MoboReader > Literature > Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3)


Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3) By John Doran Characters: 44840

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04

A dozen more of ladies, all of desert, and some of extraordinary merit, passed away from the stage during the latter portion of the last century. Mrs. Green, Hippisley's daughter, and Governor Hippisley's sister,-the original Mrs. Malaprop, and, but for Mrs. Clive, the first of petulant Abigails, finished in 1779[19] a public career which began in 1730.[20] In the same year,[21] but after a brief service of about eight years, Mason's Elfrida and Evelina, the voluptuous Mrs. Hartley, in her thirtieth year, went into a retirement which she enjoyed till 1824. She was "the most perfect beauty that was ever seen,"-more perfect than "the Carrara," who was "the prettiest creature upon earth." Her beauty, however, was of feature, lacking expression, and though an impassioned, she was not an intelligent actress, unless her plunging her stage-wooers into mad love for her be a proof of it. No wonder, had Smith only not been married, that he grew temporarily insane about this young, graceful, and fair creature.

Then, from the London stage, at least, fell Mrs. Baddeley, at the end of the season, 1780-81. She was a pretty actress with a good voice, and so little love for Mr. Baddeley and so much for George Garrick that a duel came of it. The parties went out, to Hyde Park, on a November morning of 1770. Baddeley was stirred up to fight Davy's brother, by a Jewish friend, who, being an admirer of the lady, wanted her husband to shoot her lover! The two pale combatants fired anywhere but at each other, and then the lady rushed in, crying, "Spare him!" without indicating the individual! Whereupon, husband and friend took the fair one, each by a hand, and went to dinner; and the married couple soon after played together in "It's well it's no worse!"

But worse did come, and separation, and exposure, and Memoirs to brighten Mrs. Baddeley, which, like those of Mrs. Pilkington, only blackened her the more. She passed to country engagements, charming audiences for awhile with her Polly, Rosetta, Clarissa, and Imogen, till laudanum, cognac, paralysis, and small sustenance, made an end of her, when she had lost everything she could value, save her beauty.

The third departure was of as mad a creature as she, Miss Catley-the Irish songstress, all smiles and dimples, and roguish beauty; who loved, like Nell Gwyn, to loll about in the boxes, and call to authors that she was glad their play was damned; and to ladies, to stand up that she might look at them, and to display the fashion of her dress, which those ladies eagerly copied. Her "Tyburn top," which she wore in Macheath, set the mode for the hair for many a day; and to be Catley-fied was to be decked out becomingly.

A more illustrious pair next left the stage more free to Mrs. Siddons, or her coming rendered it less tenable to them; namely, Mrs. Yates and George Anne Bellamy-the former appearing for the last time for the benefit of the latter. More than thirty years before, as Mrs. Graham, young, fat, and weak-voiced, she failed in Dublin. In 1753-54, she made almost as unsatisfactory a début at Drury Lane in a new part, Marcia, in "Virginia," in which she only showed promise. Richard Yates then married and instructed her, and she rapidly improved, but could not compete with Mrs. Cibber, till that lady's illness caused Mandane ("Orphan of China") to be given to Mrs. Yates, who, by her careful acting, at once acquired a first-rate reputation. In the classical heroines of the dull old classical tragedies of the last century, she was wonderfully effective, and her Medea was so peculiarly her own, that Mrs. Siddons herself never disturbed the public memory of it by acting the part.

When Mrs. Cibber died in 1765,[22] Mrs. Yates succeeded to the whole of her inheritance, some of which was a burthen too much for her; but she kept her position, with Mrs. Barry (Crawford) for a rival, till Mrs. Siddons promised at Bath to come and dispossess both. Mrs. Yates recited beautifully, was always dignified, but seems to have wanted variety of expression. With a haughty mien, and a powerful voice, she was well suited to the strong-minded heroines of tragedy; but the more tender ladies, Desdemona or Monimia, she could not compass. To the pride and violence of Calista she was equal, but in pathos she was wanting. Her comedy was as poor as that of Mrs. Siddons; her Jane Shore as good; her Medea so sublime as to be unapproachable. I suspect she was a little haughty; for impudent Weston says in his will: "To Mrs. Yates I leave all my humility!"

In one character of comedy she is said, indeed, to have excelled-Violante, in the "Wonder," to the playfulness, loving, bickering, pouting, and reconciliations, in which her "queen-like majesty" does not seem to have been exactly suitable. Her scorn was never equalled but by Mrs. Siddons, and it would be difficult to determine which lady had the more lofty majesty. In passion Mrs. Yates swept the stage as with a tempest; yet she was always under control. For instance, in Lady Constance, after wildly screaming,

"I will not keep this form upon my head,

When there is much disorder in my wit,"

she did not cast to the ground the thin white cap which surmounted her headdress, but quietly took it from her head, and placed it on the right side of the circumference of her hoop! Mrs. Yates died in 1787.

