Image: the Paris Opera.
“Elisabeth “Eliza/Élisa” Rachel Félix (also Elizabeth-Rachel Félix), better known only as Mademoiselle Rachel (February 21, 1821 – January 3, 1858), was a French actress. She became a prominent figure in French society, and was the mistress of, among others, Napoleon III and Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte. Efforts by newspapers to publish pictures of her on her deathbed led to the introduction of privacy rights into French law.
Rachel Félix was born Elisa Félix on February 28, 1821, in Mumpf, Rheinfelden, Aargau. Her father, Jacob Félix, was a peddler and her mother, Esther Hayer, was a Bohemian dealer in second-hand clothes. She had four sisters (Sarah, Rebecca, Dinah, and Leah) and one brother, Raphael.
As a child, Félix earned money singing and reciting in the streets. She arrived in Paris in 1830 intending to become an actress. She took elocution and singing lessons, eventually studying under the instruction of the musician Alexandre-Étienne Choron and Saint-Aulaire. She also took dramatic arts classes at the Conservatoire. She debuted in La Vendéenne in January 1837, at the Théâtre du Gymnase. Delestre-Poirson, the director, gave her the stage name Rachel, which she chose to keep in her private life.
Rachel was described as a very serious and committed student. She was admired for her intelligence, work ethic, diction, and ability to act. Auditioning in March, 1838, she starred in Pierre Corneille’s Horace at the Théâtre-Français at the age of 17. During this time she also began a liaison with Louis Véron, the former director of the Paris Opera, which became the subject of much gossip. From 1838 to 1842, she lived in a third-floor apartment in Paris’s Galerie Véro-Dodat.
Her fame spread throughout Europe after success in London in 1841, and she was often associated with the works of Racine, Voltaire, and Corneille. She toured Brussels, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. Though French classical tragedy was no longer popular at the time Rachel entered the stage of Comédie-Française, she remained true to her classical roots, arousing audiences with a craving for the tragic style of writers like Corneille, Racine and Molière. She created the title role in Eugène Scribe’s Adrienne Lecouvreur. Her acting style was characterized by clear diction and economy of gesture; she evoked a high demand for classical tragedy to remain on the stage. This represented a major change from the exaggerated style of those days, as society was beginning to demand the highly emotional, realistic, instinctual acting styles of the Romantics. Félix completely rejected the Romantic Drama movement happening in nineteenth-century France. She was best known for her portrayal of the title role in Phèdre. Eliza Rachel, as the actress was also known, was reportedly a great tragedienne.
Félix became the mistress of Napoleon I’s son, Alexandre Joseph Count Colonna-Walewski, and together they had a son, Alexandre Colonna-Walewski, in 1844. He entered the diplomatic service and died at his post in Turin in 1898. After an affair with Arthur Bertrand, Félix left for England. There she briefly had an affair with Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III, as well as with Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte. Her second son, Gabriel-Victor Félix, was never acknowledged by Bertrand. He became a navy man and died in the Congo in 1889. Rachel never married, although she had many lovers. When Walewski upbraided her for not remaining faithful to him, she retorted, “I am as I am; I prefer renters to owners.”
Félix’s health declined after a long tour of Russia. She died of tuberculosis in Le Cannet, Alpes-Maritimes, France. Upon her deathbed, she wrote many farewell letters to her sons, family members, lovers, colleagues and theatre connections at Comédie-Française. She is buried in a mausoleum in the Jewish part of Père Lachaise Cemetery and fr:Avenue Rachel in Paris was named after her. The English theatre critic James Agate published a biography of her in 1928, which echoes the anti-Semitism of his day. A modern account of her life and legacy by Rachel Brownstein was published in 1995.
The character Vashti in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette was based on Félix, whom Brontë had seen perform in London.
Rachel, a light tannish colour, primarily for face-powder used in artificial light, is named after her. The raschel knitting-machine is according to the OED also named after her.”