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When Victoria met Sarah


In April 1897, Queen Victoria met renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt while she was holidaying in France. But just what did the queen think of her?

After six weeks of such fairly limited excitement, members of the Royal Household were excited to hear that the legendary Bernhardt had taken over the whole of the first floor of the Regina’s east wing. She was in Nice from the 19th to the 27th to perform in several plays including La Tosca, La Dame aux Camélias and Lorenzaccio.

Several courtiers suggested the Queen should ask the actress to perform for her. At first she refused on the grounds of Bernhardt’s questionable morality. Having rescued the monarchy from the depravity of what she called ‘my disreputable uncles’, her own moral compass was beyond reproach and she wasn’t prepared to abandon it now she was in the relaxed south. For instance, when Canon J.N.B. Woodroffe held a Sunday service for the Queen in her hotel suite he took as his text for the sermon ‘I have a sting of the flesh’. When a concerned Victoria asked him to explain what this meant, the quick-thinking cleric avoided anything to do with temptations of the flesh and explained it was simply to do with eye-strain caused by malaria. She was so pleased that she gave him a gold pen to thank him for his ministrations.

For whatever reason, she changed her mind about Bernhardt. Perhaps a month and a half of Mediterranean sun had relaxed her enough to give in to the cajolery of her courtiers. It was a decision she didn’t regret, as she makes clear in her journal entry.

“At ½ p. 6 the celebrated & famous actress Sarah Bernhard [sic], who has been acting as Nice & is staying in this Hotel performed a little piece for me in the Drawingroom, at her own request. The play was called Jean Marie by André Theuriet, quite short, only lasting half an hour. It is extremely touching & Sarah Bernhard’s acting was quite marvellous, so pathetic & full of feeling. She appeared much affected herself, tears rolling down her cheeks. She has a most beautiful voice & is very graceful in all her movements. The story is much the same as that of ‘Old Robin Grey’. The 2, who acted with her were also excellent, particularly the one who took the part of Jean Marie. The scene is laid in Brittany. When the play was over, Edith L. presented Sarah Bernhard to me & I spoke to her for a few moments. Her manner was most pleasing & gentle. She said it had been such a pleasure & & honour to act for me. When I expressed the hope she was not tired, she answered. ‘cela m’a reposé’ [‘it was a rest for me’]. She leaves tomorrow for Marseilles. Thora, the 2 eldest Children, & the Ladies & Gentlemen were present with me.”

After dinner there was an audience to honour the sanitary arranger: ‘… received Dr & Mrs Sturge (both very nice people).’

During the visit to Nice, Frederick Ponsonby, the Assistant Private Secretary, was in charge of the Birthday Book. ‘This most tiresome’ volume, in Ponsonby’s words, was a glorified autograph book in which ‘everyone who visited her had to write their name, and it became a mass of names of celebrities and nonentities all mixed up together’. Often mistaken for the Bible, as it was reverentially carried into ceremonies, the Birthday Book had several versions and only the Queen seems to have been fully au fait with which one should be used, as Ponsonby soon discovered. After Victoria left the Grand Salon he produced the book and asked the actress to sign it. She rather theatrically insisted on kneeling to write her name. Then with another theatrical flourish, she signed ‘Le plus beau jour de ma vie, Sarah Bernhardt.’

The following morning the Queen sent a message to Ponsonby to see if he’d remembered to get an autograph. Rather pleased with himself, he sent the volume to her:

“To my surprise I got no marks. First of all it was the wrong book, and I ought to have used the artists’ book, and secondly, I ought to have prevented her taking up the whole page. I was told that the Queen was much put out at this, but in any case I was to get Sarah Bernhardt’s signature in the artists’ book.”

Since the actress was leaving Nice for Marseilles immediately after that evening’s performance, Ponsonby, clutching the correct Birthday Book, was obliged to buy a ticket and sit through the performance. During the first interval he hot-footed it backstage and was refused admission. During the next entr’acte he had no choice but to drop the Queen’s name, which worked like a charm. He was admitted to Bernhardt’s dressing room and asked her to sign. Sensing she couldn’t understand why, the desperate man intimated that the Queen wanted an autograph for a second book, a rare honour – ‘plus intime’.

Unfortunately there was no ink to be had in the theatre so Ponsonby had to sit through another act before heading backstage, where the manager had procured some. Before he had time to take the book back, Bernhardt insisted on looking at the other signatures. Spotting artist after artist, she soon realised why she’d been asked to join the list: ‘The spell was broken. She handed back the book to me with a shrug of her shoulders. She understood.’

Extracted from An Audience with Queen Victoria: The Royal Opinion on 30 Famous Victorians by Ian Lloyd

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