Ophelia's Fan, by Christine Balint

There is a buzz in the air that first night I am Ophelia, a palpable electricity that makes my arms tingle if I move them too quickly. And it is as though the angle of destiny is there, hovering over the stage where the curtains should be.

Born to actor parents, Harriet Smithson is raised by a Catholic priest before being forced to return to her family to begin a life on the stage, supporting her mother and younger siblings. After an unremarkable start in English theatres, she travels to France as a member of Charles Kemble’s English Theatre Troupe. It is here that she is lauded as a star, drawing packed houses with her performances as Shakesperean heroines.

It seems all of Paris comes under Harriet’s spell, but no one more so than the young composer Hector Berlioz, who pursues her ardently, despite her many attempts to dissuade him. Berlioz’s first symphony, Symphonie Fantastique, was inspired by his desperation over Harriet’s rejection.

This is a fictional novel, but it is based on the life of Harriet Smithson who was the woman who brought Shakespeare to Paris in the 1820s and who was known as Hector Berlioz’s muse. Christine Balint combines well-researched fact about the people and the times in which they lived, with the fictional creation of the story behind these characters. The story is told through a combination of first person narration, present and past tense, letters to Harriet’s son and the tales of various Shakespearean characters. The shift between these various forms is not distracting – rather it adds to the sense of movement and chaos that marks much of Harriet Smithson’s life.

A superb novel.

Ophelia’s Fan, by Christine Balint
Allen & Unwin, 2004