Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Ladies of the Rose, no 2: Fanny Elssler, by Louisa Young

The Rose

Gallica; Origin: Vibert, France 1835

Medium pink and double, perhaps spotted with white; very fragrant according to some but light-scented according to others; it flowered in late spring and summer, and no-one knows much about it.

Where is it now? It is rarely in catalogues, not in encyclopaedias and not on the internet - but that could just mean that it is not in fashion. The latest reference I could find had it growing at Roserie la Hay in southern France 1902. I thought it might have disappeared, or been renamed, or was perhaps lingering on, its name forgotten, just another lovely pink rose in neglected gardens across the world. 

But I think I have found it it - a nursery in California is selling what it calls Fanny Essler and dates to 1848, grower unknown. I have found a picture, which is not too different to the roses in the background of this portrait of Fanny. 

The Lady

Franziska Elssler was a ballerina, and was indeed, in Vita Sackville West's phrase, 'a member of the haute coccotterie of Paris'. She was beautiful and clever, and the Romantic writer Theophile Gautier described her as 'the most spirited, precise and intelligent dancer who ever skimmed the boards with the tip of her steely toe'.

She was born in Vienna June 23 1810, to a large and poor family of remarkable and various talents. Her father was Hayden's copyist and valet, her mother a seamstress, her grandfather a fiddler and maker of plaster figurines, her brother a tenor and chorus master at the Berlin Opera House, her sister a mime at the Vienna Opera. Fanny started dancing as a child. By five she was on stage, and by 11 she was in the Corps de Ballet at the Kartnertortheater. When she was 14 she and her sisters Therese (with whom for years she performed a double act) and Anna were taken to Italy to further their careers. 

This was an age given to grand romantic enthusiasm, as you can see from how Gautier describes Fanny in her prime. 'Her legs are fashioned like Diana the Huntress, their strength in no way depriving them of grace. Her head, small like that of an antique statue, sits with pure and noble lines on satiny shoulders which need no rice powder to give them their white complexion. Her eyes have a most poignant expression of mischievous voluptuousness…. Half ironical smile…. Finely curved lips….features as regular as if they were made of marble… Very soft, silky, glossy brown hair…. as suited to bear the goddess's gold circlet as the courtesan's coronet of flowers. Although she is a woman in the full acceptance of the term, the slender elegance of her figure allows her to wear male attire with great success… she is Hermaphrodite…' Therese, considered unnaturally tall at five foot six, often danced men's roles. One who saw her, the dramatist Franz Grillparzer, said she looked like 'a dancing Strasbourg Cathedral.'

In Naples, when Fanny was 16, her dancing and her person particularly delighted Leopold, the Prince of Salerno, who was the King's brother and had a reputation as a practiced reprobate. Many years later Fanny told to a friend in London, Harriet Grote, that the Prince had forced her mother to sell her to him, and that they were unable to resist his wealth and unscrupulous influence. Buying girls was not that unusual. Desperate or greedy mothers used to line their young daughters up on the steps of the palace of one old prince in Vienna, Alois Kaunitz-Rittberg. Children working on the stage were especially vulnerable, and the Horschelt Kinderballett, a children's company to which Fanny may well have belonged, was closed down after that particular scandal. 

Count Prokesch, a friend of Fanny's next protector, described the Prince of Salerno as 'Fanny's first purchaser, who had her body without touching her soul'.  Purchase or not, when the affair became common knowledge the King sent his brother to Rome, to join the Papal Guard of Honour (whether he considered the irony of his brother's new post history does not relate). Fanny was returned to Vienna pregnant, with 3000 ducats a year. She  gave birth to her son Franz Robert in June 1827, the day after her 17th birthday. He was left with relatives, while she returned to work and the audiences who loved her from a distance.

Among the audience in Vienna was Baron Freidrich von Gentz. He was the best-known political writer of his time, an adviser and friend to the Chancellor, Prince Metternich, handsome though worn by a naughty life, intelligent and 45 years older than Fanny. He sent her camellias and wondered if she had a soul; she cast him friendly looks from the stage. Fanny's mother approved the liaison, thinking it unlikely to produce any more children to interrupt Fanny's money-making, which was supporting the family. Fanny herself said later that she was flattered by von Gentz's attentions, grateful to him, fond of him and, she said, after him she could never put up with a stupid man. At the time, though, he 'never knew such bliss on earth' and she proposed kissing him 'so as to drink in your soul', so perhaps the fondness etc was with hindsight and discretion. Metternich warned von Gentz against the liaison - as well he might, for within three years von Gentz was dead - exhausted, some said, by such a romantic and improper connection.

