Memoirs of Samuel Foote by Unknown

Few writers obtained a larger share of notoriety during their lifetime than Samuel Foote. If the interest which he excited was not very profound, it was at any rate very generally diffused throughout the community. His witty sayings were in every one's mouth; his plays were the rage of the day; he was the constant guest of royalty, the Dukes of York and Cumberland being among his staunchest friends and patrons; and the "Sir Oracle" of all the bons vivants and would-be wits of the metropolis. Take up any light memoir of those days, and you shall scarcely find one that does not bear testimony to the powers of this incomparable humourist. Yet, what is he now? A name,—perhaps a great one,—but little more. His plays are seldom acted, though the best Major Sturgeon and Jerry Sneak that the stage ever had are still among us; and as seldom perused in the closet, or assuredly they would have been republished oftener than has been the case of late years.

We are induced, therefore, to give a brief memoir of our English Aristophanes, accompanied by as brief a criticism on his genius, such a task falling naturally, indeed almost necessarily, within the scope of our Miscellany. But enough of preface: "now to business," as Foote's own Vamp would say.

Samuel Foote was born at Truro in the year 1720. His family was of credible extraction, his father being a gentleman of some repute in Cornwall as receiver of fines for the duchy; and his mother, the daughter of Sir Edward Goodere, Bart. M.P. for Herefordshire. From this lady, whom he closely resembled in appearance and manner, he is supposed to have inherited that turn for "merry malice" for which he was famous above all his contemporaries. Mr. Cooke, in his notices of Foote, describes his mother as having been "the very model of her son Samuel,—short, fat, and flabby," and nearly equally remarkable for the broad humour of her conversation.

At an early age, young Foote was despatched to a school at Worcester, where he soon became notorious for his practical jokes and inveterate propensity to caricature. He was the leader in all the rebellions of the boys, and perpetrated much small mischief on his own private account. Among other of his freaks, it is stated that he was in the habit of anointing his master's lips with ink while he slept in the chair of authority, and then bewildering and overwhelming the good man with a host of grave apologies. Yet, with all this, he was attentive to his studies, reading hard by fits and starts; and left Worcester with the reputation of being that very ambiguous character—a "lad of parts."

Samuel Foote


At the usual period of life, Foote was entered of Worcester College, Oxford, where, as at school, his favourite amusement consisted in quizzing the authorities,—more especially the provost, who was a grave, pedantic scholar, of a vinegar turn of temperament. The following hoax is recorded as having been played off by him in his Freshman's year. In one of the villages near Oxford there was a church that stood close by a shady lane, through which cattle were in the habit of being driven to and fro from grass. From the steeple or belfry of this church dangled a rope, probably for the convenience of the ringers, which overhung the porch, and descended to within a few feet of the ground. Foote, who chanced to see it in the course of one of his rambles, resolved to make it the subject of a practical joke; and accordingly, one night, just as the cattle were passing down the lane, tied a wisp of fresh hay tightly about the rope by way of bait. The scheme succeeded to a miracle. One of the cows, as she passed the church-porch, attracted by the fragrant smell of the fodder, stopped to nibble at, and tear it away from the rope; and by so doing set the bell tolling, infinitely to the astonishment and perplexity of the village authorities, who did not detect the hoax, which was repeated more than once, till the circumstance had become the talk of the neighbourhood for miles round. We do not vouch for the authenticity of this anecdote, though more than one biographer has alluded to it; but, as it is highly characteristic of Foote, we think it not unlikely to be true.

On quitting the university, Foote returned for a few months to his father's house at Truro, at which period it was that a frightful tragedy occurred in his family, which he seldom spoke of afterwards, and never without the deepest emotion. We allude to the murder of his uncle Sir John Goodere, by the baronet's brother Captain Goodere, which took place about the year 1740. The parties had been dining together at a friend's house near Bristol; apparently a reconciliation—for they had been for some time on bad terms with each other, owing to certain money transactions—had been agreed to between them; but, on his return home, Sir John was waylaid, by his brother's orders, by the crew of his vessel, which lay at anchor in the roads; carried on board, and there strangled; the assassin looking on the while, and actually furnishing the rope by which the murder was perpetrated. For this atrocious deed, the Captain and his confederates, who, it appears, made no attempt at concealment, were tried at the Bristol assizes, found guilty, and hanged.