George Anne Bellamy is unfortunate in having a story, which honest women seldom have. That pleasant place, Mount Sion, at Tunbridge Wells, was the property of her mother, a Quaker farmer's daughter, named Seal, who, on her mother falling into distress, was taken by Mrs. Gregory,[23] the sister of the Duke of Marlborough, to be educated.

Miss Seal was placed in an academy in Queen's Square, Westminster, so dull a locality, that the rascally Lord Tyrawley had no difficulty in persuading her to run away from it, in his company, and to his apartments, in Somerset House. When my lord wanted a little change, he left Miss Seal with her infant son, and crossed to Ireland to make an offer to the daughter of the Earl of Blessington. She was ugly, he said, but had money; and when he got possession of both, he would leave the first, and bring the latter with renewed love, to share with Miss Seal.

The lady was so particularly touched by this letter, that she sent it, with others, to the earl, who, rendered angry thereat, forbade his daughter to marry my lord, but found they were married already. Tyrawley hoped thus to secure Lady Mary Stewart's fortune; but discovering she had none at her disposal, he naturally felt he had been deceived, and turned his wife off to her relations. Having gone through this amount of villainy, King George thought he was qualified to represent him at Lisbon, and thither Lord Tyrawley proceeded accordingly.

He would have taken Miss Seal with him, but she preferred to go on the stage. Ultimately she did consent to go; and was received with open arms; but she was so annoyed by the discovery of a swarthy rival, that she listened to the wooing of a Captain Bellamy, married him, and presented him with a daughter with such promptitude, that the modest captain ran away from so clever a woman, and never saw her afterwards.

Lord Tyrawley, proud of the implied compliment, acknowledged the little George Anne Bellamy, born on St. George's day, 1733, as his daughter. He exhibited the greatest care in her education. He kept her at a Boulogne convent from her fifth to her eighth year, and then brought her up at his house at Bexley, amid noble young scamps, whose society was quite as useful to her as if she had been at a "finishing" school.

Lord Tyrawley having perfected himself in the further study of demi-rippism, went as the representative of England to Russia, leaving an allowance for his daughter, which so warmed up her mother's affections for her, that George Anne was induced to live with her, and George Anne's mother hoped that her annuity would do so too, but my lord, having different ideas, stopped the annuity, and did not care to recover his daughter.

The two women were destitute; but the younger one was very youthful, was rarely beautiful, had certain gifts, and, of course, the managers heard of her. She had played Miss Prue for Bridgewater's benefit, in 1742, and gave promise. In 1744, Rich heard her recite, and announced her for Monimia. Quin was angry at having to play Chamont to "such a child;" but the little thing manifested such tenderness and ability, that he confessed she was charming. Lord Byron thought so too, and carried her off in his coach to a house at the corner of North Audley Street, which looked over the dull Oxford Road to the desolate fields beyond. Much scandal ensued; amid which Miss Bellamy's half-brother appeared, shook his sister as a pert baggage, and sorely mauled my lord; but Lord Byron lived to murder Mr. Chaworth in a duel, to be found guilty of slaughtering the poor man, and consequently, being a peer, to be discharged on paying his fees!

Then Miss Bellamy went among some Quaker relations who had never previously seen her, and charmed them so by her soft, and winning, and simple Quakerish ways, that they would have made an idol of her, if Friends ever made an idol of anything, but lucre and themselves. A discovery that she was an actress brought this phase of her life to an end, and it was followed by a triumphant season on the Dublin stage, from 1745 to 1747, where she made such a sensation, reigned so like a queen, and was altogether so irresistible and rich, that Lord Tyrawley's family acknowledged her. My lord himself became reconciled to her, through old Quin, and would have spent her income for her after she was re-engaged at Covent Garden, in 1748, if she would only have married his friend, Mr. Crump. Rather than do that, she let a Mr. Metham carry her off from Covent Garden, dressed as she was to play Lady Fanciful, to live with, quarrel with, and refuse to wed with him.

What with the loves, caprices, charms, extravagances, and sufferings of Mrs. Bellamy, she excited the wonder, admiration, pity, and contempt of the town for thirty years. The Mr. Metham she might have married she would not,-Calcraft and Digges, whom she would have, and the last of whom she thought she had married, she could not; for both had wives living. To say that she was a syren who lured men to destruction, is to say little, for she went down to ruin with each victim; but she rose from the wreck more exquisitely seductive and terribly fascinating than ever, to find a new prey whom she might ensnare and betray.

Meanwhile, she kept a position on the stage, in the very front rank, disputing pre-eminence with the best there, and achieving it in some things; for this perilous charmer was unequalled in her day for the expression of unbounded and rapturous love. Her looks glowing with the passion to which she gave expression, doubled the effect; and whether she gazed at a lover or rested her head on the bosom of her lord, nothing more tender or subduing was ever seen, save in Mrs. Cibber. She was so beautiful, had eyes of such soft and loving blue, was so extraordinarily fair, and was altogether so irresistible a sorceress, that Mrs. Bellamy was universally loved as a charming creature, and admired as an excellent actress; and when she played some poor lady distraught through affection, the stoutest hearts under embroidered or broad-cloth waistcoats, crumbled away, often into inconceivable mountains of gold-dust.