Her next romance was with Anton Stuhlmuller, her dancing partner, but his engagement with her company and their affair were both temporary. Gossip linked her with the interesting Count Alfred d'Orsay, a man of enigmatic sexuality, but in fact she was pregnant again, by Stuhlmuller. Her daughter Theresa Anna Catherine Jane was born with maximum discretion in London in October 1833, and baptised under false parental names at Spanish Place. By 1834 she was off to Berlin, dancing with her sister again, and thence to Paris, where Dr Veron, director of the Paris Opera, launched her debut in La Tempete, offering - he claimed - 40,000 francs a year (in fact it was 8000, plus bonuses). At the dinner laid on try to seal the deal, he had jewels and diamonds brought round on a silver salver, with the pudding, and after the opening night her battements were compared to Paganini's violin-playing. Even the star ballerina Marie Taglioni applauded, 'with several of her fingers', and new pun was heard: 'est-ce une femme ou est-ce l'air?' - Is it a woman or is it air? (She and Taglioni were seen as great rivals - Theophile Gautier said Fanny was the pagan ballerina to Taglioni's Christian: bold, voluptuous, powerful and dramatic.) 

Veron was not above allowing a rumoured scandalous romance from the past to be believed. The Duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon's golden-haired son, had been taken to Vienne after his father's death, and brought up there as an Austrian prince. He was a great fan of the ballet. He had come frequently to see Fanny dance - 'voila mon petit prince, toujours a son poste!' (There's my little Prince, always in his place) was her comment, and von Gentz had been jealous. Tongues had wagged. Some said she had been employed to seduce him and spy on him; and when he died, of consumption, some said he died of the shock of her treachery. (There was another performer, Therese Peche, with whom an entanglement for political purposes had been attempted.) That was why she had left Vienna, they said… 

Anyway, Fanny told Harriet Grote: 'I might perhaps have liked to have a Napoleon for my lover, but … it would have been the death of Gentz.'

Still, as the theatrical journalist Charles Maurice put it, this 'prince who was very dear to the French nation and who died in the flower of youth to the sorrow of our age' was 'something which has no bearing on the question but which will nevertheless do her much good, will add to the anticipated success of the Paris debut…  whether this rumour is well-founded or not, it is certainly one that will stimulate interest and curiosity in Mlle Essler.'  Publicly, Fanny never denied the affair. Privately, she always did.

Fanny's rose was dedicated by the enterprising Vibert in 1835. It was not her only dedication -  the Grands Magasins du Temple du Gout (The Big Shops of the Temple of Taste!) in rue Sainte-Anne launched a cloth named after her - Elsslerine - 'A transparent material with a light lining for ball and evening gowns, made by a new process.' This was around the time of  the height of Fanny's Parisian fame, in 1836, when her dance the cachuca in Le Diable Boiteux took, as they say, Paris by Storm. 

Gautier saw it: 'She comes forward in a basque in pink satin trimmed with wide flounces of black lace; her skirt, weighted at the hem, fits tightly on the hips; her wasplike figure is boldly arched back, making the diamond brooch on her bodice sparkle; her leg, smooth as marble, gleams thorugh the fine mesh of her silk stocking; and her small foot, now still, awaits only the signal of the orchestra to burst into action. How charming she is, with her high comb, the rose at her ear, the fire in her eye and her sparkling smile. At the tips of her rosy fingers the ebony castanets are a-quiver. Now she springs forward and the resonant clatter of her castanets breaks out; she seems to shake down clusters of rhythm with her hands. How she twists! How she bends! What fire! What voluptuousness! What ardour! Her swooning arms flutter about her drooping head, her body curves back, her white shoulders almost brush the floor. What a charming moment! Would you not say that in that hand, as it skims over the dazzling barrier of the footlights, she is gathering up all the desires and all the enthusiasm of the audience?' 

Evidently it did - others spoke of provocative gestures, lascivious abandon, sensual grace, the 'thrilling, quivering, twisting body'. After the initial shock, audiences required her to repeat the dance during the show. Within weeks she was summoned to dance it for Louis Phillipe and King Ferdinand of Naples, who liked it so much they sent her a porcelain luncheon service.  A new dance hall, Salle Musard in Rue Vivienne, used scenes from the dance in the décor, and the dance escaped the stage as people began to try it on the dance floor.

Fanny had strong professional opinions on the scenarios of ballets presented, and would make notes in the margins. 'If the strangely fashioned and ill-constructed things the authors bring you for acceptance were put  on the stage with all their imperfections on their head,' she wrote, 'many a name's bright reknown would be damned by failure.' Her opinions on theatres were no less stringent: the King's Theatre in London was 'the vilest of all stages, it runs half way across the pit as if it had escaped the hands of the carpenter and gone off on a voyage of discovery for itself.' She was always terrified of cats, but for her role in La chatte Metmorphosée  en Femme she brought in a white kitten to study: an early example of method acting?