But the strangest part of this strange story remains to be told. On the night the murder was committed, Foote arrived at his father's house at Truro, and describes himself as having been kept awake for some time by the softest and sweetest strains of music he had ever heard. At first he imagined that it was a serenade got up by some of the family, by way of a welcome home; but, on looking out of his windows, could see no trace of the musicians, so was compelled to come to the conclusion that the sounds were the mere offspring of his imagination. When, however, he learned shortly afterwards that the catastrophe to which we have alluded, had occurred on the same night, and at the same hour when he had been greeted by the mysterious melody, he became, says one of his biographers, persuaded that it was a supernatural warning, and retained this impression to the last moment of his existence. Yet the man who was thus strongly susceptible of superstitious influences, and who could mistake a singing in the head, occasioned possibly by convivial indulgence, for a hint direct from heaven, was the same who overwhelmed Johnson with ridicule for believing in the Cock-lane ghost!

At the age of twenty-two, shortly after he had quitted Oxford, Foote entered the Temple; rented an expensive set of chambers; sported a dashing equipage; gave constant convivial parties; gambled—betted—aped the man of fashion and of title—in a word, distinguished himself as one of the most exquisite fops about town. In  those days the fop was quite a different sort of person from what he is now. He was a wit, and very frequently a scholar; whereas he is now, in the majority of instances,—to quote Swift's pungent sarcasm,—"a mere peg whereon to hang a trim suit of clothes." The last legitimate fop, or dandy, vanished from the scene of gay life with Brummell. He was the Ultimus Romanorum.

One of Foote's most frequent places of resort was the Bedford Coffee-house, then the favourite lounge of all the aspiring wits of the day. Here Fielding, Beauclerk, Bonnell Thornton, and a host of kindred spirits, used to lay down the law to their consenting audience; and here too many of those verdicts issued which stamped the character of the "last new piece." Such desultory habits of life—to say nothing of his inveterate propensity to gambling—soon dissipated the handsome fortune which Foote had acquired by his father's death; and, at the end of three years, he was compelled to quit the law, and resort to some other means of gaining a livelihood.

From a young and enthusiastic amateur of the stage to a performer on its boards, is no unnatural transition; and we find Foote, somewhere about the year 1743, associated with his friend Macklin in the management of a wooden theatre in the Haymarket. Having a lofty notion of his tragic capabilities, he made his debut in the character of Othello; and, like Mathews, Liston, and Keeley, who began their theatrical career in the same mistaken spirit, convulsed the audience with the grotesque extravagance of his passion, and the irresistible drollery of his pathos. Finding therefore that his forte did not lie in tragedy, he next had recourse to comedy, and made a tolerable hit at Drury-lane in the parts of Sir Paul Pliant, Bayes, and Fondlewife. We have seen a portrait of him in this last character,—one of Congreve's earliest and raciest,—and, if it be at all like him, we do not wonder at his success, for his countenance is replete with the true sly, oily, hypocritical expression.

In the ear 1747, Foote produced his first piece at the Haymarket, in which he mimicked the peculiarities of several well-known actors, and, among others, Macklin. The play was successful; but its performance having been interdicted by the Westminster magistrates, Foote brought it out in a new form, under the title of "Diversions of the Morning," and issued cards of invitation to the public, requesting the honour of their company to a tea-party (at playhouse prices) at the Haymarket. The experiment was a decided hit, and was followed up next season by an "Auction of Pictures," in which the author lashed with pitiless ridicule the Virtuoso follies of the day.

Foote was now once again in possession of a handsome competency, for, in addition to the money made by his labours as an author and an actor, an unexpected legacy was left him by some branch of his mother's family. Intoxicated by his good fortune, and unwarned by experience, he resumed his old habits of extravagance; but, finding that his funds did not disappear fast enough, he accelerated their diminution by a trip to Paris, where he remained two or three years, and did not return home until he found himself, as before, reduced to his last shilling.

Immediately on his arrival in London, Foote renewed his engagement at Drury-lane, and performed the principal character in his own play of "The Knights;" but this proving less attractive than  the two former ones, he abruptly quitted town, and crossed the channel to Dublin, where, in the year 1760, he brought out at the Crowstreet theatre his celebrated comedy, "The Minor." This, which was then a mere crude sketch in two acts, was unequivocally damned; but the circumstance, so far from depressing the author's spirits, only stimulated him to fresh exertions, and after mercifully revising the play, and adding a third act, he produced it at the Haymarket. His industry did not go unrewarded. The success of the comedy equalled his most sanguine expectations, being played without intermission throughout the season, to houses crammed to the very ceiling.