She laughed, and scattered as fast as they piled it, and in the gorgeous extravagance of her life began to lose her powers as an actress. She had once almost shared the throne assumed by Mrs. Cibber, but she wanted the sustained zeal and anxious study of that lady, and cared not, as Mrs. Cibber did, for one quiet abiding home, by whomsoever shared, but sighed for change, had it, and suffered for it. When her powers began to decay, her admirers of all schools deplored the fact. In tragedy, natural as she was in feeling, she belonged to the old days of intoned cadences; and the old and the rising school mourned over her, yet both were compelled to avow that only in the ecstasy of love was Mrs. Bellamy equal to the Cibber, and in that Mrs. Cibber, when acting with Barry, in the younger days of both, was often George Anne's superior.

From reigning it like a queen on and off the stage,-imperious and lovely, and betraying everywhere,-to the figure of a poor, bailiff-persecuted, famishing wretch, stealing down the muddy steps of old Westminster Bridge to drown herself in the Thames, how wide are the extremes! But in both positions we find the original Volumnia of Thomson, the Erixine of Dr. Young, and the Cleone, to whom Dodsley owed the success of his heart-rending tragedy. To the last, she was as unfortunate as she had been reckless. Two old lovers, one of whom was Woodward, bequeathed legacies to her, which she never received. Those sums seemed as life to her; but, in the days of her pride and her power, and wicked but transcendent beauty, she would have scorned them as mere pin-money; and so she grew acquainted with gaunt misery, till some friends weary, perhaps, of sustaining the burthen she imposed upon them, induced the managers to give her a farewell benefit, in 1784,[24] on which occasion Mrs. Yates returned to the stage to play for her the Duchess, in "Braganza." More than forty years before, the brilliant little sylph, Miss Bellamy, had floated on to the same Covent Garden stage, confident in both intellectual and material charms. Now, the middle-aged woman, still older through fierce impatience at her fall, through want, misery, hopelessness, everything but remorse, had not nerve enough to go on and utter a few words of farewell. These were spoken for her by Miss Farren, before the curtain, which ascended at the words,-

"But see, oppress'd with gratitude and tears,

To pay her duteous tribute she appears;"

and discovered the once beautiful and happy syren, a terrified, old-looking woman, lying, powerless to rise, in an arm-chair. But the whole house-some out of respect for the erst charmer, others out of curiosity to behold a woman of such fame on and off the stage-rose to greet her. George Anne, urged by Miss Catley, bent forward, murmured a few indistinct words, and, falling back again, the curtain descended, for the last time, between the public and the Fallen Angel of the stage.

Half-a-dozen minor lights are extinguished before we come to a name, a desert, and a fortune, more brilliant and lasting than that of George Anne Bellamy,-the name, merit, and fortune of Miss Farren. Mrs. Wilson, the original Betty Hint, in the "Man of the World," is not now remembered either for her genius or her errors. Mrs. Belfille made but one appearance on the London stage, as Belinda, in "All in the Wrong." She wanted animation and humour, but was distinguished for the splendour of her stage wardrobe, which was all her own. She joined Whitlock and Austin's company in the north. Whitlock married Mrs. Siddons' sister Elizabeth, and took her to America, where her acting drew rather the admiration than the tears of the Indians. Mrs. Belfille and Mrs. Whitlock were together in the company named above. On the back of one of their bills I find a MS. note made by Austin, in which he says that Mrs. Belfille was an elegant actress, very fashionable, and genteel in dress and manner; and, he adds, "Mrs. Whitlock could not keep her temper while Mrs. Belfille was with me, in Newcastle, Chester, &c."

A year later, in 1789, the charming Bacchante, Mrs. Beresford, Goldsmith's Miss Richland and Miss Hardcastle, and Sheridan's Julia, in the "Rivals," left the London stage for Edinburgh, where, says Jackson, "her Lady Racket will be remembered as long as one of her audience remains alive."

Pretty Mrs. Wells, famous for her imitations, now disappears. She was O'Keefe's Cowslip. She was the Jewish gentleman, Mr. Sumbell's, wife, which he denied; and she so far rivalled Mrs. Siddons, that, in "Isabella," as it was the fashion for the house to shriek when the actress shrieked, so, when Mrs. Wells shrieked, her friends shrieked louder than those of Mrs. Siddons', and, therefore, thought Cowslip was the greater tragedian of the two. Then, the first of the Miss Bruntons, the Louisa Courtney of Reynold's "Dramatist," finished her seventh and last season, in London, in 1792, as the wife of Della Cruscan Merry. She began as an expected rival of Mrs. Siddons, but London did not confirm the testimony of Bath. Three other actresses passed away before Miss Farren: mad Hannah Brand, who was a sort of female Mossop; Mrs. Esten (who tried to disturb Mrs. Siddons, Mrs. Jordan, and Miss Farren, but who, failing, settled in the north, and very much disturbed the heart and the purse of the Duke of Hamilton), and Mrs. Webb, the original Mrs. Cheshire to the above Cowslip; than whom actress of more weight never made the boards groan, and who turned her corpulence to account by playing Falstaff.

