Clarion Calls: An Actress’s Shrieking Phantom

The actress Hippolyte Clarion as Medea.

The actress Hippolyte Clarion as Medea.

Today we return again to eighteenth-century France in a two-part story of post-mortem obsession, of an ongoing banshee-like persecution, and of a phantom shooter.  I’m taking the lazy way out, and giving a translation from Spiritualist Robert Dale Owen, who adds his own introduction and comments.

The story is related by La Clarion, one of France’s greatest tragic actresses [1723-1803] in one of her memoirs. It has been suggested that this book, which glosses over some of the irregularities of her life, is a shade over-dramatic. There does seem to be a lot of swooning and insensibility going on, as one might expect from a book titled Mémoires d’Hippolyte Clairon et reflexions sur l’art dramatique. (1799) The very phrase “French actress” in Owen’s title would have conveyed to his readers that the lady was apt to be declamatory, histrionic, and, it went without saying, no better than she should be.  If you care to read the original, you’ll find it here, beginning on page one.

WHAT A FRENCH ACTRESS SUFFERED.

Mademoiselle Claire-Josephe Clairon was the great French tragedian of the last century. She occupied, in her day, a position similar to that which Rachel has recently filled. Marmontel was one of her warmest eulogists; and her talents were celebrated in the verses of Voltaire.

Her beauty, her grace, and her genius won for her many enthusiastic admirers; some professing friendship, others offering love. Among the latter, in the year 1743, was a young man, Monsieur de S__, son of a merchant of Brittany, whose attachment appears to have been of the most devoted kind.

The circumstances connected with this young man’s death, and the events which succeeded it, are of an extraordinary character: but they come to us from first hand, and remarkably well authenticated, being detailed by Mademoiselle Clairon herself, in her autobiography, from which I translate the essential part of the narrative, as follows:—

“The language and manners of Monsieur de S__ gave evidence of an excellent education and of the habit of good society. His reserve, his timidity, which deterred all advances except by little attentions and by the language of the eyes, caused me to distinguish him from others. After having met him frequently in society, I at last permitted him to visit me at my own house, and did not conceal from him the friendship with which he inspired me. Seeing me at liberty, and well inclined towards him, he was content to be patient, hoping that time might create in me a warmer sentiment. I could not tell—who can?—how it would result. But, when he came to reply candidly to the

questions which my reason and curiosity prompted, he himself destroyed the chance he might have had. Ashamed of being a commoner only, he had converted his property into ready funds, and, had come to Paris to spend his money, aping a rank above his own. This displeased me. He who blushes for himself causes others to despise him. Besides this, his temperament was melancholy and misanthropic: he knew mankind too well, he said, not to contemn and to avoid them. His project was to see no one but myself, and to carry me off where I should see only him. That, as may be supposed, did not suit me at all. I was willing to be guided by a flowery band, but not to be fettered with chains. From that moment, I saw the necessity of destroying entirely the hopes he nourished, and of changing his assiduities of every day to occasional visits, few and far between. This caused him a severe illness, during which I nursed him with every possible care. But my constant refusals aggravated the case; and, unfortunately for the poor fellow, his brother-in-law, to whom he had intrusted the care of his funds, failed to make remittances, so that he was fain to accept the scanty supply of spare cash I had, to furnish him with food and medical assistance.” . . . Finally, he recovered his property, but not his health; and, desiring for his own sake to keep him at a distance from me, I steadily refused both his letters and his visits.

Two years and a half elapsed between the time of our first acquaintance and his death. He sent, in his last moments, to beg that I would grant him the happiness of seeing me once more; but my friends hindered me from doing so. He died, having no one near him but his servants and an old lady, who for some time had been his only society. His apartments were then on the Rempart, near the Chaussée d’Antin; mine, in the Rue de Bassy, near the monastery of Saint-Germain.

