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   Chapter 7 SARAH SIDDONS.

Their Majesties' Servants (Volume 3 of 3) By John Doran Characters: 54070

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:04

On the 13th of June 1755,[50] when Garrick and Mrs. Cibber, Yates and Mrs. Pritchard, Woodward and Mrs. Clive, were the leaders in the Drury Lane Company,-while Barry and Mrs. Bellamy, Ryan and Mrs. Woffington, were among the "chiefs" of Covent Garden, Sarah Kemble was born, the first of twelve children, at a public-house, in Brecon, in which town, exactly a score of years later, was born her youngest brother, Charles.

By both parents she belonged to the stage. Her mother's maiden name was Ward. This lady's father had been a respectable actor[51] under Betterton, and was a strolling manager, when the hairdresser of the company, a handsome fellow, poor, of course, and a Roman Catholic, eloped with and married the manager's daughter. His name was Roger Kemble. He was an actor too; love, at first, had helped to make him a very bad one. Fanny Furnival, of the Canterbury company, drilled him into the worst Captain Plume[52] that ever danced over the stage; but Mrs. Roger Kemble, a woman who illustrated the truth that beauty is of every age, used in her latter days to look at the grand old man, and assert that he was the only gentleman-like Falstaff she had ever seen.

Mr. and Mrs. Kemble were "itinerants" when the first child of their marriage was born,-a child who made her début on the London stage long before her father;-the latter playing, and playing very well, the Miller of Mansfield, at the Haymarket, in 1788, for the benefit of the wife of his second son, Stephen. When Roger carried off Miss Ward, her father with difficulty forgave her,-and only on the ground that she had, at all events, obeyed his injunction,-not to marry an actor. "He will never be that," said the old player of the Betterton era. With which remark, his discontent was exhausted.

Her grandsire acted under Betterton and Booth; her parents had played with Quin;-she herself fulfilling a professional career which commenced with Garrick, and ended with her performing Lady Randolph to Mr. Macready's Glenalvon;-when I add to this record that she saw the brilliant but chequered course of Edmund Kean to nearly its close, and witnessed the début of Miss Fanny Kemble,-the whole history of the stage since the Restoration seems resumed therein.

Roger Kemble's itinerant company, as his children were born, received them as members. They played,-Sarah, John, Stephen, Elizabeth,-almost as soon as they could speak. Sarah's first audience compassionately hissed her, as too young to be listened to; but she won their applause by reciting a fable. At thirteen, she played in the great room of the King's Head, Worcester,-among other parts, Ariel, in the "Tempest," her father, mother, sister Elizabeth, and brother John acting in the same piece. For the next four or five years, there was much of itinerant life, till we find her at Wolverhampton, in 1773, acting in a wide range of characters, from Lee's heroines to Rosetta, in "Love in a Village." In the latter case, the young Meadows was a Mr. Siddons, who had acted Hippolito in Dryden's "Tempest," when she played Ariel. In her father's company she was always the first and greatest. She played all that the accomplished daughter of a manager chose to play, among her father's strollers,-and she attracted admirers both before and behind the curtain. The Earl of Coventry[53] and sundry squires were among the former. Among the latter was that poor player, an ex-apprentice from Birmingham, named Siddons, between whom and Sarah Kemble there was true love, for which, however, there was lacking parental sanction. The country audiences sympathised with the young people, and applauded the lover, who introduced his sad story into a comic song, on his benefit night. As he left the stage, the stately manageress received him at the wing, and there greeted him with a ringing box of the ears.

This led to the secession of both actors from the company. Mr. Siddons went,-the world before him where to choose; Sarah Kemble,-to the family of Mr. Greatheed, of Guy's Cliff, Warwickshire. "She hired herself," says the Secret History of the Green Room, published in the very zenith of her fame,-"as lady's maid to Mrs. Greatheed, at £10 per annum." "Her station," says Campbell, "was humble, but not servile, and her principal employment was to read to the elder Mr. Greatheed." She probably fulfilled the double duty,-no disparagement at a time when the maids of ladies were often decayed ladies themselves.