The first glimpse to be caught of Miss Farren is as picturesque as can well be imagined. Her father, once a Cork surgeon but now manager of a strolling company, is in the lock-up of the town of Salisbury; he fell into durance through an unconscious infringement of the borough law. The story is told, at length, in my Knights and their Days. On a wintry morning, a little girl carries him a bowl of hot milk, for breakfast, and she is helped over the ice to the lock-up window by a sympathising lad. The nymph is Miss Farren, afterwards Countess of Derby; the boy is the very happy beginning of Chief Justice Burroughs.

The incident occurred in 1769. Three years later, Elizabeth was playing Columbine at Wakefield. She could sing as well as she could dance, gracefully; and, out of very love for the beautiful girl, Younger brought her out, at Liverpool, where her maternal grandfather had been a brewer of repute and good fortune, and where his grand-daughter proved such a Rosetta, that more than half the young fellows were more deeply in love with her than the paternal Younger himself.

After five years' training, the now radiant girl, glowing with beauty and intelligence, first charmed a London audience, on June the 9th, 1777, by appearing at the Haymarket, as Miss Hardcastle; Edwin making his appearance on the same night, as Old Hardcastle. In that first year of London probation, her Miss Hardcastle was a great success; the town was ecstatic at that and her Maria, in the "Citizen," was rapt at her Rosetta, rendered hilarious by her Miss Tittup, and rarely charmed by her playfulness and dignity, as Rosara (Rosina), in the "Barber of Seville." Of this character she was the original representative. Colman omitted the scene in which the Count was disguised as a tipsy dragoon, on the ground of its being injurious to morality! The same Colman thought the Fool, in "Lear," too gross for a London audience.

In the following year, the success of her Lady Townly transferred her to Drury Lane, where she divided the principal parts with Miss Walpole, Miss P. Hopkins (Mrs. Kemble, subsequently), and Perdita Robinson; and not one of the four was twenty years of age.

Her Lady Townly was no new triumph. She had produced such an effect in it at Liverpool, where, after her father's death, Younger had engaged the whole family, that, on the strength of the promise of fortune to come, tradesmen offered them unlimited credit.

For about a score of years she maintained a pre-eminence which she did not, however, attain all at once, or without a struggle; her most powerful and graceful opponent being Mrs. Abington. Her early days had been of such stern and humble aspect, such a strolling and starving with her stage-mad and improvident father, that an anonymous biographer says of her: "The early parts of the history of many eminent ladies on the stage must be extremely disagreeable to them in the recital; and to none, we apprehend, more than to Miss Farren, who, from the lowest histrionic sphere, has raised herself to the most elevated."

During the years above-named, she played principally at Drury Lane and the Haymarket, and chiefly the parts of fine ladies, for which she seemed born; though she attempted tragedy, now and then; and assumed low comedy characters, occasionally; but her natural elegance, her tall and delicate figure, her beautiful expression, her superbly modulated voice, her clear and refined pronunciation, made of her fine lady a perfect charm; not merely the Lady Betty Modish, and similar personages, but the sentimental Indianas and Cecilias.

Walpole says emphatically of Miss Farren, that, in his estimation, she was the most perfect actress he had ever seen. Adolphus praises "the irresistible graces of her address and manner, the polished beauties of her action and gait, and all the indescribable little charms which give fascination to the woman of birth and fashion," as among the excellences which secured a triumph for Burgoyne's "Heiress." In that play she acted Lady Emily Gayville.

Among her original characters were Rosara (Rosina), in the "Barber of Seville;" Cecilia, in "Chapter of Accidents;" Sophia, in "Lord of the Manor;" Lady Emily Gayville, in the "Heiress;" Eliza Ratcliffe, in the "Jew;" and Emily Tempest, in the "Wheel of Fortune." In the "Heiress" Adolphus again says of her:-"Whether high and honourable sentiments, burning and virtuous sensibility, sincere and uncontrollable affection; animated, though sportive reprehension; elegant persiflage, or arch and pointed satire were the aim of the author, Miss Farren amply filled out his thought, and, by her exquisite representation, made it, even when faint and feeble in itself, striking and forcible." In fewer words, she had feeling, judgment, grace, and discretion.

It was when playing Rosara that her life became in danger, by her long gauze mantilla taking fire from the side-lights. She was not aware of her peril, till Bannister (Almaviva) had quietly thrown his Spanish cloak around her, and had put out the flames with his hands.

