Scenes from the lives of French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz and Irish actress Harriet Smithson.
Morgan’s latest (Indiscretion, 2006, etc.) is an impressionistic patchwork employing every narrative device from stream of consciousness to interior monologue, complete with an opera libretto and faux-Shakespearean blank verse. The protagonists’s alternating stories could be separate novels, so scant is their interaction—Hector and Harriet will not meet until the final third of the book. Hector’s sections take him from childhood to life in Paris, where, to the dismay of his physician father and pious provincial mother, he abandons medical studies to pursue his fanciful musical dreams. Harriet progresses from ingénue in her father’s theater company to music-hall melodrama in London, then takes roles in Shakespearean plays. Unable to dislodge Covent Garden’s venerable leading ladies, she heads for Paris, where, performing as Ophelia at the Odéon, she’s an overnight sensation. Her triumph is marred only by that eccentric young composer who pesters her with pleading missives, all of which she rebuffs. Years later, back in Paris for an ill-starred comeback, Harriet hears Hector’s Symphonie Fantastique, inspired by her. The twain meet and the attraction is finally mutual. Hector’s family disowns him for marrying an actress. Nevertheless, all is bliss—there’s a child, Louis, and an impoverished but loving ménage in Montmartre. Abruptly, even for a novel as circuitous as this, Harriet turns to partaking liberally of the brandy hidden in her bureau. Her irrational frenzies and tantrums tax Hector and drive him to Germany, where he’s well received by more musically astute audiences. Harriet’s dire prophecies of Hector’s betrayal are fulfilled: Hector falls prey to the shrewd, refreshingly ungifted Marie. Harriet is sent to the country to dry out. After several strokes, she becomes an inarticulate and hence more accommodating basket case, and Hector nurses her in her decline.
Cameo appearances by Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Dumas and Delacroix, and lush, period-appropriate, at times impenetrable prose make for an unwieldy but credible behind-the-music exposé of the Romantic era.