Ophelia's Fan
Christine Balant
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Buy *Ophelia's Fan* online

Ophelia's Fan

Christine Balant
W.W. Norton
320 pages
August 2004
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In her latest novel, historical fiction that begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, this talented author contrasts poverty and wealth, the importance of education and humanity's impotence against the vagaries of an indifferent fate.

The beautifully rendered novel traces the illustrious journey of Harriet Smithson, an eminent Shakespearean star, as she conquers the stages of London and Paris. Born in 1800 in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, Smithson, at the request of her actor father, is raised from childhood by an Episcopalian priest and given all the advantages of education so that she might better herself and the fortunes of her family.

Thanks to the efforts of the Reverend, Harriet is saved from a life of poverty, but at a certain cost: she never really knows her parents or siblings as a child would growing up in the home, having only the occasional visit. Then, when her father dies, Harriet plunges into her stage career, taking on the responsibility of her family's support.

Harriet's mother, crippled sister, and brother have long existed in dire straights on the farthest edges of poverty, meeting the daily demands of a meager existence. Consequently, the family accompanies Harriet to London, lest they perish in squalor. It is time to repay the family for her years of good fortune, insomuch as she has avoided their fate.

The London theater demands long days of rehearsal, and young Harriet is assigned a series of numbingly similar female roles while diligently preparing for a few opportunities to play Shakespeare. The beautiful actress is virtually unaware of the gentlemen who flock around her, but once she realizes the attention she is drawing, she dreams familiar scenarios of love and marriage.

Eventually, Smithson journeys to the Odeon Theater in Paris after being much applauded for her depiction of Shakespearian heroines. In Paris, Harriet comes face to face with destiny: the composer, Hector Berloiz. The eccentric composer with flaming red hair and an outrageous personality is obsessed with Harriet as Ophelia and desperate to have her as his wife. Carried away by the composer's unbridled passion, Smithson foolishly believes that the dramatic emotional roller coaster of the courtship can sustain a marriage.

During her decline, acting and youth relegated to the past, Smithson has ample time to consider the harsh life she has led. In a series of letters to her son, an older, wiser Harriet describes her marriage to Berloiz and their intense romance, confronting the reality of her choices. The author fills in details of the demands and rewards of life in the theater. Although portrayed as Berloiz's muse, little is known of her married years and whether Harriet continued to inspire the composer once their explosive and brief courtship ended. The intimate letters to her son indicate the opposite. Still, this is a fascinating romp through the backstage door of theater life and the endless struggle for recognition. As Ophelia, Smithson knows her finest hour.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Luan Gaines, 2004

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