Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Michael Steen: Enchantress of Nations

Pauline Viardot: Soprano, Muse and Lover

 Enchantress of Nations is the biography of a 19th-century opera singer, but I cannot call it an opera biography and I hope opera haters won’t be instantly put off by the subject matter. Firstly, much of the time it seems as much a biography of Ivan Turgenev as of Viardot herself. Secondly, it is really a portrait of a whole era and its artists, composers, writers, musicians – for in her 89 years, Pauline Viardot-Garcia appears to have known everybody worth knowing.

She was born in 1821 into the renowned Garcia family of opera singers; her older sister was the famous Maria Malibran, who became a romantic legend when she died at 28, after falling from a horse. As Pauline grew up, she became a celebrated performer in her own right: she was by all accounts a plain woman with a rather harsh voice, but something about her charmed the public (most of the time, at least) and beguiled many famous names of her age. George Sand wrote two novels inspired by her; Dickens was a good friend, as were Chopin, Flaubert, and Henry James. Clara Schumann’s friendship was oft neglected, but the piano virtuoso remained faithful all the same. Saint- Saëns wrote the role of Dalila with her in mind, and she was originally Berlioz’ ideal Dido. (He then changed his mind, and his relations with the Viardots cooled considerably.) She was a social butterfly with many powerful friends, and an invitation to one of her salons was a great privilege even to crowned heads; but her political stance was radically republican. Musset fell in love with her, as did Sand’s son Maurice; Gounod had some kind of a thing for her; and Turgenev had so much of a thing for her that he practically lived with the Viardots in their later years. Pauline was married to Louis Viardot, a man much her senior, but though not a passionate love match it seems to have been a good marriage, and there is no evidence that her other loves ever went beyond warm, romantic friendship. And perhaps that warm, romantic friendship was the best thing of all – what Pauline herself called ‘the most heart-felt deepest, truest, warmest, sunshine-clearest love that ever woman felt as friend for friend’.

She had what would now be called a mezzo-soprano voice, but her father-teacher had forced it into the upper registers as well, and she was capable of singing both contralto and soprano roles – and perhaps because of this, her voice did not last long, and her career on the stage was over at 39. After that, Pauline turned to teaching. She was also a talented composer of songs and operettas, though most of her works were never performed in public, but in musical evenings and private theatricals in the family circle.

The format of this biography is highly unusual. It is filled to the brim with informative little snippets and digressions on diverse subjects from politics to court gossip, and philosophy of art to (as may be expected) backstage squabbles – to say nothing of mini-biographies of an astonishing variety of people from Flaubert and Dostoyevsky to George Sand’s daughter Solange and Tolstoy’s sister Maria. Sometimes you begin to wonder what all this has to do with Pauline Viardot and whether Steen was suffering from a constitutional inability to cut anything out, but much of the time the anecdotes and fun facts are woven into the narrative – with references to scenes in novels to illustrate the time period (which may or may not be annoying; I haven’t quite decided yet). This random excerpt is quite typical:

Meanwhile, Turgenev continued to spin. The waters at Sinzig did not agree with him. He headed for Baden-Baden. There Tolstoy, who was gambling recklessly, told him that he disliked ‘Asya’ [a story of Turgenev's], and borrowed 500 francs from him. Turgenev bought himself another gun dog. He was ‘incorrigible’, he said it himself. He despatched the animal to Courtavenel to join Louis’s pack of dogs lolling in the great hall. [Turgenev and Louis Viardot had bonded over their shared love of shooting.]

He went off for a cure to Boulogne. In the middle of the century, this was a ‘popular’ resort, being easily within reach of Paris and close to England. It was often visited by Dickens, who appreciated that a bottle of excellent wine could be obtained there for 10 pence (less than 5p) a bottle. Dickens also found it a convenient place to lodge a lady-friend.

And so on. It feels neither forced nor pretentious; Steen’s enthusiasm for his subject is contagious, and his exuberant voice sounds like that of an extremely entertaining dinner guest, sailing effortlessly from one anecdote to the next and sprinkling his tales with abundant wit. But the pace and the sheer multitude of facts, gossip, and trivia can be a bit exhausting – and frustrating, too: as an opera lover, I was expecting a more straightforward biography of a legendary character (which I will probably find in April FitzLyon’s classic book on Viardot, The Price of Genius). I don’t think I’d have been at all disappointed if I’d known what to expect from Enchantress of Nations, but as it was, I felt a little disoriented and it took me almost two thirds of the book before I started fully enjoying it.

My main complaint is that much of the time Pauline Viardot disappears behind all the big names around her. She must have been a fascinating woman, but she doesn’t really come alive in this book – at least not enough to rival the many extraordinary personalities in the supporting cast, such as Georgina Weldon, an eccentric singer and feminist who made a career out of suing anybody who crossed her – and I got little idea of Pauline as a character. Her own words are heard but rarely. She was fiery, we are told, but remarkably cool and level-headed; she could be a demanding diva, but down-to-earth and playful; she was a loyal, generous friend, but mercenary as well. Perhaps that’s simply what human beings are – bundles of contradictions – but instead of being all that and more, the Pauline Viardot of the book came across as something like an enigmatic rumour that has passed from mouth to mouth and lost its nuances in the process. The portrait of Turgenev seems much more thorough and convincing: contradictory, conflicted, but real.