Old Roger Kemble is said to have been very unwilling that any of his children should follow that profession, in exercising which he had wandered far, suffered much, and profited sparingly. The unwillingness was natural, but he seems to have put it in practice when too late;-after he had allowed his attractive young people to enjoy some of the perilous delights of the stage. There are bills extant which show that some of them, at least, were playing in his company, when they were of tender years. When Sarah Kemble went to Guy's Cliff, it was with no idea of permanently leaving the stage; and if it be true, as alleged in the series of dramatic biographies, published by Symonds at the beginning of the present century, that Roger Kemble apprenticed his daughter Elizabeth to a mantua-maker in Leominster, and Frances to a milliner in Worcester, he narrowly missed marring their good fortunes. A similar vocation could not keep Anne Oldfield from the stage, and though Elizabeth and Frances Kemble were not actresses of extraordinary merit, they had not to regret that they abandoned the vocations chosen for them by their parents, for that which was followed by their parents themselves.

From Guy's Cliff, Sarah Kemble was ultimately taken by her persevering wooer, to whom her father reluctantly gave her at Trinity Church, Coventry, on the 6th of November 1773. The bride was in her nineteenth year. The married couple continued but for a brief period in the Kemble company. A month after the marriage, the name of "Mrs. Siddons" was, for the first time, in the playbill, at Worcester,[54] to Charlotte Rusport, in the "West Indian," and Leonora, in the "Padlock." Shortly after, Roger Kemble saw Mr. and Mrs. Siddons depart for Chamberlain and Crump's company, in Cheltenham. Here Mrs. Siddons at once took her place. Her Belvidera excited universal admiration. Lord Ailesbury, the cousin of the Pretender's wife, the Countess of Albany, mentioned her to Garrick; and Lord Dungarvon's daughter, Miss Boyle, directed her wardrobe, lent her many of her own dresses, and helped to make others for her with her own hands.

The Cheltenham "properties" were of the poorest; but there were some that even the Honourable Miss Boyle could not supply. Thus, for the male disguise of the Widow Brady, Mrs. Siddons found, on the night of performance, that no provision had been made; but we are told that a gentleman in the boxes lent her his coat, while he stood at the side-scenes, with a petticoat over his shoulders, and ready to receive his property when done with!

Garrick, on Lord Ailesbury's report, sent King down to see this actress of promise, and on King's warrant, engaged her for Drury Lane, at £5 per week. Others say that it was on the warrant of Parson Bate, of the Morning Post, who greatly praised her Rosalind.[55]

Her first appearance was on the 29th of December 1775, as Portia, "by a young lady," to King's Shylock. On January 2d, 1776, she repeated Portia, "by Mrs. Siddons." On the 18th,[56] she played Epic?ne, but the part was subsequently assigned to another. On the 2d of February she acted Julia, in a new and poor farce, the "Blackamoor washed White," and on the 15th, Emily, in Mrs. Cowley's new comedy, the "Runaway," which part she had to surrender to Mrs. King. She was not more fortunate in Maria, her third original character, in "Love's Metamorphoses;" nor in a subsequent part, that of Mrs. Strictland to Garrick's Ranger, did she excite any further remark save that it was played in a pathetic manner. Her second appearance with Garrick was as Lady Anne to his Richard, which she repeated twice, the last time on June 5, in presence of the royal family. Five nights later, Garrick took his farewell of the stage, and Mrs. Siddons's engagement was at an end.

