Many of us think of the Regency era as being very proper, with well-bred people traipsing about in orderly groups and participating in elegant activities. This was true, but only to a point. Alongside those gently-bred ladies and men lived a host of colorful characters. The Prince Regent himself was no small personality, with his ever-enlarging girth and constant demands on the Treasury—but that’s a post for another day.
One of the colorful personalities that is hardly mentioned in modern literature, but who undoubtedly was known by name to almost all the members of the Regency ton, was Madame Saqui, a tightrope walker and gymnast. Saqui’s feats of agility stunned and amazed audiences for nearly 30 years—her last performance was at the age of 69.
Described as “a short, thin, wiry little woman,” Saqui did not fit into the established ideal of femininity, and sometimes received rather rude press regarding her “deformed” body. This didn’t seem to faze her, however, probably because she knew very well that her body was the perfect build for acrobatics.
Saqui’s crowds of fans didn’t seem to care what she looked like—they only cared that she could do amazing things on a tightrope, with fireworks whizzing around her. She regularly sold out shows at Covent Garden, played to packed crowds at Vauxhall Gardens, and was the headliner at the Prince Regent’s birthday party.
Madame Saqui’s career started when she appeared in Paris just in time to see the reigning tightrope walker, Tivoli, fall from his rope. Seeing that he could not go back on, Saqui instantly took his place, and basically took over for him. She captivated French audiences year after year, and her fame became such that Napoleon chose her to ignite the fireworks that welcomed his bride into Paris.
After the fall of Napoleon, Saqui took rather a brazen step and came to England, but despite the prevailing anti-French feeling, she was an instant success. One of her first performances was called “a terrifically grand spectacle” by an onlooker, and Saqui the “heroine of the piece.”
Saqui’s style was what set her apart. It was described as “fantastic rather than graceful, abrupt and fearless, striking by its originality rather than charming by its elegance.” She wore flamboyant costumes and tall headdresses that captured the eye and interest. Rather than adopting the slow and ballet-like movements of other tightrope artists of the time, Saqui chose to display her athleticism with quick, energetic routines, often with an element of surprise. She acted out famous battles on a horizontal rope, or charged up a nearly vertical one into a blaze of fireworks, or dropped from the sky, as if from nowhere.
There was one moment in her sparkling career where Saqui fell from favor. She was so beloved of Napoleon that she became overconfident and daringly placed an eagle—his symbol—on her carriage. She rode in this carriage triumphantly around France, performing for troops between battles in the Peninsular war, until the eagle was noticed by an official. Napoleon ordered her to remove it, and Saqui, humiliated by his rejection, went into a sort of self-exile. But then the Emperor was defeated only a few years later, and she was forced to find a new patron anyway.
To all appearances, this hiccup didn’t harm her much. Her career in England rivaled her success in France, and she was never out of work or low on praise until she retired from public performances in 1845. Even then, a theater she had opened with her husband continued to bring her fame until Messr. Saqui died, and his brother wasted all the profits on fantastic and ridiculous schemes that all failed.
Poor Madame Saqui grew bitter and pompous in her old age, reliving every golden moment to spite everyone around her. She was, to use a worn-out phrase, a fallen star, born to shine brightly and to dim into obscurity. But her legacy lived on in many subsequent fearless and enterprising funambulists (yes, that’s a real word, and it means “fun to walk”—just kidding, it means tightrope walker).