My mother was fond of travelling: she would go from Spain to England, from London to Paris, from Paris to Berlin, and from there to Christiania; then she would come back, embrace me, and set out again for Holland, her native country. She used to send my nurse clothing for herself and cakes for me. To one of my aunts she would write: "Look after little Sarah; I shall return in a month's time." A month later she would write to another of her sisters: "Go and see the child at her nurse's; I shall be back in a couple of weeks."
My mother's age was nineteen; I was three years old, and my two aunts were seventeen and twenty years of age; another aunt was fifteen, and the eldest was twenty-eight; but the last one lived at Martinique, and was the mother of six children. My grandmother was blind, my grandfather dead, and my father had been in China for the last two years. I have no idea why he had gone there.
My youthful aunts always promised to come to see me, but rarely kept their word. My nurse hailed from Brittany, and lived near Quimperlé, in a little white house with a low thatched roof, on which wild gilly-flowers grew. That was the first flower which charmed my eyes as a child, and I have loved it ever since. Its leaves are heavy and sad-looking, and its petals are made of the setting sun.
The most tempestuous and possibly the most famous actress of her time, Bernhardt (1844-1923) kept a coffin by her bedroom window in which she lay "to learn my parts." Needless to say, the border between acting and life was tenuous for her. Bernhardt's two-volume memoir was originally published in English in an anonymous translation in 1907; this new translation, gracefully accomplished despite occasional anachronisms ("gofer"), is an abridgment of the first volume. Bernhardt, illegitimate although with some family money on both sides, is presented as both melodramatic and frustratingly discreet. We never learn the identity of her father, nor anything significant about her son Maurice's birth (she doesn't even mention that he was illegitimate). A husband, unnamed, emerges only once from the shadows. Still, Bernhardt writes vividly and with apparent honesty about her "thin and sorrowful visage," her troublesome failures to abide by contracts, and occasions when she "performed very badly." Most memorable is the German siege of Paris in 1870- 1871, when she turned her theater, the Odeon, into a military hospital, scrounged for provisions in the isolated city and burned the seats and props for warmth. Despite her failure to deliver on the teasing promise of her title, Bernhardt can be quite winning. She concludes by remarking, "My life, which I had at first expected to be very short, now seemed likely to be very very long; and it gave me great joy to think of the infernal displeasure that would cause my enemies."