In Belvidera, for which she had been praised by King, she was not permitted to appear. Bate had commended her Rosalind, but she had to see it played by Miss Younge. Even Miss Hopkins, who became her sister-in-law, had better parts than she; and there was Mrs. Yates keeping Calista and Isabella, and Mrs. King playing Lady Macbeth, and Mrs. Canning (mother of the future statesman) allowed on the benefit of Reddish, whom she married, to play Monimia. Mrs. Siddons concluded that the other actresses who plagued Garrick's life out, hated her, because Garrick was polite and even kind to her. Sheridan alleged, as a reason for not re-engaging her, that Garrick did not recognise in her a first-rate actress (which she was far from being at that time). Woodfall thought her sensible, but too weak for London. "You are all fools!" said buxom Mrs. Abington.

The fragile, timid, faltering actress acquired strength in the country. Henderson, himself rising to excellence, acted with, and spoke well of, her. York pronounced her perfect, and Bath took her with the warrant, and retained her, its most cherished tragic actress, object of public applause and private esteem, till the year 1782. It was here, in truth, that the great actress was perfected, and that amid as many matronly as professional duties. On leaving the Bath stage, she pointed to her children as so many reasons for the step; and therewith went up, with no faint heart, this time to the metropolis. "She is an actress," said Henderson, "who has never had an equal, and will never have a superior." "My good reception in London," writes Mrs. Siddons, "I cannot but partly attribute to the enthusiastic accounts of me which the amiable Duchess of Devonshire had brought thither, and spread before my arrival." Poor Henderson!

With broken voice, the old nervousness, and a world of fears, she rehearsed Isabella, in Southerne's tragedy. When the night of the 10th of October 1782 arrived, she dressed with a desperate tranquillity, and many sighs, and then faced the public, her son Henry, then eight years of age, holding her by the hand, and her father, Roger, looking on with a dismay that was soon converted into delight. Smith played Biron, and Palmer, Villeroy,-but Siddons alone was heeded on that night, in which she gave herself up so thoroughly to the requirements of the part, that her young son, who had often rehearsed with her, was so overcome by the reality of the dying scene, that he burst into tears.[57] "I never heard," she writes, "such peals of applause in all my life. I thought they would not have suffered Mr. Packer to end the play."

With the echoes of the shouting audience ringing in her ears, she went home solemnly and silently. "My father, my husband, and myself," she says, "sat down to a frugal, neat supper, in a silence uninterrupted, except by exclamations of gladness from Mr. Siddons." With succeeding nights, the triumph went on increasing. The management gave her Garrick's dressing-room, and gentlemen learned in the law presented her with a purse of a hundred guineas.

After the tender Isabella came the heroic loveliness of Euphrasia, with Bensley for Evander, her success in which shook the laurels on the brows of Mrs. Yates, and the widow of Spranger Barry. Having given new life to Murphy's dull lines in a play which, nevertheless, does not lack incident, she appeared as Jane Shore to Smith's Hastings, and with such effect that not only were sobs and shrieks heard from the ladies, but men wept like children, and "fainting fits," says Campbell, "were long and frequent in the house."

To the Lothario of Palmer and Horatio of Bensley, Mrs. Siddons next played Calista, in another of Rowe's tragedies, the "Fair Penitent,"-that impersonation of pride, anguish, anger, shame, and sorrow, and with undiminished success. But in Belvidera (to the Jaffier of Brereton, and Pierre of Bensley) she seems to have surpassed all she had hitherto accomplished over the minds and feelings of the audience, whom she fairly electrified. Her Belvidera, with its honest, passionate, overwhelming love and truth, was well contrasted with her scorn and magnificence of demeanour in Zara. The whole season was one of triumph,-the only dark spot in which was the failure of Hull's "Fatal Interview," in which she played Mrs. Montague, but with so little effect, where, indeed, no opportunity was given her of creating any, as to injure for a moment a prestige which grew all bright again by her performance of Calista.

It is singular that she liked her part in Hull's play-"a new tragedy, in prose," she writes; "a most affecting play, in which I have a part that I like very much;" but she adds, from her house, 149 Strand, "the 'Fatal Interview' has been played three times, and is quite done with. It was the dullest of all representations."