During her stage career she was the manageress of the private theatricals at the Duke of Richmond's,-those most exclusive of dramatic entertainments. She moved, as it is called, in the best society, where she was Que

en "amang them a'." Charles James Fox is said to have been more or less seriously attached to her; but long before she withdrew from the stage it was said, and was printed, that when "one certain event should happen, a Countess's coronet would fall on her brow."

And thereby hangs a tale that has something in it extremely unpleasant; for this one event, waited for during a score of years, was the death of the Countess of Derby, the only daughter of the Duke of Hamilton.

To the Duchess of Leinster, who knew something of Miss Farren's family in Ireland, the actress was indebted for introductions to Lady Ailesbury, Mrs. Damer, and others, through whom Miss Farren became acquainted with the Earl of Derby, who was himself a clever actor, in private theatricals. A Platonic affection, at least, was soon established. Walpole writing, in 1791, to the Miss Berrys, says: "I have had no letter from you these ten days, though the east wind has been as constant as Lord Derby," not to his wife, whom he had married in 1774, but to Miss Farren, who first came to London three years later.

On the 14th of March 1797, the long-tarrying Countess departed this life; on the 8th of April following, Miss Farren took final leave of the stage, in Lady Teazle. After the play, Wroughton led her forward, and spoke a few farewell words for her, at the end of which she gracefully curtseyed to all parts of the house; and that once little girl who carried milk to her father in the Round House, went home, and was married to the Earl, on the May Day of the year in which he had lost his first wife! Six weeks 'twixt death and bridal! and yet we hear that Miss Farren's greatest charm consisted in her "delicate, genuine, impressive sensibility, which reached the heart by a process no less certain than that by which her other powers effected their impression on their fancy and judgment."

At all events, Miss Farren never acted so hastily, nor Stanley so uncourteously to the memory of a dead lady, as on this occasion, and it was not one for which youthful widowers might find an apology, for the erst strolling actress was considerably past thirty, and her swain within five years of the age at which Sir Peter Teazle married "my lady."

Of the three children of this union, only one survived, Mary, born in 1801, and married, twenty years afterwards, to the Earl of Wilton. Through her, the blood of an actress once more mingles with that of the peerage; with the same result, perhaps, as followed the match of Winnifred, the dairymaid, with the head of the Bickerstaffes.

No marriage of an English actress with a man of title ever had such results as that which followed the union of Fleury's beautiful sister with the gallant Viscount Clairval de Passy. When the match was proposed, the parents of the lady were in a fever of delight that their daughter should be a viscountess. Doubtless she became so in law and fact; but instead of taking place as such with the Viscount, he laid by his title, and out of love for his wife and her profession, turned actor himself! The happy pair played together with success, and when you meet with the names of Monsieur and Madame Sainville in the annals of the French stage, you are reading of that very romantic pair-the happy Viscount and Viscountess Clairval de Passy.

In 1796,[25] after more than a quarter of a century of service, Mrs. Pope, once Garrick's favourite, Miss Younge, withdrew to die, and leave her younger husband to take a less accomplished actress for his second wife. But the loss which the stage felt as severely as it did that of Miss Farren was, in 1798, in the person of a lady, with whom we first become acquainted as a vivacious and intelligent little girl selling flowers in St. James's Park. She is known as "Nosegay Fan." Her father, a soldier in the Guards, mends shoes, when off duty, in Windmill Street, Haymarket, and her brother waters the horses of the Hampstead stage, at the corner of Hanway Yard. Who would suppose that this little Fanny Barton, who sells moss-roses, would one day set the fashions to all the fine ladies in the three kingdoms; that Horace Walpole would welcome her more warmly to Strawberry Hill than an ordinary princess, and that "Nosegay Fan" would be the original and never-equalled Lady Teazle?

Humble, however, as the position of the flower-girl is, there is good blood in her very blue veins. She comes of the Bartons of Derbyshire, and not longer ago than the accession of King William, sons of that family held honourable office in the Church, the army, and in government offices. Fanny Barton ran on errands for a French milliner, and occasionally encountered Baddeley, when the latter was apprenticed to a confectioner, and was not dreaming of the Twelfth Cake he was to bequeath to the actors of Drury Lane. Then ensued some passages in her life that remind one of the training and experience of Nell Gwyn. The fascinating Fanny, in one way or another, made her way in the world, and, for the sake of a smile, lovers courted ruin. This excessively brilliant, though not edifying, career did not last long. Among the many friends she had acquired was that prince of scamps and Bardolphs, Theophilus Cibber, who had just procured a licence to open the theatre in the Haymarket. He had marked the capabilities of the "vivacious" Fanny, and he tempted her to appear under his management, as Miranda, in the "Busy Body," to his Marplot. This was on the 21st of August 1755, when the débutante was only seventeen years of age. She immediately excited attention as an actress of extraordinary promise; and, in the short summer season, she exhibited her versatility by playing Miss Jenny, in the "Provoked Husband;" Desdemona, Sylvia, in the "Recruiting Officer," and finally enchanted her audience as Prince Prettyman, in the "Rehearsal."

