Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Legend of Roma Guillon Lethière

Roma Guillon Lethière

I was once an enthusiastic reader of John le Carré’s novels. A crucial element of the plot of Smiley’s People (1979) is the creation of a ‘legend’ or cover story for a girl by the Soviet spymaster Karla which ultimately enables the eponymous antihero to force his opponent to defect.

In the past months I have become increasingly frustrated and obsessed by the legends created by our ancestors. What once was known of the truth has moved from whispers into oblivion as the generations have passed.

These legends seem to have had two functions. On one hand they created personae for the theatre which were perhaps very different from reality. These emphasise or enhance the truth and build memorable publicity for the performer.

This is no different from what happens today and to a certain extent we all do it. The social processes of constructing family histories select a handful of ancestors which will be remembered while thousands are entirely forgotten or are no more than a name printed on a genealogical diagram.

On the other hand, it was important that the legends of the d’Egvilles and the Michaus should not be a hindrance to them as they moved and marketed themselves among the upper echelons of British society.

Roma Guillon LeThière (c1837-1903) was a prominent actress in her day and her artistic antecedents are carefully cited. In Pen, Pencil Baton and Mask: Biographical Sketches by Helen C. Black (1896),
Roma Guillon Le Thiere is the daughter of the late Guyon Le Thiere, formerly in the Imperial Guard at Waterloo, afterwards a civil engineer. Her grandfather, Captain Augustus Bizet who was shot in the retreat from Moscow was Member of the Paris Institute and Director of the French Academy at Rome, in which glorious city she was born. His widow one of the Harve D'Egvilles re-married, and was the celebrated Madame Michau of Brighton, ballet ' master,' teacher of dancing, and mistress of the ceremonies to Kings George IV. and William. Roma Le Thiere was brought up by her mother from whom she inherits her artistic talents in strict Evangelican doctrines. On the death of her father, pecuniary circumstances made it necessary that the young girl should do something to provide for herself and her beloved mother. Her first step was to write to a valued friend, Mr. George Augustus Sala, and ask his advice. He replied, 'Go on the stage,' to which she answered, ' Have you lost your wits ? I know nothing about it.' The journalist knew better. ' Go on the stage,' he reiterated ; ' if I know you aright, you will make your way

Perhaps because of her ‘Evangelican’ principles Roma lives a full life; her spare time is spent knitting woollens for the poor and persuading them to swear off the booze,
Although a strict Churchwoman, she makes no distinctions, and the warm, tender heart is open to all alike ; but her aid is given in a methodical and practical manner. She wins the confidence and affection of these humble friends, and speaks with joy of their many proofs of appreciation, such as in the case of habitual drunkards, when several took the pledge on her birthday ' because it was the only present we could give you, miss.' 'And they kept it, too,' says Miss Le Thiere impressively, while the good, earnest face beams with interest. ' My visits to my district have often comforted me in my own troubles, but I never let my skeletons dance in public. I keep them to perform their little fandangos in strict privacy at home,' she adds,laughing.

The bones of this biography are to be found in George Augustus Sala’s 1895 autobiography, The Life and Adventures of George Augustus Sala written by himself,
Her [Madame Michau’s] eldest daughter, Sophie Bizet, married a son of the celebrated historical painter, Baron Le Thiere, who, under the First Empire was Director of the French Academy at Rome; and she had a daughter, who still lives to be admired and respected by the members of that dramatic profession which she has for some years past adorned.
Guillaume Guillon known as LeThière (1760-1832) was born in Guadeloupe to Pierre Guillon, a French official, and a ‘mulatto’ mother. LeThière (meaning ‘the third’) became a painter in the neoclassical style, was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and was a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. Guillaume married at least twice and at least one of his sons was born out of wedlock.

LeThière’s three known sons were Alexandre, Auguste and Lucien; either Alexandre or Auguste was his natural son. Adèle Sophie Bizet d’Egville’s marriage lines from 30 July 1835 give her groom’s name as ‘Auguste Guillon Saint Leger’ and then the writing becomes difficult to decipher, but his surname appears to be LeThière.

So Roma’s legend did not start with her theatrical biography but in the previous generation. Which skeletons would have performed an embarrassing public dance?

Firstly, although I found other references to the Baron LeThière I haven’t yet found it recorded that he was created a Baron de l’Empire. Secondly, I have found no references to a Bizet who was secretary to Napoleon. This might be entirely due to the sources to which I have access for the purposes of blogging. Thirdly, if Roma’s father is Auguste LeThière then she would have had two illegitimate sisters as he is known to have fathered two natural daughters. Finally, as a Victorian lady in the public eye would she feel able to declare that her grandfather was black?

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