Memoirs of Sheridan

RBSheridan

R B Sheridan

Though it may appear paradoxical to say so, yet there is no more melancholy reading than the biography of a celebrated wit. In nine out of ten cases, what is such a memoir other than a record of acute suffering, the almost inseparable attendant of that thoughtless and mercurial temperament which cannot, or will not, conform to the staid usages society; which makes ten enemies where it makes one friend; is engaged in a constant warfare with common sense, and lives for the day, letting the morrow shift for itself? Instances there are of prosperous wits, such as Congreve, Pope, and some others that we could mention, whose singular tact and provident habits have preserved them from the usual fate of their fraternity; but these instances are rare: the majority, though enjoying, it is true, their sunny hours, and realising for a brief season their most brilliant hopes, have struggled through life a prey to the bitterest disappointments.

The life of Sheridan will go far to verify these cursory remarks. No wit ever enjoyed more intoxicating successes, or suffered more humiliating reverses. He had frequent opportunities of realising a handsome independence; but, with that recklessness and inattention to the business of life peculiar to such natures as his, he flung away all his chances, and died a beggar, deserted by almost all his old associates, his celebrity on the wane, and his character under a cloud. Never was there a more impressive homily than his death-bed inculcates; it speaks to the heart, like the closing scene of "great Villiers," and is worth all the sermons that ever were preached from the pulpit.

Many, however, of poor Sheridan's defects seem to have descended to him as a sort of heir-loom from his ancestors. His grandfather, Dr. Sheridan, the friend and butt of Swift, though an amiable, was a singularly reckless and improvident man; and his father, the well-known teacher of elocution, is mentioned more then once by Johnson as being remarkable for nothing so much as his "wrong-headedness." It is but justice, however, to this individual to state, that by fits and starts he paid every attention to his son's education that his straitened means and capricious temper would allow. In the year 1758, when young Sheridan had just completed his seventh year, he sent him to a private school in Dublin, whence, at the expiration of fourteen months, he brought him over with him to England, and placed him at Harrow, under the care of Dr. Sumner. From this period to the day of his death, the subject of our memoir never again beheld his native city.

Sheridan had not been long at Harrow when he attracted the favourable notice of Dr. Parr, at that time one of the head-masters of the establishment, who, perceiving in him unquestionable evidences of superior capacity, did all he could to stimulate him to exertion. But his endeavours were fruitless, for the boy was incorrigibly idle, though a general favourite by reason of his good-humour and the social turn of his mind,—and left Harrow at the age of eighteen, with a slender amount of Latin and less Greek, but at the same time with a very fair acquaintance with the lighter branches of English literature.

In the year 1770, Sheridan accompanied his family to Bath, which was then what Cheltenham and Brighton now are,—the head-quarters of gaiety and dissipation. Here he promptly signalised himself, after the usual Irish fashion, by an elopement and two duels; thus literally fighting his way to celebrity! The young lady who was the cause of these sprightly sallies was Miss Linley, daughter of the eminent musician of that name, and one of the most beautiful women of her day. At the time when Sheridan first became acquainted with her she was but sixteen, the favourite vocalist at the Bath concerts, and the standing toast of all the wits and gallants of the city. It is to the impassioned feelings which the charms of this lovely girl called forth in his breast that we owe our hero's first decided plunge into unequivocal poetry. Having on one occasion—for the families of the young couple were in habits of strict intimacy—presumed to offer her some sober counsel, she resented his officiousness, and a quarrel took place between them, which was not made up till Sheridan sent some stanzas of a most penitential character, by way of a peace-offering. We subjoin a specimen or two of this poem, which evinces unquestionable feeling, but is deformed, as was the fashion of those days, by tawdry and puerile conceits:

Oh, this is the grotto where Delia reclined, As late I in secret her confidence sought; And this is the tree kept her safe from the wind, As blushing she heard the grave lesson I taught.
Then tell me, thou grotto of moss-covered stone, And tell me, thou willow, with leaves dripping dew, Did Delia seem vexed when Horatio was gone, And did she confide her resentment to you?
Methinks now each bough, as you're waving it, tries To whisper a cause for the sorrow I feel, To hint how she frowned when I dared to advise, And sighed when she saw that I did it with zeal.
True, true, silly leaves, so she did, I allow; She frowned, but no rage in her looks could I see; She frowned, for reflection had clouded her brow; She sighed, but perhaps 'twas in pity to me.
Then wave thy leaves brisker, thou willow of woe, I tell thee no rage in her looks I could see; I cannot, I will not, believe it was so; She was not, she could not, be angry with me.
For well did she know that my heart meant no wrong; It sank at the thought but of giving her pain; But trusted its task to a faltering tongue, Which erred from the feelings it could not explain.

Sentimental poetry, it is well known, has a great effect in softening the female heart; and Sheridan soon succeeded in sonnetteering Miss Linley into sympathy. He had, however, a sturdy opponent to contend against in the person of Captain Mathews, a married man, of specious address and persevering gallantry. This roué beset the fair vocalist in every possible way, and, when mildly but firmly repulsed, threw out a menace of attacking her good fame. Alarmed at this unmanly threat, and at the consequences of her father's indignation should the captain's dishonourable proposals become known to him, Miss Linley had recourse to Sheridan, who instantly advised her to  accept of his escort to France, where he promised that he would place her under the secure protection of a convent. With some hesitation she complied with his advice, assisted not a little in her resolution by the repugnance which she had long entertained to her profession; and the parties set out for Calais, accompanied by a third person, a female, by way of chaperon.

On reaching the place of their destination, Sheridan at once threw off the mask of the friend, and, addressing Miss Linley as the lover, so worked upon her feelings by artful hints about the injury her character would sustain, if she did not give him a legal title to protect her, that she consented to a private marriage, which accordingly took place in 1772, at a little village near Calais. The parties then made the best of their way back to England where they returned to their respective families; old Linley, from whom the marriage was kept a profound secret, being, of course, not less incensed than surprised by the, to him, unaccountable conduct of his daughter.

Meanwhile Captain Mathews, on learning Miss Linley's extraordinary flight, instantly made good his threat of defaming her character in the local journals, for which he was twice called out by Sheridan, who in the second duel received a wound which long confined him to his bed. His situation at this period must have been one of extreme uneasiness. He was separated from his wife, and was on ill terms with his father, who, on his return from London shortly after the catastrophe, refused to see him, and even went the length of forbidding any of his family to hold the slightest intercourse with the Linleys. A communication was nevertheless kept up between the lovers through the agency of Sheridan's sisters, who had not the heart to resist the imploring appeals of their brother.

In the autumn of 1772 the young Benedict was sent by his father—who was anxious to detach him wholly from the Linleys—to the house of a friend in Essex, where he remained for some months in strict retirement, and spent much of his time in study. While here, he paid occasional flying visits to London, for the purpose of seeing his wife, who was then professionally engaged at the Covent Garden oratorios; but, finding no means of procuring an interview with her, so closely was she watched by her father, he more than once, it is said, disguised himself as a hackney-coachman, for the sole pleasure of driving her home from the theatre.

The time, however, was at hand when his perseverance was to meet with its reward. Old Linley, finding that neither threat, supplication, nor remonstrance could change the current of his daughter's affections and that, by some mysterious process, letters from her husband always found their way into her hands, at length gave his reluctant consent to their union, and they were re-married, by licence, in 1773.

About this time Sheridan entered himself of the Middle Temple, and took a small cottage at East Burnham, whither he retired immediately after his marriage, with no other resources than his wife's slender jointure and his own talents afforded him. Yet, though cramped in his finances, he had the fortitude to resist all the golden temptations which Mrs. Sheridan's musical abilities held out to him; and withdrew her for ever from public life, resolving henceforth to be himself the artificer of his own fortunes.