From the Haymarket this clever girl went to Bath and fascinated King, the manager; thence to Richmond, where Lacey, the manager there, fell equally in love with her, and engaged her for Drury Lane (1756-57), where, however, the presence, success, and claims of Miss Pritchard, Miss Macklin, and Mrs. Clive, kept her out of the line of characters for which she was specially qualified. She was, moreover, ill-educated, and she forthwith placed herself under tuition. Fanny took for music-master Mr. Abington, who, of course, became desperately in love with her, and married his pupil. The young couple established a splendid home in the then fashionable quarter, St. Martin's Lane; but soon after, the convenient Apollo disappears, and even the musical dictionaries fail to tell us of the being and whereabout of a man whose wife made his name famous.

After four seasons at Drury, she went on a triumphant career to Dublin. There she acquired all she had hitherto lacked, and when, in the season of 1765-66, she reappeared at Drury Lane, as Cherry,[26] upon terms granted by Garrick, which were no longer considered extravagant, so conspicuous was her talent, the playgoing world was in a fever of delight. Her career, from 1755 to 1798, lasted forty-three years, and, though like Betterton, Time touched her person, it never weakened her talent. Critics praise her elegant form, her graceful address, the animation and expression of her looks, her quick intelligence, her perfect taste. Expression served her more than beauty, and her voice, once hardly better than Peg Woffington's, became perfectly musical by her power of modulation. Every word was pronounced with a clearness that made her audible in the remotest parts of the theatre, and this was a charm of itself in such parts as Beatrice, and Lady Teazle, where "every word stabbed," as King was wont to remark. In short, she was one of the most natural, easy, impressive, and enchanting actresses that ever appeared on the stage. Reynolds took her for his Comic Muse, and it is worth a pilgrimage to Knowle Park to look on that wonderful impersonation, and realise something of the grace and perfection of Mrs. Abington. In 1771, Walpole wrote to her, "I do impartial justice to your merit, and fairly allow it not only equal to that of any actress I have seen, but believe the present age will not be in the wrong if they hereafter prefer it to those they may live to see." On one occasion, he describes her, in Lady Teazle, as "equal to the first of her profession." She "seemed the very person," an "admiration of Mrs. Abington's genius made him long desire the honour of her acquaintance." He goes to sup with her, hoping "that Mrs. Clive will not hear of it;" and he throws Strawberry open to her, and as many friends as she chooses to bring with her. When the fever of his enthusiasm had somewhat abated, and he remembered the "Nosegay Fan" of early days, his admiration was more discriminating. Mrs. Abington, then, "can never go beyond Lady Teazle, which is a second-rate character, and that rank of women are always aping women of fashion without arriving at the style." Out of the line of the affected fine lady, says Lady G. Spencer, "Mrs. Abington should never go. In that she succeeds, because it is not unnatural to her." This criticism is just, for Lady Teazle is a parvenu. The country-bred girl apes successfully enough the woman of fashion, but in her early home, as we are told, she wore a plain linen gown, a bunch of keys at her side, her hair combed smooth over a roll; and her apartment was hung round with fruits in worsted, of her own working. Her girlish occupation was to inspect the dairy, superintend the poultry, make extracts from the family receipt-book, comb her aunt Deborah's lap-dog, draw patterns for ruffles, play Pope Joan with the curate, read a sermon aloud, and strum her fox-hunting father to sleep at the spinnet. This "fine lady," by accident and not by birth, Mrs. Abington could play admirably; better than she could Lady Modish, who was a lady by birth and education. But even in the latter character she is described as having been the accomplished and well-bred woman of fashion. Her intercourse with ladies of rank, an intimacy which made her somewhat vain, was of use to her in such impersonations; but she was not received so unreservedly as Mrs. Oldfield, for many remembered her early wild course, and saw no compensation for it in the later and better regulated life. She turned such schooling as she could obtain in drawing-rooms to the best account; but Mrs. Oldfield, in the University of Fashion, took first-class honours.

Coquettes, chambermaids, hoydens, country girls, and the women of the Lady Teazle, Lady Fancyful, and Lady Racket cast, she played without fear of a rival. Her chambermaids seem to have been over-dressed, and this superfluity attended some of her other characters, in which she was as much beplumed as the helmet in the Castle of Otranto. For more than a quarter of a century, her Widow Belmour, in the "Way to Keep Him," was a never-failing delight to the public. Murphy says that her graces of action gave to this part brilliancy, and even novelty, every time she repeated it. She was the original representative of thirty characters, among which we find,-Lady Bab, in "High Life Below Stairs;" Betty, in the "Clandestine Marriage;" Charlotte, in the "Hypocrite;" Charlotte Rusport, in the "West Indian;" Roxalana, in the "Sultan;" Miss Hoyden, in the "Trip to Scarborough;" and her crowning triumph, Lady Teazle.

