Saturday, 9 January 2010

Rachel: "I prefer renters to owners"

Elisabeth Rachel Félix, French tragédienne, 1821-1858

- first a great Jewess, second a great actress, and third a great lover (1)

- two sons and no husband, innumerable lovers, a million and a quarter francs, and a reputation as a tragic actress which has never been overshadowed (2)

She was born in Switzerland to travelling pedlars.

A slight Piaf like figure, she was spotted with her sister when they were sent to sing and recite in Paris cafes.

She appeared at the Théâtre-Français at the age of 17, and soon reached the top of her profession.

She performed in London and was received by Queen Victoria; she also toured Belgium, Holland, Prussia, Russia and latterly the United States.

But for my research on the Bertrand family I probably would never have come across Rachel, nor James Agate who, in a characteristic turn of phrase, remarks that ambition sent her rummaging among imperial debris. (3)

Indeed, among her many lovers were Napoleon III, Napoleon's natural son, the then widowed Count Walewski (with whom she had a son, Alexandre Antoine Colonne Walewski 1844-1898) and Prince Napoleon (Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte). But that was not all.

Rachel and the Belle Poule

She also had relationships with two members of the Belle Poule expedition that brought Napoleon's body back to France in 1840. First was the leader of the expedition, the Prince of Joinville (1818-1900), son of Louis Philippe, who sent Rachel a visiting card on which he had written:

Ou? - Quand? - Combien?

Her reply was equally short and to the point:

Chez toi - Ce soir. - Pour rien.

More significant was her relationship with Arthur Bertrand, who had been born on St Helena in 1817, and as a young child had been a favourite of Napoleon in his latter years. Arthur returned to St Helena with his father to get Napoleon's body in 1840. His mother had died a few years earlier.

Agate describes Arthur thus:
the gambler broken at twenty-two, with a baby face which could blush as easily as a girl's and the habit of borrowing from his mistresses the money to pay his debts. (4)

At the age of 17 Arthur had begun a relationship with the comedienne Pauline-Virginie Déjazet, who was 36. His mother Fanny approved of this relationship, and had sent her another of those locks of Napoleon's hair! This affair appears to have lasted until he met Rachel in 1840.

Arthur's relationship with Rachel lasted after a fashion for eight years. They had a son Gabriel Victor Felix who was born in 1848. Unlike Count Walewski, Arthur never acknowledged the son as his. He never married and died in 1871. Gabriel fought in the Franco-German war, and died in 1889 in Brazzaville where he was serving as the French Consul .

Rachel and Mlle George

Mlle George, herself a leading actress, and the former lover of Napoleon and Wellington had by the 1840's fallen on hard times, so she went to see Rachel to ask her to perform in a benefit. Rachel refused to see her, but asked her to write instead, to which Mlle George responded:
I have been as big an actress as Rachel and as great
a whore. It's true that I'm starving, that I owe ten francs to my porter, that I've sold the Emperor's diamonds to my pawnbroker ..But I will not write to Rachel.

In the event Rachel did agree to appear at the benefit, but on stage the older actress deliberately set out to humiliate the young pretender. Most of the audience hissed Rachel, and she left the theatre without even taking a curtain call!

Rachel's Waterloo

Rachel's final tour was to the United States. It was not a success. American audiences had little appreciation of French tragedy, and her health was failing. She moved on to Havana from where in 1855 she wrote using Napoleonic imagery:

Thus it comes about that I must bring my poor routed army back to the Seine. It is in my mind that I am coming home to die and, like Napoleon, shall come to the Invalides to demand a stone whereon to lay my head." (6)
On her return she wrote to a journalist denying that she was going to marry:
I am thirty-two, my face tells me I am fifty, and we won't say anything about the rest. Eigthteen years of classical tirades, scamperings from one end of the world to the other, retreats from Moscow and betrayals at Waterloo .. (7)

She made her last journey on Prince Napoleon's yacht from Marseilles to le Cannet. She died of consumption in 1858. Despite rumours to the contrary she remained a Jewess, although she had had both her sons baptised as Catholics.

So ends my rummaging amongst the imperial debris. Others may wish to explore the Walewski/Felix descendants on the family website.


1. James Agate, Rachel (NY/London 1924, Reissued 1969) p. 14. Agate was a distinguished British theatre critic in the first half of the twentieth century. This book is clearly the product of a less politically correct age e.g. " a Jewess she was to her bone and marrow, a Jewess in the worst and the best sense." (p. 91)
2. Agate p 15
3. Agate p. 81.
4. Agate p. 79.
5. Agate p. 75
6. Agate p 86.
7. Agate p. 87


MissElisabeth said...

actresses... oi oi oi.

Very interesting post, John. That world around Napoleon was one big dramatic soap serie.

Who does it with who and why and when and who does she meet after that.

John Tyrrell said...

I think that is right. Perhaps the soaps are not as far fetched as they seem!