Synopses & Reviews
In 1827 Harriet Smithson, a beautiful and talented young Irish actress, makes an unusual decision. Determined to avoid the traditional route to stardom via the managers bed, she joins an English company in the bold experiment of taking Shakespeare to Paris.
With the ferment of revolution in the air, the new generation is longing for a novel kind of passionate, spontaneous art. And to Harriets astonishment, it is embodied in her---La Belle Irlandaise. In the midst of this frenzy she finds herself pursued by a strange, intense young composer named Hector Berlioz. So begins a painful and profound love affair. She is his muse, his idée fixe, his obsession; and Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique, directly inspired by Harriet, will change music forever.
Symphony is an audacious, brilliant, and haunting novel, set against a background of nineteenth-century theatre, Romantic art, music, and revolutionary Europe. But at its heart lies the story of two lives transfigured and destroyed by genius, inspiration, and madness.
"The real-life marriage of Irish actress Harriet Smithson (1800 1854) to composer Hector Berlioz (1803 1869) is the ostensible subject of Morgan's latest (following Indiscretion), but the two don't meet until two thirds of the way into this thickly embellished historical romance. After initial reluctance, the young Harriet, her passion for theatre inflamed by Shakespeare, joins her family's traveling theater company. As drink dissipates her father, weight softens her mother and minimal talent limits her brother Joseph, Harriet takes charge of the family business and appears with theatrical stars of the time. But it's her magnificent interpretation of Ophelia in Paris that brings her a public, including Hector, the son of a successful doctor and a pious mother. Young Hector's path to a musical education is told in parallel to Harriet's youth. After her Ophelia, Harriet turns away Hector's ardent pursuit, but as her theater begins to fail and his musical star begins to rise, she attends a performance of his Symphonie Fantastique, inspired by her. Morgan's modernist style, with frequent shifts in tense and POV, won't be for everyone, but it lets Morgan nicely capture the multiple levels of consciousness a performer juggles on stage ('the three minds') and gives the novel real texture." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
“A deeply empathic exploration of obsession and art, genius and madness. . . . Morgans ability to bring each character to life is virtuosic.” —The Washington Post Book World
In 1827 Harriet Smithson, a beautiful young Irish actress, determined to avoid the traditional route to stardom via the managers bed, joins an English company in the bold experiment of taking Shakespeare to Paris.
With the ferment of revolution in the air, the new generation is longing for passionate, spontaneous art. And to Harriets astonishment, it is embodied in her—La Belle Irlandaise. In the midst of this frenzy she finds herself pursued by a strange, intense young composer named Hector Berlioz. So begins a painful and profound love affair. She is his muse; his idée fixe; his obsession. And Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique, directly inspired by Harriet, will change music forever.
In 1827, Harriet Smithson, a beautiful and talented Irish actress, joins an English Shakespeare company where she falls in love with a young composer. But his love becomes obsession, and their lives will be transfigured and destroyed by genius, inspiration, and madness.
About the Author
Jude Morgan, who studied writing with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, lives in Peterborough, England.
Reading Group Guide
1. This novel is highly stylized to reflect the symphony that is at its core, as well as its structure, with chapters marked "Prelude" through five "Movements" to its "Coda". What does this style suggest in the way of life imitating art, or art imitating life—which do you believe to be most true to this story?
2. Why do you think the story opens with a visit to a lunatic asylum? How does this scene influence your interpretation of the rest of the story?
3. Beautiful, regal, passionate...many adjectives were used to describe La Belle Irlandaise, Harriet Smithson, in her day. But what words would you use to describe her character? How was she different from other women of her time? How was she similar?
4. The belief that fate dictates ones future, often to disastrous ends, pervades the narrative, as expressed by Harriets fathers recitation of Venice Preserved on page 44: “Tell me why, good Heaven, Thou madst me what I am?” To what extent do Harriet and Hector let fate dictate their actions?
5. “We spend so much time lying and dissembling: actors, who do it for a living, know that best. Professional liars. Harriet thought: I want to tell the truth, nevertheless. I want to scale the walls.” Do you believe that to act is the greatest lie, or the greatest truth? Can an actor, or a musician, ever truly capture a persons essence through their art? Did Berliozs Symphonie Fantastique capture Harriet?
6. Hector and Harriet do not meet until half-way through the novel—why do you think Jude Morgan chose to keep them apart for so long? Do you believe that the primary relationship in this novel is between Harriet and Hector, or does it lie elsewhere?
7. Mr. Kean says of the public and the theater, “You know why they love us, and hate us? Because we dare on their behalf. They let us take them so far, into the dark woods of their selves, and they like it—into their passion, and their lies and greed, their beauty and mortality: so far, but no further…” How does Harriets passion and daring, her exploration of “the dark woods”, ultimately beget her ruin?
8. Harriets crowning achievement on the stage was of Ophelia in Hamlet. Of the three Shakespearian heroines whom Harriet portrayed—Desdemona, Ophelia, and Juliet—which do you think Harriet related to most? Why? Which character do you relate to most? Why?
9. In Symphony, Jude Morgan seems to suggest that art and desire are intertwined. How does he do this? Do you agree?
10. On page 134, Harriet interrupts the narrator to tell her own version of the story, saying “You are not telling it right.” If this book were narrated by Harriet, how would it be different? What about if it were narrated by Hector?