Like other clever players, she committed a fault,-hers was in acting Scrub, for a wager,-at her benefit, in 1786. Genest says, "In point of profit, it no doubt answered; but she is said to have disgraced herself in Scrub, and to have acted the part with her hair dressed for Lady Racket," which she played in the after-piece! Her portrait, as Scrub, with her hair thus dressed, gives her an absurd appearance. She figured in the private theatricals, at Brandenburgh House, of the Margravine of Anspach. In one of the plays represented-the "Provoked Wife"-the piece was cut down, in order that no female character should have equal prominence with that of Lady Brute, played by the Margravine herself; but Mrs. Abington asserted her professional right, and played her once famous scene of Lady Fancyful, straight through, to the united delight of herself and audience.

In her later years she lost her old grace and fine figure; and she, who had snatched the mantle from Kitty Clive, found it taken from her, in her turn, by the gentle yet all-conquering Miss Farren, whom, however, she survived on the stage. From 1798 to 1815, Mrs. Abington lived in retirement, active only in works of charity; and when she died in the latter year, few remembered in the deceased wealthy lady, the vivacious "Nosegay Fan" of three-quarters of a century before.

There remains to be noticed one who, in the annals of the stage, appears like a brief but charming episode,-a fair promise, hastily made, and not realised; an actress of whom Garrick augured well, and whom he gave to the stage, from which she was snatched by a prince. Miss Darby was a native of Bristol, and a pupil of Hannah More. She was the heiress of a fair fortune, which her philanthropic father dissipated in attempts to civilise the Esquimaux Indians. Having thereby beggared his wife and child, the man, with a heart for all mankind, but not for his home, left the latter; and the mother then was supported by what Miss Darby could earn as a governess. What she could then spare, she devoted to acquiring "the usual accomplishments." Among the latter was dancing; and her master (a Covent Garden ballet-master) introduced her to Garrick. After some training, she recited Cordelia, like a pretty and clever child, as she was; and then disappeared.

She was not sixteen when she married Mr. Robinson,-a young man of good fortune, apprenticed to the law. The happy couple ran through their fortune in splendid haste; and Mrs. Robinson spent more than a year with him in prison. Misery drove her again to Garrick, who, though now withdrawn from the stage, rehearsed Romeo to her Juliet; and sat in the orchestra on the night of the 10th of December 1776, when she played the latter part to the Romeo of Brereton. She was then only eighteen; and her success was all that could be expected from her talent and beauty, and a voice which reminded Garrick of his darling, Mrs. Cibber. Thus commenced the brief stage career which ended in May 1780 with the "Winter's Tale," and her own farce, the "Miniature Picture,"[27] on which occasion she played Perdita and Eliza Camply.[28]

In the interval, she had played the tender or proudly loving ladies in tragedy, and the refined and sprightly nymphs in comedy; and she was the original Amanda, in the "Trip to Scarborough." Since Mrs. Woffington and the first blush of Mrs. Bellamy, such peculiar grace and charms had not been seen on the stage. The critics extolled both, the fine gentlemen besieged her with billets-doux, and the artists protested that they had never beheld better taste than hers in costume.

On the 3d of December 1779 their Majesties' servants played, by command, at Drury Lane, the "Winter's Tale," for the sixth time. Gentleman Smith was Leontes; Bensley, Polixenes; Brereton, Florizel; Miss Farren, Hermione; and Mrs. Robinson, Perdita.

The King, Queen, and royal family were in their box, when Perdita entered the green-room, dressed more exquisitely and looking more bewitching than ever. "You will make a conquest of the Prince, to-night," said Smith laughingly; "I never saw you look so handsome as you do now!" He was a true prophet. The Prince was subdued by her beauty, and subsequently wrote letters to her, which were signed "Florizel," and were carried by no less noble a go-between than William Anne Capel, Earl of Essex; but others ascribe this messengership of love to his son Viscount Malden, who subsequently married Miss Stephens, the vocalist, and present dowager-countess.[29]

The messenger of love wooed her for the Prince, while he adored her himself,-at least he said so. He gave her the Prince's portrait, and a heart,-not in precious metal, but in paper,-a symbol of the worth and tenacity of the Prince's. On this token was a double motto, in French, for the air of the thing: "Je ne change qu'en mourant;" and in English, for the emphasis of it: "Unalterable to my Perdita through life."

This young creature's husband was living in profligacy on her salary, which he received at the treasury, and she was wooed by a young Prince, with a magic of wooing which, she said, she should never forget. The first step she made towards the latter was, by meeting him in a boat, moored off Kew. The second, was by meeting him by moonlight, in Kew Gardens. But then, the "Bishop of Osnaburgh" was present! And the lady herself was a furbelowed Egeria to a powdered Numa. "During many months of confidential correspondence," she says, "I always offered his royal highness the best advice in my power."

