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Enchantress of Nations, By Michael Steen

The mezzo-soprano who had 19th century society at her feet

Hot on the heels of Cecilia Bartoli's celebratory reincarnation of Maria Malibran – the first great Parisian mezzo-soprano – Michael Steen has published this hugely enjoyable book on her younger sister Pauline, whose comparable success as a mezzo was almost the least of her achievements. While Maria died from a fall from her horse aged 28, Pauline filled her 89 years with so much creativity and sociability as to take the breath away.

She was no beauty, had terrible stage nerves, and her powerful voice tended towards harshness, but Rossini was her ardent fan and Saint-Saëns created his Dalila for her. Her charisma knocked Dickens, Alfred de Musset, and Charles Gounod – with whom she had a teasing lifelong dalliance – down like ninepins. But her 40-year relationship with Ivan Turgenev was of an entirely different order. As Steen convincingly argues, without the Russian writer's limpet-like attachment to Pauline his work might have lacked its bitter centre of gravity. Meanwhile, her salons acted as a magnet for everybody who was anybody in the cultural life of Paris in the mid-19th century.

Pauline's amiably conspiratorial friendship with George Sand – who modelled the heroines of two novels on her – took her to the heart of one set: she sang arias from Mozart's Requiem at Chopin's funeral. Family connections had propelled her towards piano lessons with Liszt, who admired her singing in return. By marrying the austere intellectual Louis Viardot, she found herself playing hostess to Flaubert, Maupassant, Henry James and their ilk; she first accepted then rejected Gabriel Fauré as a son-in-law, and helped Berlioz on Les Troyens.

When she and her husband emigrated to Baden-Baden in disgust at the excesses of the Second Empire, she built her own theatre, where she performed in the operettas she compulsively wrote. Brahms was one of her domestic devotees, while with Clara Schumann – who meekly accepted her position on Pauline's B-list for grand events – she maintained a faithful friendship.

Steen's book is more than a biography. It's both a zealously researched portrait of an age, and an intimate portrait of the great figure always close to the action. Did Pauline go to bed with Turgenev? Steen weighs the evidence, and says no. No matter: we see the writer here from fascinating new angles, railing at being "tied to a skirt", and joining in home theatricals like a lugubrious performing bear.

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