The Divine Sarah


Several months ago, as we were moving from house to condo and clearing accumulated junk was the order of the day, I came across a book that has graced my shelves for a long, long time. A book I had never read – The Divine Sarah by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.

The cover features a picture of Sarah Bernhardt lounging seductively on a red divan, feathered fan in one hand, a dog curled at her feet. My hand hovered. Should this biography be placed in the donation pile or should I continue to keep it in the hope of one day reading about this woman who captivated theatre goers around the world?

A sudden thought. Perhaps, this could be the subject of my next novel. Decision made, I kept the book and finally began reading The Divine Sarah three weeks ago. Notepad and pen in hand, possibilities beckoned.

Born October 23, 1844 to Julie Bernard, a courtesan who spent most of her time and effort on the men in her life, Sarah was sent to Brittany as a little girl to be raised by a peasant nurse and later to boarding school and finally a convent school. Convinced of her destiny as a nun, Sarah rejects her mother’s attempts to find a suitable husband, however, one of Julie’s lovers suggests an acting career and after seeing a production at the Comedie Francaise, Sarah is hooked.

Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale do an admirable job of documenting Sarah’s life, weaving narrative with letters, diaries and written accounts of others close to the actress, but in the end Sarah Bernhardt emerges as a woman with countless lovers, an insatiable thirst for the stage and an endless series of acting roles and lavish productions. And 330 pages later, I am left with a feeling of ‘ho hum’. Not that Bernhardt wasn’t a woman of grit with an indomitable spirit and a fierce commitment to her art, but I wasn’t as captivated as I had expected to be and certainly not enough to spend at least two years creating a novel around her life.

Ah well, c’est la vie.

An update as of October 2016 … Sarah has made her way into my current WIP as a minor character during the siege of Paris. Turns out there was a little fuel in this book after all.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


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7 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post Mary, two things particularly struck me when reading it.

    First that inspiration can come from anywhere, even the subject of a nearly discarded biography. I can feel your anticipation ’Notepad and pen in hand, possibilities beckoned.’

    Second that in order to write about a subject, there needs to be a connection of some sort – which didn’t happen in this instance – ‘I wasn’t as captivated as I had expected to be and certainly not enough to spend at least two years creating a novel around her life.’

    Bravo for acknowledging this and for stepping away.

    I’m sure you’ll soon find a new source of inspiration for that next novel.

    1. Many thanks, Sue. I read an account in a magazine recently about a totally dysfunctional family – tyrannical, workaholic father with adult children who vie for his attention and secretly undermine one another, brash wife from a poverty stricken background, corporate advisors who are scheming to wrest control of the business empire – could be a good story. And it’s true! In the meantime, I’m still working on book three 🙂

  2. Writers seek inspiration from all sources, Mary. This one sounded incredibly fruitful but didn’t live up to expectations. I agree with Sue – there has to be that vital kernel of connection to fire your imagination, and to sustain the endless challenges involved with creating a novel. Good luck with your search!

  3. If not the central character, she can always make an appearance. Maybe as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian war rather than on stage.

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