“That evening my mother and several other friends were supping with me—among them, the Intendant of the Menus-Plaisirs, whose professional aid I constantly required, that excellent fellow Pipelet, and Rosely, a comrade of mine and a young man of good family, witty and talented. The supper was gay. I had just been singing to them, and they applauding me, when, as eleven o’clock struck, a piercing cry was heard. Its heart-rending tone and the length of time it continued struck everyone with astonishment. I fainted, and remained for a quarter of an hour totally unconscious.” …”When I recovered, I begged them to remain with me part of the night. We reasoned much in regard to this strange cry; and it was agreed to have spies set in the street, so that, in case of its repetition, we might detect its cause and its author.

“Every succeeding night, always at the same hour, the same cry was repeated, sounding immediately beneath my windows, and appearing to issue from the vacant air. My people, my guests, my neighbours, the police, all heard it alike. I could not doubt that it was intended for me. I seldom supped from home, but when I did, nothing was heard there; and several times, when I returned later than eleven, and inquired of my mother, or the servants, if anything had been heard of it, suddenly it burst forth in the midst of us.

“One evening the President de B__, with whom I had been supping, escorted me home, and, at the moment he bade me good night at the door of my apartment, the cry exploded between him and myself. He was quite familiar with the story, for all Paris knew it; yet he was carried to his carriage more dead than alive.

“Another day I begged my comrade Rosely to accompany me, first to the Rue Saint-Honore, to make some purchases, afterwards to visit my friend Mademoiselle de Saint-P__, who resided near the Porte Saint-Denis. Our sole topic of conversation all the way was my ghost, as I used to call it. The young man, witty and unbelieving, begged me to evoke the phantom, promising to believe in it if it replied. Whether from weakness or audacity, I acceded to his request. Thrice, on the instant, the cry sounded, rapid and terrible in its repetition. When we arrived at my friend’s house, Rosely and I had to be carried in. We were both found lying senseless in the carriage.

“After this scene, I remained several months without hearing anything more; and I began to hope that the disturbance had ceased. I was mistaken.

“The theatre had been ordered to Versailles, on occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin. We were to remain there three days. We were insufficiently provided with apartments. Madame Grandval had none. We waited half the night in hopes that one would be assigned to her. At three o’clock in the morning I offered her one of the two beds in my room, which was in the Avenue de Saint-Cloud. She accepted it. I occupied the other bed; and as my maid was undressing, to sleep beside me, I said to her, ‘Here we are at the end of the world, and with such frightful weather! I think it would puzzle the ghost to find us out here.’ The same cry, on the instant! Madame Grandval thought that hell itself was let loose in the room. In her night-dress she rushed down stairs, from the top to the bottom. Not a soul in the house slept another wink that night. This was, however, the last time I ever heard it.

Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, Robert Dale Owen, 1860

Curse those damn’d Dashes of Discretion! I’d like to know more about the unfortunate Monsieur de S__.  He seems to have been obsessed with the lady, like one of those celebrity stalkers who fantasize about a movie star being in love with them. We’ll hear more from him in the next post.

Elizabeth, Baroness Craven, who knew a thing or two about scandal, writes of La Clarion by way of preface to the story above: “She contrived, however, during the early part of her life, to have three lovers at a time constantly in her train—one whom she deceived; one whom she received à la dérobée; and one who lived on sighs.” [Memoirs of the Margravine of Anspach, Written by Herself, Elizabeth, Baroness Craven, London, 1826]

There was no love lost between the two ladies—Craven supplanted Clarion as the Margrave’s mistress and later married him. Oddly, she does not discount the weird story above, even though she writes of Clarion’s manipulation, loose morals, and malice. There seem to be a great many witnesses to the piercing cries: a kind of banshee after the fact: reminding the lady of her lover’s death, rather than predicting it. A curious feature is the stunning effect the shrieks seemed to have on the hearers, almost like sonic weapony, to judge by the deathly swoons they provoked.

In part deux of the story, we’ll find more auditory phenomena—and a phantom shooter–plaguing the actress.