After a short stay at East Burnham, to which in after-years he often looked back with regret as being the happiest period of his life, Sheridan took a house in the neighbourhood of Portman-square, which his father-in-law kindly furnished for him. Here he laboured with great assiduity; wrote several political tracts, among which was a reply to "Junius;" and completed his comedy of the "Rivals," which was brought out at Covent Garden in the year 1775, and proved a failure on its first representation, though it subsequently won its way into public favour. The "Rivals" is a lively play, whose interest seldom or never flags; is easy and graceful in its dialogue; and contains one or two characters drawn with consummate skill. That of Falkland, in particular,—the sensitive, wayward lover, the idea of which was, no doubt, suggested by Sheridan's own personal experience,—is a masterpiece; and not less effective is the sketch of Sir Anthony Absolute. Mrs. Malaprop—an evident imitation of Fielding's Mrs. Slip-slop—is a mere whimsical caricature; while, as respects Lydia Languish, she is one of the insipid common-places to be picked up at all watering-places, well delineated, it is true, but scarcely worth the labour of delineation.

Sheridan's next production was "St. Patrick's Day;" a clever, bustling farce, but bearing marks of haste and negligence. It was followed, in the winter of 1775, by the well-known opera of the "Duenna," which at once obtained a popularity unexampled in the annals of the drama. The plot of this delightful play is remarkable for the tact with which it is conducted; the language is elegant, without being too ornate or elaborate,—a very common defect in Sheridan's dramas;—and the songs are prettily versified, which is the highest praise we can accord them.

In the year 1776, on the retirement of Garrick from the stage, Sheridan became one of the proprietors of Drury Lane Theatre. How, or by whose assistance, he obtained the large sum—upwards of forty-five thousand pounds—necessary to make this purchase, is a mystery which none of his numerous biographers, with all their research and ingenuity, have ever been able to fathom. We conclude it must have been by that winning address, and the strenuous exercise of those unrivalled powers of persuasion, which, at a later period, enabled Sheridan to work a miracle,—that is, to soften the soul of an attorney! It was in allusion to these fascinating powers that a rich City banker once observed, "Whenever Sherry makes me a bow, it always costs me a good dinner; and when he calls me 'Tom,' it is a full hundred pounds out of my pocket!"

The year 1777 was rendered memorable by the production of the "School for Scandal," which is incomparably the finest comedy of which modern times can boast. Its success was proportionate to its deserts. It completely took the town by storm. Nevertheless, transcendent as are the excellencies of this brilliant play, it is not without many and serious defects. Its dialogue is too studiously artificial; it has little or no sustained interest of plot; and its characters—with the exception of Charles Surface, whose airy, Mercutio-like vivacity conciliates us in spite of ourselves—are such as them from first to last we regard with indifference. The incessant dazzle of the language, however,—for the "School for Scandal" is a perfect repertory of wit,—its consummate polish, and the power of quick, apt repartee, that it exhibits in every page, altogether blind us to its defects. The only  play that can bear a comparison with it is Congreve's "Love for Love," which shows an equal opulence of wit, and an equal sacrifice to effect, of the free and easy play of nature.

Sheridan had now the ball at his feet. He was the lion of the day, courted by all classes; the proprietor of the most thriving theatrical establishment in London; and, could he but have been industrious, and exercised ordinary forethought, he might have insured, not merely what Thomson calls "an elegant sufficiency," but a splendid independence for life. But indolence was his bane,—the fertile source of all his errors and all his misfortunes,—the rock on which he split,—the quicksand in which he was finally engulfed.

In the year following the production of the "School for Scandal," Sheridan brought out "The Critic,"—an admirable farce, the conception of which is derived from the Duke of Buckingham's "Rehearsal." The best character in this drama, and the most natural and spirited ever drawn by its author, is that of Sir Fretful Plagiary, which is supposed to have been meant for Cumberland, who witnessed the representation from one of the side-boxes, and, being of an irritable, tetchy temperament, must of course have been highly entertained.

We are now to regard Sheridan in a new character. Hitherto we have seen him as the triumphant dramatist,—we are now to see him as the triumphant orator. He had always, from his first entrance into public life, had a strong predilection for politics; and the acquaintance with Burke, Fox, Wyndham, and other eminent statesmen, which he made at Johnson's Literary Club, decided him on trying his chance in the House of Commons. Accordingly, in 1780, he stood, and was returned, for Stafford; and made his first speech, as an avowed partisan of Fox, in the November of that year, on the presentation of a petition complaining of his undue election. Though he was listened to with marked attention, yet so general was the impression that he had failed, that the well-known printer, Woodfall, who happened to be in the gallery at the time, said to him, as they quitted the house together, "Oratory is not your forte; you had much better have stuck to the drama;" on which Sheridan impatiently interrupted him with, "It is in me, however, and, by G—! it shall come out."

