Sarae Kemble was born on 5 July 1755 in Brecon, Wales, the eldest child of Roger Kemble - manager of a touring theatre - and actress Sally Ward. As her family were always travelling, she went to a succession of schools, but aged 12 was offered a free place at Mrs Harris’s School for Young Ladies in Worcester. Later, in 1773, after two years in service, she married her childhood sweetheart ,William Siddons, who had been an actor in her father’s company. They would have seven children, although Sarah outlived all but two.
Sarah Siddons came early to the attention of David Garrick, the great 18th century theatre impresario, and was given a chance at his Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but her first appearances - soon after the birth of her second child - were not well received, and she lasted but a few months. For the next few years, she worked with touring shows, often in Bath and York. Then, in 1782, at the invitation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan who had taken over from Garrick, she reappeared at Drury Lane - to great success - playing the title role in Garrick’s adaptation of a play by Thomas Southerne, Isabelle. Immediately, she became a public favourite, a cult figure, with audiences said to have fallen into hysterics at her performances. She was much in demand by fashionable society: Joshua Reynolds painted her portrait - The Tragic Muse; and, she was employed to teach elocution to the royal children.
By the mid-1780s, Siddons had settled into London society, mixing with the nobility, writers, and politicians; and for the next fifteen years she maintained a routine of performing in Drury Lane during the winter months and touring in the summer. Her brother, John Philip Kemble, also became a famous Drury Lane actor. In 1803, he bought a share of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and became its manager. Siddons, having left Drury Lane in 1802 for a period in Ireland, returned to London and performed there too.
Sarah Siddons’ later family life was far from happy, with money problems, conflict with her daughters over their relationship with a painter, Thomas Lawrence, and rumours of her husband having affairs. By the early years of the 19th century, her health was not at its best, with physical ailments and depression affecting her performances - though she continued to command crowds, especially outside London. Her husband William died in 1808, although they were separated by this time.
Siddons played her final season at Covent Garden in 1811–12, ending with a highly emotional farewell benefit on 29 June 1812, when she played Lady Macbeth - her most famous role. After the sleep-walking scene the applause continued for so long that Kemble, her brother, decided to drop the curtain. When it was drawn up again, Siddons was in her own character sitting at a table dressed in white satin with a veil. She rose wishing to speak, but the applause continued so loud that she could not be heard. She curtsied and bowed - all these details come from Joseph Farington, the painter who left behind extensive diaries providing a vivid picture of London in the late Georgian period - until there was silence. She then spoke for eight minutes. Although she, herself, did not cry, it is recorded that her brother did, and when he asked the audience if the play should continue, they did not allow it.
In fact, Siddons continued to perform for several more years, giving her very final stage appearance in 1819. The last years of her life were lived in deep melancholy, according to her niece, Fanny Kemble, also a famous actress and an occasional diarist - see Remembering Fanny Kemble. Siddons died in 1831. Eleven coaches of mourners attended her funeral, which drew crowds of more than 5,000. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), or in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 (vol. 14) (which at the time of writing is free to view at Googlebooks).
Sarah Siddons was no diarist, but she was such a celebrity in her day that she is often mentioned in other people’s diaries, Farington, for example, and Fanny Burney. Here, though, are several extracts about her from Henry Crabb Robinson’s diaries (see Weeds don’t spoil published earlier this by The Diary Review). They are taken from the first volume of Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb (Macmillan, 1869). Robinson was still a young man about town, and his diary entries about Siddons - then an ageing actress - seem to almost document her decline. But in the early part of his book in which he reminisces on his past, Robinson is describing his life in 1797, and says: ‘One of my principal amusements was the theatre. I had great pleasure in the acting of Mrs. Jordan and others, but my admiration for Mrs. Siddons was boundless.’
4 April 1811
‘At Pope’s benefit, at the Opera House. “The Earl of Warwick.” Mrs. Siddons most nobly played her part as Margaret of Anjou. The character is one to which she can still render justice. She looked ill, and I thought her articulation indistinct, and her voice drawling and funereal during the first act; but as she advanced in the play, her genius triumphed over natural impediments. She was all that could be wished. The scene in which she wrought upon the mind of Warwick was perfect. And in the last act, her triumphant joy at the entrance of Warwick, whom she had stabbed, was incomparable. She laughed convulsively, and staggered off the stage as if drunk with delight; and in every limb showed the tumult of passion with an accuracy and a force equally impressive to the critic and the man of feeling.
Her advancing age is a real pain to me. As an actor, she has left with me the conviction that there never was, and never will be, her equal.’
15 October 1811
‘Journey to London. Incledon the singer was in the coach, and I found him just the man I should have expected. Seven rings on his fingers, five seals on his watch-ribbon, and a gold snuff-box, at once betrayed the old beau. I spoke in terms of rapture of Mrs. Siddons. He replied, “Ah! Sally’s a fine creature. She has a charming place on the Edgeware Road. I dined with her last year, and she paid me one of the finest compliments I ever received. I sang “The Storm” after dinner. She cried and sobbed like a child. Taking both of my hands, she said, ‘All that I and my brother ever did is nothing compared with the effect you produce!’ ’
21 April 1812
‘Accompanied Cargill to Covent Garden. Mrs. Siddons in “Mrs. Beverley”. Her voice appeared to have lost its brilliancy (like a beautiful face through a veil); in other respects, however, her acting is as good as ever. Her “Oh, that my eyes were basilisks!” was her great moment in the play. Her smile was enchantingly beautiful; and her transitions of countenance had all the ease and freedom of youth. If she persist in not playing Mrs. Beverley again, that character will, I am confident, never be played with anything like equal attractions.’
19 May 1812
‘Went to Covent Garden Theatre. Mrs. Siddons played Queen Catherine to perfection, and Kemble as Wolsey, in the scene of his disgrace, was greatly applauded. I think I never saw Mrs. Siddons’s pantomime in higher excellence. The dying scene was represented with such truthfulness, as almost to go beyond the bounds of beautiful imitation, viz. by shifting her pillow with the restlessness of a person in pain, and the suspended breath in moving, which usually denotes suffering. It was, however, a most delightful performance.’
5 June 1812
‘At Covent Garden. For the first time in my life I saw Mrs. Siddons without any pleasure. It was in the part of the Lady in “Comus.” She was dressed most unbecomingly, and had a low gipsy hat with feathers hanging down the side. She looked old, and I had almost said ugly. Her fine features were lost in the distance. Even her declamation did not please me. She spoke in too tragic a tone for the situation and character.’
22 September 1814
‘I was in the grand gallery at the Louvre when I heard some one say, “Mrs. Siddons is below.” I instantly left the Raphaels and Titians, and went in search of her, and my Journal says: “I am almost ashamed to confess that the sight of her gave me a delight beyond almost any I have received in Paris.” I had never seen her so near. She was walking with Horace Twiss’s mother. I kept as near her as I could with decorum, and without appearing to be watching her; yet there was something about her that disturbed me. So glorious a head ought not to have been covered with a small chip hat. She knit her brows, too, on looking at the pictures, as if to assist a failing sight. But I recognized her fascinating smile with delight, though there was a line or two about her mouth which I thought coarse.’