It is a singular fact connected with this piquant play, that its author, doubtful of its reception, sent it in MS. to the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a request that, if he found any objectionable passages, he would do him the favour to expunge them. Of course, his Grace declined all interference with such a heterodox production, observing to a friend, that if he had made the slightest alteration, the wag might possibly have published it, as "corrected and prepared for the press by the Archbishop of Canterbury!" This is as good a story as that told of Shelley, who is said to have sent a copy of his "Queen Mab" to each of the twenty-four bishops. The part which Foote played in the "Minor" was that of the notorious Mother Cole; and the Parson Squintem, to whom this exemplary specimen of womankind—as Jonathan Oldbuck would say—makes such repeated allusions, is supposed to have been the celebrated Whitfield.

"The Minor" was followed in 1762 by "The Liar," which was brought out at Covent Garden. This drama, the idea of which is borrowed from the "Menteur" of Corneille, brought full houses for the season; and was succeeded in the same year by the "Orators,"—an amusing play, but by no means one of its author's best,—in which he ridiculed Falkner, the printer of the Dublin Journal, and for which he got entangled in a tedious law-suit that was not compromised without difficulty. About this time, too, Foote, according to Boswell, announced his intention of bringing Dr. Johnson on the stage; but the threat of a public chastisement, with which "Surly Sam" threatened him, induced him to abandon his intention. "What is the price of a good thick stick?" said the Doctor on this remarkable occasion. "A shilling," replied the individual to whom he put the question. "Then go, and buy me a half-crown one; for if that rascal, Foote, persists in his attempt to mimic me, I will step from the boxes, thrash him publicly before the audience, and then make them a speech in justification of my conduct." It is almost to be regretted that the satirist gave up his design, for a capital Philippic has been thereby lost to the world.

From this period Foote chiefly confined himself to the Haymarket, where appeared in succession his "Mayor of Garratt," "Patron," and "Commissary." The first, which was founded on the whimsical custom, now discontinued, of choosing a mock M.P. for the village of Garratt in Surrey, is a laughable hit at the warlike propensities of cockney volunteers. After some years' neglect, it was revived with success during the height of the anti-Jacobin phrensy, when Major Sturgeons again sprung up as plentiful as mushrooms,—when every tailor strutted a hero, and every Alderman felt himself a William Tell.

Foote was now afloat on the full tide of prosperity, drawing crowded houses whenever he performed; patronised by the nobility, at whose tables he was a sort of privileged guest; and everywhere acknowledged as the great lion of the day. In the year 1766, when on a visit with the Duke of York at Lord Mexborough's, he had the misfortune to break his leg by a fall from his horse in hunting. A silly peer condoling with him shortly afterwards on this accident, the wag replied, "Pray, my lord, do not allude to my weak point, I have not alluded to yours," at the same time pointing significantly to the nobleman's head.

By this misfortune Foote was withdrawn some months from his profession, but on his recovery he purchased the Haymarket, and opened it with an extravaganza entitled "The Tailors, or a Tragedy for Warm Weather." The next year appeared his "Devil on Two Sticks," the machinery of which is derived from the "Diable Boiteux" of Le Sage. This play, which was a severe satire on those medical quacks who then, as now, infested the metropolis, was so popular, that its author cleared upwards of three thousand pounds by it, but, a few weeks after, lost it all by gambling at Bath.

Foote's next production was the "Maid of Bath", which was performed in the year 1771. The principal characters in this comedy—Flint, the avaricious old bachelor, and Miss Linnet, the vocalist to whom he is represented as paying his addresses,—were portraits from life; the former having been intended for Walter Long, a rich Somersetshire squire, who died in 1807 at the age of ninety-five, leaving property to the amount of a quarter of a million sterling to Miss Tilney Long, who married the present Mr. Wellesley; and the latter for the beautiful Miss Linley, afterwards Mrs. Sheridan. The "Maid of Bath" is a lively play, containing one or two terse, brilliant witticisms worthy of Congreve; such, for instance as the definition of marriage,—that it is like "bobbing for a single eel in a barrel of snakes." Its best-sustained character is that of Flint; in sketching which, Foote had evidently in view the Athenian miser alluded to by Horace, for he makes him say, "Ay, you may rail, and the people may hiss; but what care I? I have that at home which will keep up my spirits,"—which is a manifest paraphrase from

——"Populus me sibilat; at mihi plaudo Ipse domi, simul ac nummos contemplor in arcā."

This comedy is further deserving of notice, as showing the exquisite tact and readiness with which Foote availed himself of the floating topics of the day. At the time it appeared, the town was greatly diverted by a squabble between Wilkes and the notorious political parson John Horne, afterwards Horne Tooke, the latter of whom accused the former of having sold some rich court-dresses which he had entrusted to his care at Paris. In allusion to this amusing quarrel, Flint says, speaking of the clergyman whom he has engaged to marry him to Miss Linnet, "You have seen friend Button, the Minister that has come down to tack us together; he don't care much to meddle with the pulpit, but he is a prodigious patriot, and a great politician to boot; and, moreover, he has left behind him at Paris a choice collection of curious rich clothes, which he has promised to sell me cheap."