But, despite this determined confidence in his own powers, he did not for months afterwards take any active part in the debates; but, when he did speak, spoke briefly and unassumingly, with a view, no doubt, to feel his way. By this shrewd conduct he gained insensibly on the good opinion of the house, and became at length so useful an auxiliary to his party, that, on their accession to office in the year 1782, he was appointed one of the Under Secretaries of State; a snug, easy post, but which he was compelled shortly to resign by the sudden breaking up of the ministry, occasioned by the death of the Marquis of Rockingham.

In the following year he was reinstated in office as Secretary of the Treasury, a coalition having been formed between Lord North and the Whigs, much against Sheridan's wishes; for he had the sagacity to foresee that a junction of such discordant interests could have but one termination; and the result proved that he was right. The Coalition Ministry was speedily defeated, chiefly by the King's own personal exertions; and the Under Secretary of the Treasury found himself once again transported to that Siberia,—the Opposition bench.

Up to this period, Sheridan, though acknowledged to be a skilful, ready debater, had not particularly distinguished himself in the House; but the hour was approaching which was to draw forth all his powers, and place him on the very highest pinnacle of oratorical fame. In the year 1787, on the question of Warren Hastings' conduct as Governor-general of India, he was chosen by his party to bring forward in Parliament the charge relative to the Begum princesses of Oude. His speech on this occasion produced an effect on all who heard it, to which there is no parallel in the records of the senate. It startled the House like a thunderbolt. Men of all parties vied with each other in lavishing on it the most enthusiastic praises. Burke declared it to be the "most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit united, of which there was any record or tradition." Fox said, "all that he had ever heard, all that he had ever read, when compared with it, dwindled into nothing;" and Pitt—even the cold, reserved Pitt—confessed that, in his opinion, "it 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." So intense, in short, was the sensation created by this philippic, that the Minister actually moved an adjournment of the debate, in order, as he observed, that honourable members might have time to recover from the mental intoxication into which they had been thrown by the spells of the enchanter!

Sheridan was now considered of so much consequence by the Whig party, that when the trial of Warren Hastings was finally determined on, he was appointed one of the managers to make good the articles of impeachment; and brought forward in Westminster Hall, before the most august assembly in the world, the same charge which he had previously urged in the House of Commons. On this occasion he spoke for four successive days, exciting, as before, the astonishment and admiration of all his hearers. Fortunately this celebrated oration, unlike the former one, has been preserved, and we are therefore enabled to form a tolerable estimate of it. It contains much brilliant wit, dexterous reasoning, and ready sarcasm; but is at the same time defaced by the most tawdry, patchwork imagery. Whenever Sheridan essays the poetic, he is invariably affected and on stilts. He cannot soar, like Burke, into the empyreum; for he had capacity, not imagination. His best passages are his most unlaboured ones; but of these he seems to have thought least. He tricks out superficial thoughts and obvious common-places in glittering trope and metaphor; piles hyperbole on hyperbole, conceit on conceit; and mistakes such showy, elaborate fustian for the true work of the fancy. There is as much difference between the figurative composition of Sheridan and that of Burke, as there is between specious tinsel and sterling gold; yet, throughout the Westminster Hall proceedings, the former appears to have thrown the latter completely into the shade,—so apt is the world to be caught by the mere show and glare of oratory!

The illness of his Majesty, George the Third, and the discussion on the Regency question which took place in consequence, afforded Sheridan numerous other opportunities of distinguishing himself in Parliament. He espoused, of course, the side of the Prince of Wales, whose confidence he soon gained, and at whose splendid entertainments he was ever the favoured guest. He was, in fact, the chief adviser of the heir-apparent, to whom was entrusted the delicate  task of drawing up his state papers; and he would, no doubt, in the event of a change of ministry, have been raised to one of the most valuable posts that his party could offer, had not the King's recovery put an end to his golden expectations.

