The First Actress – by C. W. Gortner – independent book review – Historical Fiction (France)

Full Disclosure: I was given early access to this manuscript in exchange for writing an impartial review. Publication – May 26, 2020 by Ballantine Books.

I was completely captivated by this novel from the very first page and finished it in 2 days. Awarded four stars on Goodreads but honestly, 4.5 stars is probably more accurate.

Often when I read books by male authors creating female protagonists, I find they fall short. But not this one. Much like an earlier Gortner book I read (THE ROMANOV EMPRESS), this author is able to authentically and believably portray strong women characters.

I did not know much about Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) before reading the novel, except that she was a famous French actress, was somewhat eccentric (i.e. sleeping in a coffin), and was likely one of the many mistresses of British King Edward VII. But through the writing skill of C. W. Gortner, I now feel as though I know her well and even understand her. She feels fully fleshed out to me as a person — not some goddess to be worshipped, but a fully human early feminist who is completely fascinating.

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Louise Abbema

The book begins with Sarah’s childhood as the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, being fostered on a farm in Brittany. At the age of eight, her mother Julie is forced reluctantly to reclaim Sarah and incorporate her into the busy life of an active and successful Parisian courtesan. Not surprisingly it doesn’t go well and Sarah and Julie embark on a contentious relationship that lasts throughout their lives.

I don’t want to spoil your pleasure in discovering Sarah’s story. So no spoilers. Not surprising, establishing her career involves much struggle, with many men who want to control her, other actresses who are jealous of her, and lovers who wish to rein her in. She flaunts many of society’s rules and pays for it. But a brave spirit and fierce desire to live an independent life sustain her through war, hunger, and poverty. Obviously, it’s a story with plenty of drama, romance, and passion. Populated by famous writers, actors and artists like Oscar Wilde, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Jean Mounet-Sullyand, and Louise Abbéma.

A surprise for me was how interesting it was to learn more about some of the famous historical theatres of Paris –the Comédie-Française, Odéon, Théâtre de la Renaissance, and Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. How they were different, who they catered to, the ways in which they competed, which was considered more prestigious, how performance material was chosen and parts assigned. And of course, the considerable egos of those who choose a life on the stage.

Sarah Bernhardt
Photo copyright University of Houston

I have only two major criticisms of the novel. And that was an abrupt 10-year skip in time between the last two chapters and the author choosing to end the story with Sarah’s triumphant return to the Paris stage in 1896, rather than continuing to write about the final 25+ years of her life. I think mostly this was a reflection of my disappointment, not wanting to let her go. But as the author explains in the AFTERWORD, Sarah’s COMPLETE story would have required an entire second novel.

C. W. Gortner
Photo from the author’s website

Highly recommended!

More about the author.

You may be interested in my reviews of other Gortner novels:

The Romanov Empress

The Vatican Princess

The Queen’s Vow