The "Maid of Bath" was followed by the "Nabob" and the "Bankrupt," the first of which was an effective attack on the habits  of many of those old curmudgeons who, about the middle of the last century—the period of Anglo-Indian prosperity—returned with dried livers from the East, rich as Chartres, and equally profligate; and the last, on the crazy commercial speculations of the day. The sketch of Sir Robert Riscounter in the "Bankrupt" is supposed to have been meant for the well-known Sir George Fordyce, who failed, in the year 1772, for an almost unparalleled amount. Of these two plays, the "Nabob" is the most carefully finished; but its breadth and grossness must ever prevent its revival.

In 1774 came out the "Cozeners," a pungent satire on the venal politicians of the day. The corruption which had been sanctioned and made systematic by Walpole and the Pelhams, was then in the full vigour of its rank luxuriance; every man had his price; never therefore was satire better applied than this of Foote's. The "Mrs. Fleec'em" of the "Cozeners," a lady of accommodating virtue, and somewhat relaxed in her notions of meum and tuum, was intended for the notorious Mrs. Catherine Rudd, who, after inducing the two brothers (Perreau) to commit forgery, gave evidence against them, on the strength of which they were hanged. Yet this creature, tainted as she was with the foulest moral leprosy, was admitted into the best society, and died at a good old age with the character of a discreet, respectable matron!

We come now to Foote's last production. In the year 1775, the famous Duchess of Kingston was tried before the House of Lords for bigamy, and found guilty. Her case excited extraordinary interest throughout the country; availing himself of which, Foote introduced her in the "Trip to Calais" under the character of Lady Kitty Crocodile, which coming to her Grace's ears, she procured its prohibition by the Lord Chamberlain, and, not content with this measure of retaliation, got up through her minions of the press, of whom she had numbers in her pay, a charge against Foote of a most odious complexion,—so odious, indeed, that he had no alternative but to demand an instant public trial, which ended, as might have been anticipated, in his triumphant acquittal. But this result, satisfactory as it was, had no power to restore him to his wonted peace of mind. The dagger had struck home to the heart. His friends, too, for the first time, began to look coolly on him; the anonymous agents of the Duchess still pursued him with unrelenting acrimony; many of those whose follies and crimes he had lashed, but who had feared to retort in his hour of pride, swelled the clamour against him; and he found himself, in the decline of health and manhood, becoming just as unpopular as he once was the reverse. In vain he endeavoured to rally and make head against this combination; his moral fortitude wholly deserted him; and after performing a few times, after his trial, at the Haymarket, but with none of his former vivacity, he was seized with a sudden paralytic affection, and bade adieu to the stage for ever.

About six months subsequent to his retirement, he was attacked by a complaint which ultimately terminated his life; and, by his physician's order, quitted London for the Continent, with a view to pass the winter at Paris. But his constitution was too much shattered to admit of the fatigue of such a journey, and he was compelled to halt at Dover, where, on the morning after his arrival, a violent shivering fit came over him while seated at the breakfast table, which in a few  hours put an end to his existence. No sooner was his death known in the metropolis, than a re-action commenced in his favour. It was then discovered that, with all his errors, he had been "more sinned against than sinning;" and some of his friends even went the length of proposing the erection of a monument to his memory! Just in the same way, a few years later, was Burns treated by the world. He, too, was alternately caressed and vilified; and finally hurried to a premature grave, the victim of a broken heart. But this is the penalty that superior genius must ever be prepared to pay. It walks alone along a dizzy, dangerous height, the observed of all eyes; while gregarious common-place treads, secure and unnoticed, along the tame, flat "Bedford level" of ordinary life!

Having closed our brief memoir of Foote, it remains to say a few words of his literary peculiarities. His humour was decidedly Aristophanic; that is to say, broad, easy, reckless, satirical, without the slightest alloy of bonhommie, and full of the directest personalities. There is no playfulness or good-nature in his comedies. You laugh, it is true, at his portraits, but at the same time you hold them in contempt; for there is nothing redeeming in their eccentricities; nothing for your esteem and admiration to lay hold of. We cannot gather from his writings, as we can from every page of Goldsmith, that Foote possessed the slightest sympathies with humanity. He seems everywhere to hold it at arm's length, as worthy of nought but the must supercilious treatment; which accounts for, and to a certain extent justifies, the treatment he received from the world in his latter days. Foote could never have drawn a "Good-natured Man," or even a "Dennis Brulgruddery;" for, though he may have possessed the head to do so, yet he lacked the requisite sensibility. So greatly deficient is he in this respect, that, whenever he attempts to put forth a refined or generous sentiment, he almost always overdoes it, and degenerates into cant. Yet his characters—with the exception of his virtuous and moral ones, which are the most insipid in the world—are admirably drawn, are sustained with unflagging spirit, and evince a wide range of observation which, however, rarely pierces beyond the surface.