Shortly after, a dissolution took place, when he hurried off to Stafford, with the intention of again trying his luck with that borough. One of his fellow-passengers chanced to be an elector; on discovering which, Sheridan took the opportunity of asking him for whom he should vote. The other, ignorant who it was that put the question, replied that neither of the candidates were much to be depended on, but that he would vote for the devil sooner than that scamp Sheridan. The conversation here dropped for a while; but, having in the interim contrived to learn from the coachman the name of his opponent, Sheridan resumed the discourse by observing, that he had heard say there were many corrupt rogues among the Stafford electors, and that among them was one Thompson, the biggest scoundrel in the borough. "I am Mr. Thompson," exclaimed his fellow-traveller, crimson with rage. "And I am Mr. Sheridan," rejoined the other. The joke was immediately seen, and the parties became sworn friends ever after. Another anecdote, equally characteristic of Sheridan, is told of him at this period. A few days after his return to town, having hired a hackney-coach to take him from Carlton Palace to his own house, he found himself, as usual, without the means of paying for it. Luckily he espied his friend Richardson in the street, and, calling to him to get in, he engaged him in a favourite discussion, which he was well aware would draw forth all his energies; and then, after adroitly contradicting him, and so rousing his utmost indignation, he affected to grow angry himself; and, exclaiming that he would not remain an instant longer in the same coach with a man capable of holding such language, he insisted on Jehu setting him down, and walked quietly to his own house, which was now but a few yards off, leaving his angry friend to pay the fare!

In the year 1792, Sheridan lost his beautiful and accomplished wife; a loss which he took greatly to heart. It was indeed an irreparable one; for she had long been his best "guide and friend;" and her benign influence removed, he plunged headlong into that reckless extravagance which ultimately sealed his ruin. Henceforth, for some time, he seldom or never distinguished himself in Parliament, though the French Revolution was then setting all England in a ferment; but was chiefly to be heard of in the circles of fashion, and at the Carlton House revels. On the occasion, however, of the Nore Mutiny, he took a decided part, nobly sacrificing all party considerations in his zeal to maintain his country's honour.

About four years after the death of his first wife, Sheridan entered into a second marriage with Miss Ogle, daughter of the Dean of Winchester. His affairs were now in a sad state of embarrassment, for he obtained but a slender jointure with his wife; and, to retrieve them, he once again turned his attention to the stage. In 1799 he brought out the play of "Pizarro," which had a prodigious run, and is still occasionally performed. The style and sentiments of this drama are in the worst possible taste, utterly at variance with nature, and outraging all the legitimate rules of composition. Strange, however, to say its author was as proud of it as even of his "School for Scandal."

On the death of Mr. Pitt, and the accession of the Whigs to power, Sheridan was appointed Treasurer of the Navy,—a situation which he held but a short time, the ministry being unexpectedly broken up by the demise of Mr. Fox. It was while holding this office that he gave a splendid entertainment to the Prince of Wales, which swallowed up his whole year's income. Nevertheless he turned even this absurd extravagance to account; for, having occasion to allude to his resignation in Parliament, he, with matchless effrontery, thanked God that he quitted office as poor as when he entered upon it!

Parliament being dissolved soon after Fox's death, Sheridan, after a violent struggle, was returned for Westminster, but was unseated on the next dissolution, which occurred in 1807. Somewhere about this time his friend the Prince made him a privy-councillor, and appointed him to the Receivership of the Duchy of Cornwall; but, whatever were the pecuniary advantages he derived from this sinecure, they were more than counterbalanced by the destruction of all his theatrical property by fire. This calamity took place in 1809, when Sheridan was on his legs at St. Stephen's. He instantly quitted the House, and, after coolly looking on at the conflagration, retired to a neighbouring tavern, where he was found by a friend, luxuriating over a bottle of wine. On being asked how he could think of enjoying himself at such a time, he replied, "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass by his own fireside!"

