Harriet Smithson

po_Smithson-HarrietHenrietta Constance (Harriet) Smithson (March 18, 1800 – March 3, 1854) was an Anglo-Irish actress.

Smithson was the first wife of Hector Berlioz, and the inspiration for his Symphonie fantastique.

She made her first stage appearance in 1814 at the Crow Street Theatre, Dublin, as Albina Mandeville in Frederick Reynolds’s The Will. Three years later she made her first London appearance at Drury Lane as Letitia Hardy in The Belle’s Stratagem.

Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in Hamlet
Harriet Smithson as Ophelia in Hamlet

Smithson had no particular success in England, but went to Paris in 1828 and 1832, first with William Charles Macready. There she aroused immense enthusiasm as Desdemona, Juliet, and as Jane in The Tragedy of Jane Shore by Nicholas Rowe. She attracted a host of admirers, among them Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz discovered her at the Odéon Theater performing the roles of Juliet po_Smithson-Harriet3and Ophelia and immediately fell in love with her, sending her letters despite never having met her. This continued until the 1832 performance of Lélio, a sequel to his Symphonie fantastique, when he discovered a mutual acquaintance and offered her a box of tickets. She came to the performance, realizing that the symphony was about her (as was strongly suggested by the program notes) and they married in 1833 at the British Embassy in Paris.

At the time of her wedding, her popularity was past and she was deeply in debt, a factor believed to have strongly influenced her decision to marry. A benefit was given her, but she was coldly received. She retired from the stage. Louis Berlioz, the only child of Hector and Harriet, was born on August 14, 1834 (d. 1867). By about 1840, the marriage was failing, and Berlioz had begun an affair with Marie Recio, whom he was to marry after Smithson’s death. Smithson moved out of the matrimonial home on the rue Saint Vincent, Montmartre, to the rue Blanche in 1843, still financially supported by Berlioz. She was to return to her former home on the rue Saint Vincent in 1849, long after Berlioz had left it.