As works of art, Foote's dramas are by no means of first-rate excellence. They show no fancy, no invention, no ingenuity in constructing, or tact in developing plot; but are merely a collection of scenes and incidents huddled confusedly together for the purpose of drawing out the peculiarities of some two or three pet characters. The best thing we can say of them is, that they exhibit everywhere the keenness, the readiness, the self-possession, of the disciplined man of the world, combined with a pungent malicious humour that reminds us of a Mephistopheles in his merriest mood. It must also be urged in their favour, that they are, in every sense of the word, original. Foote copied no model, but painted direct from the life. He took no hints from others, but gave his own fresh impressions of character. He did not draw on his fancy, like Congreve, or study to make points like Sheridan, but availed himself hastily of such materials as came readiest to hand. The very extravagances of his early life were in his favour, by bringing him in contact with those marked, out-of-the-way characters, who, like Arabs, hang loose on the skirts of society, and constitute the quintessence of comedy. Thus his inveterate love of gambling furnished him with his masterly sketch of Dick Loader; and his long-continued residence at Paris—into whose various dissipations he entered with all the zeal of a devotee—with his successful hits at the absurdities of our travelled fops.

Foote's three best plays are his "Minor," his "Liar," and his "Mayor of Garratt." Perhaps the last is his masterpiece; for it is alive and bustling throughout, is finished with more than the author's ordinary care, and contains two characters penned in his truest con amore spirit. Jerry Sneak and Major Sturgeon are, in their line, the two most perfect delineations of which the minor British drama can boast. There is no mistaking their identity. They speak the genuine, unadulterated vulgar tongue of the City. Their sentiments are cockney; their meanness and their bluster, their pompous self-conceit and abject humility, are cockney; they are cockney all over from the crown of the head to the sole of the shoe. What a rich set-off to the "marchings and counter-marchings" of the one, is the other's recital of his domestic grievances! Jerry's complaint that his wife only allows him "two shillings for pocket-money," and helps him to "all the cold vittles at table," is absolutely pathetic, if—as Hazlitt observes—"the last stage of human imbecility can be called so." While Bow bells ring, and St. Paul's church overlooks Cheapside, Foote's cockneys shall endure. Nevertheless, while we acknowledge their excellence, we entertain the most intense contempt for them, and feel the strongest possible inclination to fling the Major into a horse-pond, and smother Jerry Sneak in a basin of water-gruel.

Foote's conversational abilities were, if possible, superior to his literary ones. For men of the world, in particular, they must have had an inexpressible charm. There is no wit on record who has said so many good things, or with such perfect ease and readiness. Foote never laid a pun-trap to catch the unwary. He had humour at will, and had no need to resort to artifice. His mind was well, but not abundantly stored; and he had the tact to make his knowledge appear greater than it really was. The most sterling testimony that has been borne to his colloquial powers, is that furnished by Dr. Johnson, who says, "The first time I was in company with Foote, was at Fitzherbert's. Having no good opinion of the fellow, I was resolved not to be pleased; and it is very difficult to please a man against his will. I went on eating my dinner pretty sullenly, affecting not to mind him; but the dog was so very comical, that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork, and fairly laugh it out. Sir, he was irresistible." Foote's favourite butt was Garrick, whose thrifty habits he was constantly turning into ridicule. Being one day in company with him, when after satirizing some individual, David had wound up his attack by saying, "Well, well, perhaps before I condemn another, I should pull the beam out of my own eye," Foote replied. "And so you would, if you could sell the timber." On another occasion, when they were dining together, Garrick happened to let a guinea drop on the floor. "Where has it gone to?" asked Foote, looking about for it. "Oh, to the devil, I suppose," was the reply. "Ah, David," rejoined his tormentor, "you can always contrive to make a guinea go farther than any one else."

Such was Samuel Foote,—the wit, the satirist, the humourist—whose life inculcates this wholesome truth, that those who set themselves up, with no superior moral qualifications to recommend them, to ridicule the follies and lash the vices of the age, but "sow the wind, to reap the whirlwind!"