It is also a shame that Pauline’s own compositions get next to no attention in the book. She was no Berlioz or Gounod, but I have a CD of her songs, sung by the lovely soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (accompanied by Serouj Kradjian on the piano), and I was floored by the charm and vivacity of this music. No doubt Bayrakdarian’s beautiful voice and elegant interpretation do their share, but the songs themselves are a delight to the ear and I have listened to the CD many times now. A few songs are firmly in the tradition of German Lieder, a few are arrangements of Chopin’s music; the one in Italian is full of passion. But the French songs of the beginning are my favourites – playful, lively, melodic, with a Spanish touch here and there, and lyrics mainly by Viardot’s author friends. Heartily recommended – and the CD works quite nicely as a soundtrack to the book, too…

Icon Books  2007  hardback  543 pp.  ISBN: 9781840468434

(The cover on my copy is slightly different from the one above.)

6 comments on “Michael Steen: Enchantress of Nations

  1. Jackie
    June 21, 2008

    You make this book sound so interesting, though I know next to nothing about opera. And what a social butterfly! Can you imagine hobnobbing with all those people? She must’ve been intelligent to associate with so many writers and thinkers, it’s too bad the author didn’t focus more on the woman herself. Perhaps he was focusing on the “enchantress’ part? I like the style in the excerpt too. It looks like the reader wouldn’t have to know anything about opera to enjoy this book, so perhaps I shall seek it out at the library.

  2. kirstyjane
    June 22, 2008

    What a brilliant and thoughtful review, Leena. But, ARGH!, this book would drive me completely crazy! That excerpt reads like a J.B. Morton parody.

    And as for me, would that I were at Perpignan, at the sign of the Golden Lion…

  3. Moira
    June 23, 2008

    “I hope opera haters won’t be instantly put off by the subject matter …”

    Hmm. Do we KNOW any of those? :mrgreen:

    It’s interesting what you say about the nominal subject of the book disappearing behind the supposedly supporting players. I’ve read a couple of biographies where that’s happened. It’s probably almost inevitable when the subject is less well know than the company they kept. Perhaps the biographer feels – a little at least – that they need to do it to keep the readers’ attention?

    You might ALMOST have talked me into this one … particularly as it’s a book and no-one’s going to sing at me unexpectedly …

  4. Sam
    June 25, 2008

    If anyone spots Leena can they let me know? She’ll be the one with the mad glint in her eye and axe in hand, traipsing the streets on the lookout for Marat Safin.

  5. Leena
    June 29, 2008

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! Moira, I think you’re right – Steen probably felt pressured to write the book for the mythical ‘general reader’, as opposed to opera buffs, and ended up over-emphasising the ‘look, it’s about MORE than the opera!!!’ part…

    Sam, I have decided that this Wednesday never happened; this year’s Wimbledon never happened; in fact, the whole June never happened. (Haven’t yet decided about the whole summer.) Mind over tennis, I keep telling myself. Mind over tennis. So I have forgiven Safin… for now.

  6. 1bibliomania
    June 24, 2014

    For the last two days I have been enjoying Michael Steen’s Enchantress of Nations until I ran into an enormous inaccuracy which makes me question the veracity of everything else Mr. Steen has written.
    On page 283 in the edition I am reading, he writes about what many literary scholars consider Turgenev’s best work – On the Eve. He writes:
    “…began work on his next novel On the Eve, which is set in the Balkans in the 1850s, on the eve of revolution.”
    The novel is NOT set in the Balkans. Most of the action takes place in a summer residence near Kuntsevo. A few scenes take place in Moscow and the novel ends in Venice (that’s Italy!).
    Next, Mr. Steen writes:
    “A twenty-year-old heiress – ‘she had relatives who were very poor, the poor ones on her father’s side, the wealthy ones on her mother’s’ – falls in love and elopes with a 26-year-old Bulgarian partisan.”
    This also is NOT the case. The twenty-ear-old heiress who ‘had relatives … poor ones on her father’s side, the wealthy ones on her mother’s’ is NOT about the novel’s heroine Yelena who falls in love with the Bulgarian revolutionary. It describes Yelena’s mother Anna Vasilievna Stakhova, nee Shubina – Yelena’s mother.
    Mr. Steen calls the hero of the novel, the Bulgarian revolutionary Insarov, a partisan. He was NOT a partisan. At that time those rebelling against Ottoman tyranny, were called revolutionaries or freedom fighters.
    The word ‘partisan’ came into use in Bulgaria much later, during WWII – the partisans formed the Resistance.
    Clearly, Mr. Steen has NOT read even a page of On the Eve, yet presumes to write about it with authority. Where on earth did he come up with the ridiculous descriptions of On the Eve?
    The title On the Eve suggests “on the eve of the Crimean War” and “on the eve of big changes in Russia.” The story itself is based on the diary of Turgnev’s neighbor Vasily Vladimirovich Karatayev, who gave it to Turgenev before leaving for the front. It is the true story of Karatayev’s love for a girl who is at first in love with him but then falls in love with a Bulgarian revolutionary.
    Turgenev was criticized for not using as a hero a Russian. About that, Turgenev said: My tale is based on the idea that we must have consciously heroic natures in order to move forward.” (Yarmolinsky).
    Later he said that “among Russians such a figure did not yet exist.”
    So, how much of the rest of Enchantress of Nations is true? How much of it is pure fiction as is the information about On the Eve? I am not going to finish reading this book because I think the author is intellectually dishonest.

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