We now approach the last and most melancholy period of poor Sheridan's life. The sun that we have seen blazing so long and brilliantly, is now about to set in storm and cloud. Having committed himself with his party by some mysterious intrigues in which he had engaged, relative to the formation of a new ministry, Sheridan lost almost all his political influence; and, on the dissolution of Parliament in 1812, was defeated in his attempts to be re-elected for Stafford. Ruin now begun to stare him in the face. The management of the new theatre had been, some time before, taken out of his hands; his debts were on the increase; his duns grew daily more clamorous; and he had no longer the House of Commons to fly to for shelter. To such a wretched state of destitution was he now reduced, that he was absolutely compelled to pawn his books, his pictures, and all his most valuable furniture. Nor was this the worst. In the spring of 1814 he was arrested and carried to a spunging-house, where he remained in "durance vile" upwards of three days!

From this moment he never again held up his head, or ventured abroad into the world. His heart was broken, and he would sit for hours weeping in the solitude of his chamber. Yet, though hovering on the very threshold of the grave, his duns allowed him not the slightest respite; writs and executions were multiplied against him; and the bailiffs at length forced their way into his house. He was then dying; yet, even in that state, the agents of the law were about to carry him out in blankets, when the interference of a friend saved him from the humiliation of drawing his last breath in a spunging-house. And where were all his fashionable and titled friends during this season of distress? Where were the princes, and dukes, and lords, of whom he had so long been the idol? All had flown; the sight of his death-bed—and such a death-bed!—would, no doubt, have been too much for their delicate sensibilities; and, with the exception of Messrs. Moore, Rogers, and one or two other friends,  who remained faithful to the last, there was not one to close his dying eyes. But when all was over, then came the pomp and the pageantry, the titled pall-bearers, the long array of mourners, the public funeral, and the tomb in Westminster Abbey! Poor Sheridan! He was thought of sufficient consequence to be laid by the side of the departed worthies of England; yet the very men who paid this homage to his ashes, scorned to come near him in his poverty!

At the period of his death, which took place in 1816, Sheridan had just completed his sixty-fifth year. His constitution was robust and healthy; and he might have lived full ten years longer, had not grief and his own excesses cut short the span of his days. In youth he was considered handsome; but long confirmed habits of conviviality had obliterated, ere he had yet entered on the autumn of life, every trace of comeliness. His manners were remarkably insinuating, especially to women; his wit ever at command; and his flow of animal spirits unflagging. His worst failing was his unconquerable indolence. To this may be attributed all his misfortunes, and those humiliating expedients to which he was compelled to have recourse in order in ward off the evil day. So deeply was this vice implanted in his nature, that, even when he had to attend the funeral of his old friend Richardson, he could not be prevailed on to set out in time, but arrived after the service was concluded, which, at his particular request, was performed a second time.

Lord Byron, who saw much of him in his decline, has stated—as we see by Moore's admirable life of that poet—that Sheridan's wit was bitter and morose, rather than sparkling or conciliatory. It should be borne in mind, however, that he was then worn down by sickness, disappointed in all his hopes, and deserted by that Prince on whose favour he laid so much stress, and to preserve which he had made so many sacrifices. The concurrent testimony of those who knew him in his best days represents him as having been, like a Wharton or a Villiers, the "life of pleasure and the soul of whim." That in the course of his meteor-like career he committed many indefensible acts, and carried the faculty of non-payment to its highest point of perfection, is true; but, before we finally condemn him, let us consider what was his education, what his original position in society, and, above all, what were his temptations. He was never taught in early life to set a right value on thrifty and industrious habits. His father was an eccentric being from whose example he could derive no benefit; and, at an age when the majority of men are yet in the parental leading-strings, he was cast adrift upon the world, to sink or swim as might happen. Thus situated, without any legitimate profession or certain income, he made his own way to celebrity; and if, while associating with people infinitely his superiors in rank, wealth, and all worldly advantages, he imbibed their extravagances and aped their follies, such weakness is surely a fitter subject for our regret than indignation. At any rate, let us not forget that, if he erred, he paid the penalty; and that many men a thousand times worse than ever he was, but with more tact in concealing their faults, have gone down to the grave honoured and lamented as good citizens and good Christians.