Of Mrs. Crawford (Barry) the new actress entertained some small fears, which are not too generously expressed in a letter to Dr. Whalley. "I should suppose she has a very good fortune, and I should be vastly obliged if she would go and live very comfortably upon it ... let her retire as soon as she pleases!" At this time, when her second benefit brought her nearly £700, her ideas of supreme bliss were limited to a cottage in the country, and a capital of £10,000.

Her success brought her many an enemy, the most virulent and unmanly of whom was an anonymous paragraph-writer in the newspapers, who slandered her daily, and for a brief moment excited against her the ill will of the public. "He loaded her with opprobrium," says an anonymous contemporary, "for not alleviating the distresses of her (alleged) sister,"[58] Mrs. Curtis, a vicious woman, who, according to the quaintly circumstantial writer, "would not conform to modesty, though offered a genteel annuity on that condition." Mrs. Curtis read lectures at Dr. Graham's Temple of Health, and the wayward woman attempted to poison herself in Westminster Abbey. The enemies of Mrs. Siddons somehow connected her with both circumstances, as they subsequently did with that of old Roger Kemble applying, humbly, for relief from some charitable fund, in the hands of a banker. Probably the ex-hairdresser was proud, and may have preferred to apply for aid to a fund which he had helped to sustain than to take it from his children. The story is detailed by Genest, who seems inclined to place some faith in it!

Ireland eagerly invited the new actress, and she crossed from Holyhead to Dublin in a storm, which she looked on or endured with a "pleasing terror." Landing in the middle of a wet night in June, no tavern even would then receive a woman and a stranger, and it was with difficulty that her companion Brereton, a promising Irish actor, whom she had instructed in Jaffier, procured accommodation for her, in the house where he himself lodged. She played with equal success at Cork as at Dublin, particularly in Zara. From the former place she writes to Dr. Whalley:-"I have sat to a young man in this place who has made a small full length of me in Isabella, upon the first entrance of Biron ... he has succeeded to admiration. I think it more like me than any I have ever yet seen." Who was this unnamed artist? Where is this young Isabella?

Mrs. Siddons returned to England, richer by £1000 by her Irish summer excursion, and with an antipathy against the people, which could only be momentary in the daughter of a lady born in Clonmel. Her season of 1783-84 at Drury was doubly marked: she played two Shakspearian characters-Isabella, in "Measure for Measure," to Smith's Duke; and Constance, in "King John," to the King of her own brother, John Kemble. The first was a greater success than the second; but Constance became ultimately one of the most perfect of her portraitures.

To see her Isabella, in the "Fatal Marriage," the whole royal family went in quaint state. To her brother's Beverley, she played the wife, in a way which affected the actors as much as it did the audience. In the Countess of Salisbury, one of Mrs. Crawford's great parts, and Sigismunda, she comparatively failed; but she achieved a double triumph in Lady Randolph. It will be remembered how she had desired the retreat of Mrs. Crawford. The old actress had been famous for her performance of Lady Randolph, which she played on her reappearance at Covent Garden in November 1783. Her oldest admirers (some critics excepted) confessed that her powers were shaken. A month afterwards Mrs. Siddons played the same character, for her benefit, to the Young Norval of Brereton, when the old actress succumbed at once, by comparison; but it is doubtful if Mrs. Siddons excelled her, if the comparison be confined to the period when each actress was in youth, strength, and beauty. "Mrs. Siddons," says Campbell, "omitted Mrs. Crawford's scream, in the far-famed question, 'Was he alive?'" In 1801, the year when Mrs. Crawford was laid by the side of her husband, Barry, in Westminster Abbey, Mr. Simons, says Genest, "in a small party at Bath, went through the scene between Old Norval and Lady Randolph,-his imitation of Mrs. Crawford was most perfect, particularly in 'Was he alive?' Mrs. Piozzi, who was present, said to him,-'do not do that before Mrs. Siddons; she would not be pleased.'"

