Richard Brinsley Sheridan

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, orator and author, son of the two preceding, was born at 12 Dorset-street, Dublin, in September 1751. At the age of seven, he was, with his elder brother Charles, placed at Whyte's academy in Grafton-street, where he was considered very dull. His parents removed to England, and in 1762 he was sent to Harrow, where, Moore says, "he was remarkable only as a very idle, careless, but, at the same time, engaging boy, who contrived to win the affection and even admiration of the whole school, both masters and pupils, by the mere charm of his frank and genial manners, and by the occasional gleams of superior intellect which broke through all the indolence and indifference of his character." During the greater part of his stay at Harrow, his family resided in France. He left Harrow when he was about eighteen, and went to live with his father in London, and sometimes at Bath. He spent his time perfecting himself in fencing and other accomplishments.

He formed an intimacy with a Mr. Halhed, and they wrote in partnership, Jupiter, a farce, and some other ephemeral productions, and in August 1771 published a translation of Aristsenetus, which proved a total failure. Both young men fell in love with Miss Linley, a beautiful singer of sixteen. She had been on the point of marriage to a rich elderly gentleman, whose suit her father favoured from mercenary reasons, but who, on her assurance that she could never really love him, showed the sincerity of his attachment by settling £3,000 upon her. It was probably at this period that, inspired by Miss Linley's beauty, Sheridan wrote "Dry be that tear," and others of his beautiful love verses. Mr. Halhed eventually resigned the pursuit of Miss Linley and went to India; and Sheridan eloped with her to Calais, where they were secretly married in March 1772. He was then little more than twenty, and she was entering but her eighteenth year. The young couple were married at Bath about a year afterwards. As he declined to allow his wife to sing in public, and as he was without a regular profession, the remnants of her fortune, and his talents were all they had to live upon.

He wrote occasionally for Woodfall's Public Advertiser. In January 1775, his comedy of The Rivals was brought out at Covent-garden. It proved a brilliant success almost from the first, and has ever since held its place on the stage. Towards the end of the same year his opera of The Duenna was first acted. It was equally successful, and had a run of seventy-five nights the first season, longer even than the first run of The Beggars' Opera. About this time it became known that Garrick meant to part with his moiety of the patent of Drury-lane Theatre, and retire from the stage. After some negotiation, Sheridan, then only in his twenty-fifth year, became patentee and manager — the price of the moiety (£35,000) being made up between himself, Mr. Linley, and Dr. Ford. We are not informed how he managed to raise his share — £10,000. Mr. Moore remarks: "There was, indeed, something mysterious and miraculous about all his acquisitions, whether in love, in learning, in wit, or in wealth. How or when his stock of knowledge was laid in, nobody knew; it was as much a matter of marvel to those who never saw him read, as the mode of existence of the chameleon has been to those who fancied it never eat. His advances in the heart of his mistress were, as we have seen, equally trackless and inaudible; and his triumph was the first that even rivals knew of his love. In like manner, the productions of his wit took the world by surprise — being perfected in secret, till ready for display, and then seeming to break from under the cloud of his indolence in full maturity of splendour.

His financial resources had no less an air of magic about them; but the mode by which he conjured up, at this time, the money for his first purchase into the theatre, remains, as far as I can learn, still a mystery." The sketch of his masterpiece, The School for Scandal, was perhaps written before The Rivals, or at latest soon after; it was first represented in May 1777. Such, was the predominant attraction of this comedy, says Mr. Moore, "during the two years subsequent to its first appearance, that, in the official account of receipts for 1779, we find the following remark subjoined by the Treasurer: 'School for Scandal damped the new pieces.' I have traced it by the same unequivocal marks of success through the years 1780 and 1781, and find the nights of its representations always rivalling those on which the King went to the theatre, in the magnitude of their receipts." The merits of this comedy are so universally acknowledged, that it is unnecessary to expatiate upon them. Sheridan wrote many plays, but The Rivals, The School for Scandal, and The Critic stand out pre-eminently as his best. In 1778 he bought Mr. Lacy's moiety of the theatre for £45,000, and portions of his partners' shares, so as to make up his own interest to three-fourths of the whole. This arrangement was brought about by a series of financial operations and loans that afterwards involved him in disgrace and misery.

