was seven years his senior, had studied music and achieved some fame as a singer, but she did not persist with her musical career. Instead, she bore seven illegitimate children before her marriage to Johann II in 1867, most of them apparently by a banker whose mistress Henriette was for 18 years. When married to Johann II, she did not take her children with her but devoted herself to her husband as his manager and companion. And so on.

Mistresses and lovers, whether married or not, often circulated in the same artist circles, in the same way as lovers and mistresses in the nobility’s bastardy-prone social enclaves. Wilson (2003, 86-9) gives many examples of complex networks of lovers in artist circles, but let us look briefly at just one. Caroline Marbouty, a mistress of the French writer Balzac, accompanied him to Italy. She later had an affair with the novelist Jules Sandeau, for whom the novelist George Sand had originally deserted her husband. Sandeau afterwards had an affair with Marie Dorval, who had been a mistress of the noble writer Alfred de Vigny. Teresa Guiccioli, Lord Byron’s last female lover, had an affair with the composer Hippolyte Colet, whose wife had affairs with Alfred de Vigny and others, including the novelist Gustave Flaubert. The sculptor Pradier had a long liaison with Juliette Drouet, who afterwards lived with the novelist Victor Hugo, and Flaubert also had an affair with Pradier’s ex-wife. This French network of lovers extended even further, but the above suffices to demonstrate that relationships were not only professionally aligned but also amorously created. Novelists, poets, painters, sculptors and composers who had risen to stardom were by all accounts the most eligible lovers at this time when the arts were in their heyday.

Fragments of these artists’ licentious lives were put on display in poems, novels and paintings, shocking the bourgeoisie—or better to say, part of the bourgeoisie. But there was one further scene where the triumph of love over the higher echelons’ strict principles of status equivalence was celebrated, where love was turned into a passion that knew no restrictions: the theatre and opera. Theatres and opera houses, which proliferated in the eighteenth century and even more so in the nineteenth century (Cavaliero 2013, 131; Catrell 2013, 125-6), gave rise to two types of professionals—those who wrote the works of art, plays and operas, and those who performed them on stage, in other words, authors and composers, on the one hand, and actors and singers, on the other. Authors and composers were vital to the success of plays and operas, but so too were actors and singers. It was their job to bring the plays and operas to life, to communicate their intensity of emotion. The success and popularity of plays and operas depended on how well they did this. This was also why the most popular plays and operas were stories of great love that could overcome all obstacles, of pain and suffering caused by the loss of loved ones, torments of jealousy, ruthless competition for power and so on.

Audiences could express their approval of onstage performances in various ways: by means of applause, bravo shouts, calls onstage, throwing flowers, gifts and so on. These were the ritualistic performances of status, the signs of which audiences and performers alike were fully aware. The accumulation of acclaim elevated a minority of actors and opera singers, the privileged few, to the highest ranks in their status hierarchies. The French Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) (Gottlieb 2010) and the Italian Eleonora Duse (1858-1925) (Sheehy 2003) were such paramount actresses who triumphed on stage and who competed with each other for the title of the world’s most famous actress of their time, and on whom a plethora of other actresses tried to model their professional style. Those who did not reach international stardom tried to achieve the highest possible standing nationally. Each nation seemed to have its own national theatre stars, such as Ellen Terry in Britain (1847-1928) (Auerbach 1987), Luise Heiberg in Denmark (1812-90) and Ida Aalberg in Finland (1857-1915) (Heikkila 1998). Except for Heiberg, they all belonged to the same generation as their internationally more famous fellow actresses, Sarah and Eleonora, whom they greatly admired.