Gautier remained obsessed with her. 'Venus must have been dancing at the Opera under the form and the name of Fanny Elssler, a wholly appropriate activity for a fallen divinity of ancient Olympus,' he wrote. He demonstrates admirably how there is nothing modern in obsessive attention to the physical attributes of female stars. 'Her kneecaps are neat and well-defined,' he wrote, 'and the whole knee beyond reproach …. Also her arms are well-rounded, not like others whose frightful thinness makes them look like lobster claws dabbed with white paint….In certain bending positions, the lines of her features are badly presented, the eyebrows become tapered, her mouth turns up at the corners, her nose becomes pointed giving her an unpleasant sly expression. Also, Mlle Elssler should not wear her hair so high on her head.' He felt it was not the right hair for her head, or indeed her body - too Mediterranean for her overall Germanic effect. And: 'We also counsel her to paint her pretty fingernails a paler pink.'

Queen Victoria requested that Fanny dance not the Cachuca but a more respectable pas de deux with Fanny Cerrito for a Royal Command Performance, and in 1840 she toured the United States - the first leading Ballerina to do so. Acceptance in the US was by no means guaranteed: 'anything like an abbreviated garment would be visited with national wrath,' wrote one critic. 'Aught approaching a free use of her limbs would be a signal for the horrorstricken burghers to … pass an ordinance requiring that she quit the country.' Pursued by scandal and acclaim in equal measure, she travelled the US for a  year and half longer than she had planned. As she had taken only six months leave she was sued for breach of contract by the Paris Opera when she returned. Still, London, St Petersburg Moscow and Milan were there for her.  

In some ways her story is an invert of Isadora Duncan - the dancer travelling the great cities, bearing children to different men, crossing the Atlantic and causing outrage and delight with her physicality and her outfits. But Isadora was a woman of passion above all, whereas Fanny's 'was not a passionate nature,' said her friend Betty Poli 'Not only her physical life, but also her soul, was ruled by the law of measured beauty…. She seemed to dance not only with her feet but with her soul.'

Fanny inspired enormous affection and attention - her followers were known as Fannytics, and bought souvenirs ranging from the usual figurines and lithographs of her dances (La Cachuca, La Cracovienne, in a unifrom with frogging; as La Sylphide, with sweet little wings, as Flora, entwined in roses) to souvenir prints commemorating famous moments in her life: her purchase and freeing of a negro slave family during her visit to North America, 1840-42, for example, or her devoted fans fighting in a barrel of eggs to get a bouquet which she had thrown from her window in Vienna (1842). There were useful items too: a cup and saucer for hot chocolate, with her picture on, a porcelain desk set incorporating inkwell, sander, penholder and a small statue of Fanny in her Cachuca stance, and a rather risqué cigarette holder in the shape of her leg, made of meerschaum and amber, and wearing a garter and a little black boot. The court confectioner, Coutar, made little sugar statuettes of her.

Johann Strauss, rather more stylishly, wrote a three-act operetta about her, Die Tanzerin Fanny Elssler (1935); there were also three ballets about her, a handful of novels, a play and a film in 1937, in which she was played by Lilian Harvey.

She also inspired a lot of very bad poetry. One, La Deesse, an 'Elssleratic' Romance, published in New York in 1841, starts: 'Give me a lyre with golden wings, That with the tone of Eden rings, that lends the raised spirit wings, To soar among celestial things!' and goes on for 44 pages. Another, 'No Slur, Else-Slur, a Dancing Poem or Satyr' was advertised as being 'by Nobody, published by Anybody, sold by Everybody and and for sale anywhere but especially in Wall Street and before St Paul's, Broadway.' 'Nobody' is believed to have been an inmate of the McClean Asylum in Massachusetts.

Ah, there were so many stories . . . . 


Fanny's tragedy was that both her children predeceased her. Theresa died in 1870, of an inflammation of the lungs, leaving a heartbroken husband and daughter of 14; and in 1873 Fanny's son killed himself after a dreadful stock market failure. Fanny had frequently sent him money and he had had no great success in life, but he had a wife and family. Fanny wrote to Betty Poli: 'What I have suffered these last days you cannot imagine….. My heart has now lost everything.'

Fanny died in 1884.


Theresa Breslin said...

Thanks for this Louisa. I hope the rose, when it arrives, gives you as much pleasure as finding out about its origin obviously did. Loved the "abbreviated garments" quote and the Fannytics!

Joan Lennon said...

What a story!!! Thank you for sharing it.

adele said...

Wonderful! Must read again. Have only just seen this and will tweet it later!

adele said...

Wonderful! Must read again. Have only just seen this and will tweet it later!