His increased influence in the affairs of the theatre enabled him to appoint his father to the management, and thus put an end to an unhappy estrangement which for years had existed between them. His mind must have been for some time gravitating towards politics. Amongst his manuscripts were the sheets of an essay on absentees, written about 1778, when The School for Scandal was in its first blush of success. His intimacy with Fox, Burke, Windham, and other public men, and the habit of discussing with them questions of the day, tended to foster a taste for public life. His thirst for distinction, and quick apprehension of the service his talents might render in the warfare of party, hastened the result that both he and his friends desired. In 1780 he supported Fox's resolutions on the state of the representation (including a declaration in favour of annual parliaments and universal suffrage), and, in October 1780, he took his seat as member for Stafford, and bade adieu for ever to dramatic authorship. His seat in Parliament (including £5 5s. each to 248 burgesses) cost him £1,440, besides £800 spent during the six subsequent years "in keeping it warm." Sheridan's maiden speech on 20th November was listened to with breathless attention. After its conclusion, he went to Woodfall in the gallery, and asked with much anxiety what he thought of his first attempt. "I am sorry to say I do not think that this is your line," he replied; "you had much better have stuck to your former pursuits." Sheridan rested his head on his hand for a few minutes, and then vehemently exclaimed: "It is in me, however, and by it shall come out."

His speech on 5th March 1781 was most effective, yet he spoke but seldom — even on the question of the American war, in which he took a deep interest. His friends came into power in 1782, and he was appointed one of the Under-Secretaries of State, and in 1783 Secretary of the Treasury. The efforts of Grattan's party for the elevation of Ireland received his hearty support. Through his influence, his brother Charles was appointed Secretary of War in Ireland. In 1785 he strenuously opposed Orde's Commercial Propositions, which were so unfavourably regarded by the Irish national party. Sheridan entered with zeal into the impeachment of Warren Hastings — on 7th February 1789, delivering a speech on the charge relative to the Begum Princesses of Oude, the effect of which is said to have been without parallel. Burke described it as "the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit united, of which there was any record or tradition;" whilst Fox said: "All that he had ever heard, all that he had ever read, when compared with it, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun." Pitt acknowledged that this great speech "surpassed all the eloquence of ancient or modern times, and possessed everything that genius or art could furnish, to agitate and control the human mind." No report of this famous five-hour speech exists — Sheridan's habits of procrastination preventing him answering the appeals of his friends on the subject. On opening the impeachment he occupied four days with an address, which Burke said was unmatched for its splendour. Moore writes as follows: "Good sense and wit were the great weapons of his oratory — shrewdness in detecting the weak points of an adversary, and infinite powers of raillery in exposing it. These were faculties which he possessed in a greater degree than any of his cotemporaries.... His attempts at the florid or figurative style, whether in his speeches or writings, were seldom very successful. That luxuriance of fancy which in Burke was natural and indigenous, was in him rather a forced and exotic growth."

In the summer of 1788 he lost his father, and his wife lost her sister, Mrs. Tickell, to whom she was tenderly attached, and to whose children she devoted herself the rest of her life. Sheridan was a special favourite with the Prince of Wales; he advocated in Parliament the payment of his debts, and in 1788 took an active part in the negotiations and debates regarding the Regency. He may be considered at this period as at the summit of success. Among the brilliant circle in which he shone, the gaiety of his spirits amounted almost to boyishness; — he delighted in dramatic tricks and disguises; and the lively parties with which his country-house was always filled were ever kept in momentary expectation of some new device for their mystification and amusement. At the same time he was plunging deeper and deeper into debt, and was obliged to put forth all his ingenuity to avoid writs, bonds, and judgments. Mrs. Sheridan died in June 1792, after lengthened illness. She had been a true wife, the sharer of all his cares; yet the marriage had not been particularly happy. His grief, at first apparently intense, was essentially shallow.

Within five months of her death he offered his hand to the child Pamela, believed to be the daughter of Madame de Genlis, who was afterwards married to Lord Edward FitzGerald. Circumstances gradually tended to alienate Sheridan, not only from his great countryman Burke, but also to some extent from Fox. One cause of estrangement between him and Burke arose in the progress of the French Revolution. In the spring of 1795 Sheridan married Miss Ogle, daughter of the Dean of Winchester. With her fortune of £5,000, and £15,000 raised by the sale of Drury-lane shares, he bought the estate of Polesden, in Surrey, which he settled upon her. In the session of 1795 Sheridan again supported a proposal for the payment of £630,000 of the Prince's debts, and he endeavoured to excuse the violation of the Prince's promise, made eight years before, when his debts were being cleared off, that he would contract no more. His prompt action and wise advice during the mutiny at the Nore, raised him considerably in public estimation, and showed that while favouring popular measures he was sincerely opposed to all revolutionary movements.

During the Insurrection of 1798 he vindicated the action of the liberal party in Ireland, and denounced in Parliament "those wicked ministers who have given up that devoted country to plunder — resigned it a prey to this faction by which it has so long been trampled upon, and abandoned it to every species of insult and oppression by which a country was ever overwhelmed, or the spirit of a people insulted... When conciliation was held out to the people of Ireland, was there any discontent? When the government of Ireland was agreeable to the people, was there any discontent?" Nor was he less strenuous and consistent in his opposition to the Union. Concerning the misgovernment of Ireland, and the disabilities of the Catholics, his action, later on, continued to be uniform and consistent — he even opposed Grattan in his support of an Insurrection Act. Early in 1804 the office of Receiver of the Duchy of Cornwall was bestowed upon him by the Prince of Wales, "as a trifling proof of that sincere friendship his Royal Highness had always professed and felt for him through a long series of years." In his letter of thanks Sheridan speaks of the Prince as one "by whom to be esteemed is the glory and consolation of my private and public life;" and concludes with the words: "There never did exist to monarch, prince, or man, a firmer or purer attachment than I feel, and to my death shall feel, to you, my gracious prince and master."

