the grim truth about Sarah Siddons, the biggest star of the 18th century

Image management: Sarah Siddons, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785 – GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The actress Sarah Siddons was a superstar. At the height of her career in the late 18th century, audiences flocked to see her, many succumbing to what was called ‘Siddon’s fever’: crying, becoming hysterical and fainting, so deeply did they connect with the characters she portrayed on stage. . Lady Macbeth was a particular highlight in her repertoire – Siddons saw her as guilty as her husband. Yet there was an inherent contradiction in her interpretation. She won over audiences by emphasizing the character’s maternal vulnerability, and she was especially celebrated for her version of the sleepwalking scene in which she repeatedly tried to scrub the phantom blood from her hands – a novel idea she triumphantly repeated throughout her career.

At a time when Siddons’s acting contemporaries were either the beloved mistresses of powerful men or former prostitutes – or both – she promoted her self-image as a virtuous woman, proud mother and dutiful wife. “You would as soon make love to Mrs. Siddons as to the Archbishop of Canterbury,” said a friend. She knew the power of her brand and controlled it fiercely.

Her rise coincided with the growth of the popular press, and Siddons understood that she had to do all she could to keep them on side, carefully controlling how she was perceived. She ensured that the greatest artists of the time painted beautiful portraits of her. Gainsborough complained that her nose was too long, but his photograph of Siddons still graces the National Gallery to this day. Reynolds, Romney and Lawrence were among the many other artists who painted her.

Suddenly there is a renewed interest in her story. My new biography will be published in May and playwright April de Angelis has written The Divine Mrs S, starring Rachael Stirling (Private Lives, The Detectorists), which has just opened at the Hampstead Theatre. We were both struck by the parallels between Siddons’ image management and the way those in the public eye today try to manage their brand. Such image management also raised the question: what did she have to hide?

Siddons’ past biographers tended to accept her version of events. But I found myself looking again at some of the facts of her life. Was things really that good with her husband, William? After all, he gave her a venereal disease. (This was revealed in a letter from her friend Hester Piozzi.) She may have claimed that she was suffering from a skin condition called erysipelas. But as my biography explains, it seems far more likely that she ultimately died of stage four syphilis – the diagnosis of ‘erysipelas’ was made by a kindly doctor to spare her (and her fans’) blushes. A middle-aged affair with her fencing instructor has also all but disappeared from the story.

Hiding the truth: Siddons was ruthless in its brand managementHiding the truth: Siddons was ruthless in its brand management

Hiding the truth: Siddons was ruthless in its brand management – Culture Club

She had every reason to keep the truth under control. Her fame was hard-won. She grew up in a group of walking players; their lives were physically difficult and financially vulnerable. They were always on the road and never had a permanent home. Her brother remembered having to dig up a turnip from a nearby field because he hadn’t had anything to eat for days.

When she was only twenty, she had come to London to appear in the final season of the great theater impresario David Garrick. She was already married to fellow actor William Siddons and mother of two young children. But Siddons’ time at Garrick was a disaster. On her first night, she staggered onto stage in an unflattering salmon pink costume. She was so overwhelmed by the huge audience that her voice failed her. She barely whispered her lines. As the season progressed, she found herself marginalized by Garrick – cast in smaller and smaller roles, or not cast at all. Her contract was not renewed. For Siddons, who had no professional life outside the theater, poverty beckoned and she fell into depression.

Gradually and painstakingly she rebuilt her career. She changed her style: after initially considering herself a comedic actress, she realized that her real talent lay in tragedy. She began playing a certain kind of heroine – virtuous, principled, noble – in a series of plays that were enormously popular at the time but are now rarely performed, such as Arthur Murphy’s The Grecian Daughter (1772) and Nicholas Shore’s 1714 melodrama Jane Shore. Today, her characters feel hopelessly passive, without real agency. And yet the Siddons crowd loved them.

Finally, seven years after her disastrous first season, having carefully built her career in the provinces, Siddons was enticed to return to London. Her first evening, playing Isabella in Thomas Southerne’s The Fatal Marriage (1694), was triumphant. Several spectators swooned and the audience was so enraptured that they forgot to applaud at the end. One critic spoke of her “creating a universal and melting sympathy.” Another wrote that she had founded a new religion. Fashionable society flocked to see her. After that she never looked back.

Siddons’ husband William was not a very good actor, so he became Siddons’ manager instead. He negotiated hard – sometimes too hard – to get her the highest possible compensation. Siddons soon gained a reputation for being mean and greedy. Anonymous critics nicknamed her Lady Sarah Save-All. Poison pen letters claimed that she would “as soon part with her eyetooth as a guinea pig.” But Siddons was the sole breadwinner, haunted by the experiences of her early life. And none of the money she made was hers. By law, William owned all of the couple’s assets. He did not find it easy to be overshadowed by his wife, so he began to seek solace outside of marriage. A friend found Siddons crying at the news that William had taken a mistress.

Author Jo Willett believes she has discovered the truth about Siddons' deathAuthor Jo Willett believes she has discovered the truth about Siddons' death

Author Jo Willett believes she has discovered the truth about Siddons’ death

In The Divine Mrs S, De Angelis imagines what it would be like if Siddons took control of her own destiny and searched for a role that truly represented her. In De Angelis’ version, she commissions a female playwright to give her a real leading role. “We have no historical evidence that this happened,” De Angelis admits, “but we don’t know that it didn’t.”

Siddons died in 1831, aged 75, having not appeared on stage for many years, and yet 5,000 people lined the streets to watch her funeral procession. The leading lady had succeeded in her aim. Her image as a national treasure was secure.

Today we can see Siddons’ tactics in managing her brand for what they were. On the one hand, they largely protected her from a cruel press; her fans saw her as untouchable, the queen of Drury Lane. Yet she was also trapped by her public image. The fact that, more than two hundred years later, we are only just beginning to question her particular style of brand management shows just how successful she was: she built her career by locking away her true self.

Sarah Siddons: The First Celebrity Actress by Jo Willett is published by Pen & Sword Books on 30 May 2024, RRP £25.00

The Divine Mrs Siddons plays at the Hampstead Theater until April 27 (

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