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A fine historical novel fizzles out towards the end
on 15 February 2007
This is a novel about the French composer Hector Berlioz and the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. Harriet came with a group of actors to perform Shakespeare in Paris in 1827, and as soon as Berlioz saw her performances, he became obsessed with her, worshipping her from afar: they did not actually meet for another five years, and then they married.
A great deal of research has gone into the book, but it is lightly worn. Berlioz first sees her perform about half way through the book; but in the early part we have a superb account of their lives before that time. Not only the principal characters, but the other members of their families are splendidly realized in the round, as is the social and political background of the time. Morgan also beautifully captures Berlioz' overheated Romantic sensibilities and Harriet's insecurities. His passionate wooing of her and her response are touchingly described, as is the brief period of happiness which follows.
Both had been warned that it was an unsuitable marriage; but who could have told just how it would turn out? The torture that afflicted both their lives makes painful reading.
The style is a little idiosyncratic. Sometimes events are narrated in the historic present, sometimes in the past tense; there are very many short fragments of sentences without a main verb; and I don't think I care for the intrusion at one stage of a libretto Morgan has invented, nor for the few pages of mock-Shakespearean drama that presumably presents itself to an opium-drugged Berlioz near the end. In the last 100 pages or so the power of the book slackens considerably, tragic though its material is. It is almost as if Morgan has himself lost interest. The chronology becomes too loose, and there is an unnecessary section on Mendelssohn. Personally I also think it would have been better to have put the material of the Prologue into the end of the book instead: coming at the beginning, it gives too much away. But the choice of vocabulary is always imaginative without being forced, and from a purely literary point of view, too, about three-quarters of the book is a real pleasure to read.