In 1806 Sheridan was elected member for Westminster. The loss of this seat at the next election was a great mortification and a serious blow to his prestige, although he was returned for Ilchester. The destruction of Drury-lane Theatre by fire in 1809 completed his financial ruin. He was called out of the House of Commons on the occasion, and is reported to have said to a friend who remarked on the philosophical calmness with which he sat in view of the fire taking some refreshment: "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fire-side." Mr. Whitbread endeavoured to lighten Sheridan's difficulties by taking upon himself the responsibilities of the theatre and its rebuilding, but received the return too often accorded to those who strive to help men hopelessly involved. Sheridan before long came to regard him as his bitterest enemy — the author of all his misfortunes. Whitbread was perhaps the only person he had ever found proof against his powers of persuasion-and this rigidity naturally mortified Sheridan's pride full as much as it thwarted and disconcerted his plans. His failure, in 1812, to be returned for Stafford ended his political career. He was now excluded from the theatre and from Parliament — his two dependencies in life were gone, and he was left a helpless wreck. It is to his credit that he refused the Prince's offer again to bring him into Parliament. He was forced to part with all his pictures, books, and presents. The handsome cup given him on one occasion by the electors of Stafford was sold, and the portrait, by Reynolds, of his first wife in the character of St. Cecilia, was pawned.

In the spring of 1815 he was arrested, and carried to a sponging-house. Illness supervened, brought on by irregular living, and increased by harassing cares. Moore and Rogers proved his best helpers, and Mrs. Sheridan's care and watchfulness were unceasing. Some assistance was obtained from friends through a newspaper appeal. He was again arrested, and would have been carried to prison but for the firmness of his doctor. He lingered until the 7th July 1816, when, after a succession of shivering fits, he fell into a state of exhaustion, and expired. He was in his 65th year. His residence, 17 Saville-row, was then in the possession of the bailiffs, and his body had to be removed to a friend's house, whence a few days afterwards a train of the highest in the land followed his remains to Westminster Abbey. Sheridan's speeches cost much labour in the preparation, and his most brilliant, and apparently least premeditated repartees and witty sayings were generally thought out long before he produced them.

In person he was above the middle size, robust and well-proportioned; handsome in youth. In later years his beautiful eyes were the only remains of early grace of person. He was often guilty of appropriating the sentiments and work of others, both in his speeches and writings. Lord Byron says: "Whatever Sheridan has done or chosen to do, has been, par excellence, always the best of its kind. He has written the best comedy (School for Scandal), the best drama (The Duenna), the best farce (The Critic — it is only too good for a farce), and the best address ('Monologue on Garrick'), and, to crown all, delivered the very best oration (the famous 'Begum speech') ever conceived or heard in this country." Lord Macaulay says: "No writers have injured the comedy of England so deeply as Congreve and Sheridan. Both were men of splendid wit and polished taste. Unhappily they made all their characters in their own likeness. Their works bear the same relation to the legitimate drama which a transparency bears to a painting. There are no delicate touches, no hues imperceptibly fading into each other; the whole is lighted up with an universal glare. Outlines and tints are forgotten in the common blaze which illuminates all. The flowers and fruit of the intellect abound; but it is the abundance of a jungle, not of a garden — unwholesome, bewildering, unprofitable from its very plenty, rank from its very fragrance. Every fop, every boor, every valet is a man of wit."

Sheridan left two sons, Thomas, who died in 1817, at the Cape, where he held the post of Colonial Paymaster, and Charles, who obtained a limited reputation as a poet. Thomas had three daughters, all born out of Ireland: (1) Selina (born 1807, died 1867), married the Hon. Price Blackwood, afterwards Lord Dufferin and Clandeboy. After his death, she married the Earl of Gifford when on his death-bed. She was mother of the present Earl of Dufferin. She was the authoress of "The Irish Emigrant," "Katie's Letter," "Terence's Farewell," and other ballads. (2) Caroline, (born in 1808, died in 1877), married the Hon. G. C. Norton, and after his death Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. Her first marriage was unhappy, and led to protracted legal proceedings. She was widely known as a poet and novelist. (3) Jane, married the Duke of Somerset.

Sources

16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

196a. Irishwomen, Illustrious: E. Owens Blackburne. 2 vols. London, 1877.

254. Notes and Queries. London, 1850-'78.
O'Callaghan, John C., see No. 186.

307. Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, Memoirs: Thomas Moore. 2 vols. London, 1825.

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