Deathless was to be the young Prince's love, and his munificence was to be equal to his truth. In proof of the latter, he gave her a bond for £20,000, to be paid to her on his coming of age. In a few months he attained his majority, refused to pay the money, and made no secret to the lady of his deathless love having altogether died out. He passed her in the park, affecting not to know her; and the spirited young woman, who had given up a lucrative profession for his sake, flung a remark at him, in her indignation, that ought to have made him blush, had he been to that manner born. However, she was not altogether abandoned. The patriotic Whig statesman, Charles Fox, obtained for the Prince's cast-off favourite an annuity of £300,-out of the pockets of a tax-paying people!

Perdita would fain have returned to the stage, but her friends dissuaded her. No one could tell how a moral people would receive the abandoned of "Florizel!" So, restless, she dwelt, now here, now there; now in France, where Marie Antoinette gave a purse, knitted by her luckless fingers, to "la belle Anglaise;" now in Brighton, where also resided, in the brightest of her beauty and the highest of her splendour, Mrs. Fitzherbert;-the married Polly and the royal Macheath's neglected Lucy?

Perdita was not idle; she wrote poems and novels; the former, tender in sentiment and expression; the latter, not without power and good sense. She had undertaken to supply the Morning Post with poetry, when she died, after cruel suffering, in the last year of the last century (1800); and she herself the last of the pupils of David Garrick.

There was good in this hapless creature. Throughout life she was the loving and helping child of her mother; the loving and helping mother of her child, for both of whom she laboured ungrudgingly to the last. Hannah More, herself, would not harshly construe the conduct of her pupil. "I make the greatest allowance for inexperience and novel passions," was the comment of Horace Walpole. "Poor Perdita!" said Mrs. Siddons, "I pity her from my very heart!"

She fell into bad hands-beginning with those of her father. In her husband's she was still less cared for, though she spent nearly a year with him in a sponging-house, to leave which she was importuned by worthless peers and equally worthless commoners-from ancient dukes down to young city merchants. There was a public admiration for her which scarcely any other actress so practically experienced. Thus, on the night in 1776, when the "Trip to Scarborough" was undergoing temporary but loud condemnation, Mrs. Yates, yielding to the storm, suddenly withdrew, and left Mrs. Robinson, as Amanda, standing alone on the stage, where she was so bewildered by the continued hissing, that the Duke of Cumberland stood up in his box, requested her not to be alarmed, and cheered her by calling out, "It is not you, but the piece, they are hissing."

She gave rather the promise than the actuality of a fine actress; she had good taste, and manifested it in an attention to costume, when propriety therein was not much cared for. She describes the outward presentment of her Statira ("Alexander the Great"), by saying, "My dress was white and blue, made after the Persian costume; and, though it was then singular on the stage, I wore neither a hoop nor powder. My feet were bound with sandals, richly ornamented; and the whole dress was picturesque and characteristic."

Between this period and the time when she lay stricken by paralysis, the interval was not long; and then the forsaken creature, if vanity abided with her, was obliged to content herself with reminiscences of the past-when she was the Laura Maria of Della Crusca, and when Merry declared that future poets and ages would join "to pour in Laura's praise their melodies divine." During that same time Peter Pindar called her, "The nymph of my heart;" Burgoyne pronounced her "perfect as woman and artist;" Tickle proclaimed her "the British Sappho;" John Taylor hailed her, "Pensive Songstress;" Boaden recorded her, "mentally perfect;" the Hon. John St. John asserted that "Nature had formed her queen of song;" Kerr Porter saluted her in thundering heroics; and two theatrical parsons, Will Tasker and Paul Columbine, flung heaps of flowers at her feet, with the zeal of heathen priests before an incarnation of Flora.

And so passes by this vision of fair last-century women to make way for a group of actors of the Garrick school-standing a little apart from whom is John Henderson, whom the town was willing to take for David's successor.

Mr. Beard as Hawthorn.


[19] Her last appearance was 26th May 1780.

[20] I cannot find any mention of her earlier than 1735.

[21] 1780.

[22] Mrs. Cibber died on 30th January 1766.

[23] Mrs. Bellamy calls this lady Godfrey.

[24] The benefit took place on 24th May 1785.

[25] Mrs. Pope's name is in the bills for the last time on 26th January 1797.

[26] Mrs. Abington played the Widow Belmour, in "The Way to Keep Him," at Drury Lane, on 27th November 1765, being "her first appearance there for five years."

[27] "The Miniature Picture" is not by Mrs. Robinson, but by the Margravine of Anspach.

[28] Her last appearance was no doubt on 31st May 1780, when "Rule a Wife," and the "Miniature Picture" were played.

[29] Miss Stephens died February 22, 1882.

* * *


(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top