Harriet Smithson

Harriet Smithson

It is hard to know whether Harriet Smithson (Ennis, Co. Clare, 1800 - Paris, 1854) was more a sinner or more sinned against. Certainly, one of the least indulgent (but also least rigorous) of Hector Berlioz’s biographers, Claude Dufresne, writes that by 1840 Harriet had “aged and was fond of the bottle” and that in 1847 Berlioz “had to travel to London to put his finances in order after they had been seriously hit by the ravenous demands of Harriett Smithson and Marie Recio (Berlioz’s lover, whom the composer was to marry after Smithson’s death in 1854)”. In keeping with the bad habits of too many French biographers, Dufresne even conjures up a disobliging image of Harriet sitting in the garden of the couple’s house in Montmartre (at the corner of rue Vincent and rue Mont Cernis, 18th arrondissement, house no longer exists) in the spring 1834. “As she rests her imposing body on a chaise longue,” writes Dufresne, “her husband beside her works on the score of Harold en Italie.”

 Rue Saint Marc, looking towards the Opéra Comique
Berlioz spotted Smithson at the Odéon Theatre in September 1827 (place de l’Odéon, 6th arrondissement). She was playing the role in Orphelia in a roving English theatre group’s version of Hamlet, and three days later Juliette in Romeo and Juliette. Alexandre Dumas, present with a number of other Paris luminaries at the same performance as Berlioz, wrote afterwards that the Irishwoman “made a divine Orphelia”. As for Berlioz, although he could not understand a word of English, it seems he was immediately smitten. He pestered the woman for days on end, even going so far as taking a room at 96, rue Richelieu (2nd arrondissement) so as to be able to observe the comings and goings of Smithson (three years older than he), who was staying at 1, rue Neuve Saint Marc (present-day 2nd arrondissement, building no longer extant). Berlioz is even said to have rushed out of the theatre screaming one evening after seeing Smithson’s «Juliette» falling into the arms of «Romeo». But the Irishwoman’s reaction to Berlioz’s advances was a curt “Please do not leave me alone with that man should he come back.” Indeed, it was to be another six years before the two were to marry. The ceremony took place at the chapel of the British Embassy in rue Saint Honoré, with Franz Liszt one of the witnesses and the German poet Heinrich Heine one of the guests.

“Threatened by obesity”, according to Dufresne, Smithson’s acting career was already in decline by the time of her marriage. Berlioz organised an ill-fated concert (with Liszt at the piano) in order to help his wife pay off the FF14,000 of debts she had contracted during her attempt to form an English-language theatre group in Paris. She herself took a role as a deaf and dumb girl in Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici at the Opéra Comique, just beside her lodgings on the rue Neuve Saint Marc. But then the Opéra Comique went bust without having paid her fee.

Rue Saint Vincent

Once he had overcome his initial zeal, Berlioz actually began to harbour some doubts about Harriet. He was even briefly engaged to another girl (Camille Moke) before the 1833 marriage. Some – including the ever-reliable Dufresne – suggest that it was precisely her financial problems that made Smithson eager to marry. Berlioz’s family also disapproved of his marriage with a penniless Protestant actress (three irremediable faults in the family’s eyes). Yet, in her favour, the Irishwoman also inspired some of Berlioz’s works, including parts of the Symphonie FantastiqueNeuf mélodies irlandaises, La Mort d’Orphélie and Romeo et Juliette.

By 1843 (or 1844), the Berlioz marriage was on the rocks, with Harriett becoming increasingly jealous of her husband’s success. In addition, the composer had started a liaison with the singer Marie Recio in 1841. So Smithson moved, first to an address at 43, rue Blanche (9th arrondissement) where she lived (at Berlioz’s expense) until 1847, and then to number 65 of the same street where she stayed until 1848. (Oddly enough, Berlioz and his mistress lived just around the corner at 53, rue de la Bruyère). In 1849, Harriett moved back to the rue Saint Vincent in Montmartre, where she was to stay until her death.

Toward the end of her life Smithson suffered from paralysis and was barely able to move or speak. She died on March 3, 1854 and was buried at the Cimetière Saint Vincent on the North-facing slope of Montmartre. Berlioz later had her remains removed to Montmartre cemetery when he learned that Saint Vincent’s was to be destroyed. In his memoirs, Berlioz left a vivid account of Smithson’s disinterment:

 The grave of Berlioz, Smithson and Marie Recio in  Montmartre cemetery
A municipal officer, who had orders to witness the exhumation, was waiting for me. The grave had already been opened. On my arrival, the grave-digger jumped down into it. The coffin, though ten years in the ground, was still intact; only the lid had decayed from damp. Instead of lifting out the whole coffin, the gravedigger wrenched at the rotting planks, which came away with a hideous crack, exposing the coffin’s contents. The gravedigger bent down and with his two hands picked up the head, already parted from the body – the ungarlanded, withered, hairless head of ‘poor Orphelia’ – and placed it in a new coffin ready for it at the edge of the grave. Then, bending down again, with difficulty he gathered in his arms the headless trunk and limbs, a blackish mass which the shroud still clung to, like a damp sack with a lump of pitch in it. It came away with dull sound, and a smell.

 In a paradox of history, she now lies with Berlioz beside her erstwhile love rival, Marie Recio. Upon Smithson’s death, Liszt wrote the following to his friend Berlioz: "She inspired you, you loved her, you sung of her, her task was complete."


Select Bibliography
Harriet Smithson - A Life of Love and Music, the Memoir of Hector Berlioz (1988)
Hector Berlioz, translated and edited by David Cairns

Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness (2000)
David Cairns

Fair Ophelia, A Life of Harriet Smithson Berlioz (1982)
Peter Raby

“Berlioz in Paris”, www.hberlioz.com