Sarah Bernhardt achieved immense success by virtue of her rare gift and ability to express feelings on stage, giving the impression that she was actually experiencing the emotions she was playing. This stimulated a strong emotional response in her audiences—the very reason why they went to the theatre in the first place. For example, when Sarah made a guest performance in New York, the American magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt attended—alone and weeping—every single one of her performances (Gottlieb 2010, 106). Although Eleonora Duse’s style of acting was different from Sarah’s—hers was the style of naturalness—she too put all her heart and soul into her roles (Sheehy 2003). The biographies of the most prominent actresses have very similar characterizations, almost word for word: they were actresses by the grace of God; they were glamorous; they had great stage presence and they could speak the language of great emotions. No wonder love and death were popular themes in the theatre. La Dame aux camelias or Camille by Dumas junior was unrivalled in this respect; Sarah performed it over 3000 times.

Actors and actresses as well as singers represented a new type of social climber: their social rise was based on their ability to dramatize emotions and the audience’s yearning for such performances, a mutual interdependence that turned the best performers into stars. Stardom became a ranking yardstick, conferring the highest rank on those who had risen to the top of stardom, in other words, those who had achieved the public’s recognition more than anyone else. This kind of stardom developed at a time when acting in the theatre was becoming an acceptable profession, clearing the way for recruitments from higher-ranking families. But the great stars discussed here were born before this change, at a time when working in the theatre was not held in such high esteem. The greatest actresses, therefore, were mostly of humble origin. The French Sarah Bernhardt’s (Gottlieb 2010, 2-23) father was unknown and her mother was a kept woman who conducted a salon. She never married but bore two daughters. Sarah was about to continue her mother’s lifestyle as a kept woman, as Sarah’s sister did, but her life prospects changed when she managed to enrol in the Conservatoire to be trained as an actress. The Italian Eleonora Duse, for her part, was born into an actor family with their own troupe that all the time toured around Italy (Sheehy 2003, 10-11). The English Ellen Terry was also born into a similar itinerant actor family (Auerbach 1987, 30-2). The Finnish actress Ida Aalberg’s father was a farmhand, later on a railroad master, but her grandfather was an illegitimate son of a woman who eventually bore seven illegitimate children (Heikkila 1998, 14-18). The Danish actress Luise Heiberg’s father was an innkeeper ( In this historical situation, the great stars experienced a phenomenal social rise during their lifetime. This would eventually become a more common pathway of social rise, one version of the ‘rags- to-riches saga’. Sarah Bernhardt (Gottlieb 2010, 156-61, 208-12) performed her rocketing social rise to the full: she lived in a succession of splendidly decorated houses with an enormous staff—cooks, maids, butlers, secretaries, coachmen and gardeners. The final testimonies of her immense fame were her funeral in 1923, which attracted hundreds of thousands if not half a million mourners, and the dozens of biographies that were published after her death.

As we have seen in the previous chapters, access to social circles was an important performance of social standing, at least in the higher ranks that adhered to status equivalence. And so it happened that top-ranking actors and actresses as well as singers and artists from different fields were invited to the social events arranged by higher-ranking people. The names of the celebrated Strauss composers and Sarah Bernhardt often appear on the guest lists reproduced, not only in their biographies, but also in the biographies of their famous contemporaries. Yet one cannot avoid the impression that living in the nineteenth-century theatrical world meant that the professionalization of the acting profession did not entirely erase the image of actors as successors of a disregarded demi-world (Catrell 2013, 88), making their status somewhat ambivalent at the time.

In the early twentieth century, however, the height of Sarah’s heyday was beginning to wane. Of course she was getting older, but the negative critiques she received were even more dramatic. On screen—she also appeared in movies—her broadly gestural acting looked overwrought and old-fashioned. Critics were generally agreed in their opinion: it was increasingly evident that her work in the theatre was eroding and that her kind of declamatory acting was a thing of the past (Gottlieb 2010, 191—204). An even more crushing criticism, though, came from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who felt that Sarah’s acting was outmoded and artificial. This was at a time when the greatest theatre stars were giving way to film stars, who rocketed to stardom in the early twentieth century (Barbas 2001, 35-57), in the same way and for the same reasons as actors and actresses had done in the theatre in the nineteenth century.

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