The King shed tears, however, at her acting; and the Queen, turning her back to the stage, styled it in her broken English "too disagreeable;" but she appointed Mrs. Siddons preceptress in English reading to the Princesses, without any emolument, and kept her standing in stiff and stately dress, including a hoop, which Mrs. Siddons especially detested, till she was ready to faint! The King, too, praised her correct emphasis, mimicked the false ones of other actors, and set her above Garrick on one point, that of repose, whereas, he said, "Garrick could never stand still. He was a great fidget."

The Countesses entrapped her into parties where crowds of well-bred people stood on the chairs to stare at her. One invalid Scotch lady, whose doctor had forbidden her going to the theatre, went unintroduced to Mrs. Siddons's residence, then in Gower Street, and calmly sat down, gazed at her for some minutes, and then walked silently away. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his name on the hem of her garment, in his portrait of her as the Tragic Muse, and Dr. Johnson kissed her hand, and called her "My dear Madam," on his own staircase. Statesmen were glad, when she played, to sit among the fiddlers; and the fine gentlemen of the day, including him of "Wales," visited her in her dressing-room, after the play, "to make their bows." And then she rode home in "her own carriage!"

Edinburgh was impatient to see her, but slow in making up its mind about her. One supreme effort alone, in Lady Randolph, elicited from a generous critic in the pit, the comment, uttered aloud, "That's nae bad;" after that sanction the house shook with applause. Glasgow, not to be behindhand, gave her not only applause but a service of plate. In Dublin, where, probably, her expressed dislike of the Irish people had been reported, there was great opposition to her. Her engagements stood in the way of charitable benefits, and no sacrifices she made to further the latter, whether for societies or individuals, were allowed to her credit. I think, too, that the Irish actors little relished her stage arrangements made for proper effect, and Irish managers were not delighted with her terms of half the receipts; altogether Mrs. Siddons returned to London in saddened temper. In Dublin she had raised a storm; in Edinburgh, where crowds of unwashed people were crammed nightly to see her, in an unventilated theatre, a fever, such as used to be in crowded gaols, broke out, and spread over the city. As once in the case of Garrick, so now with the great actress; it was called the Siddons' fever, as if she were responsible for it!

The anecdote of "That's nae bad!" then, is not to be quoted to the disadvantage of Scottish audiences.[59] The Edinburgh people, moreover, had been told that Mrs. Siddons was unwilling to be interrupted by applause, which, however, was not true; as she herself alleged that the more applause the less fatigue, as she had more breathing time. Indeed, the Edinburgh enthusiasm anent the great actress surpassed all such manifestations elsewhere. Fancy the General Assembly of the Kirk being obliged to arrange their meetings with reference to Mrs. Siddons's acting, as the younger members followed the artist, as Bossuet used to follow contemporary actors, to study elocution. People, during her first engagement of three weeks, assembled in crowds, hours before the doors were opened, sometimes as early as noon. As soon as admission was given, there ensued a fierce struggle which disregarded even the points of bayonets, whose bearers were called in to quell disorder; and, as soon as the play was over, and the doors were closed, porters and servants took up a position, standing, lying, sleeping, but all ready to secure places on the opening of the box-offices on the following day. On one occasion there were applications for 2557 places, of which the house numbered but 630; and when, at night, the struggle was renewed for these, the loss of property, in costume and its attendant luxuries of jewellery and the like, was enormous.

One night, as Mrs. Siddons was playing Isabella, and had uttered the words by which she used to pierce all hearts, words uttered on discovering her first husband, in whose absence she had remarried, "Oh, my Biron! my Biron!" a young Aberdeenshire heiress, Miss Gordon of Gight, sent forth a scream as wild as that of Isabella, and, taking up the words in a hysterical frenzy, was carried out still uttering them. Next year this impressible lady was wooed and won by a Byron, the honourable John of that name, by whom she became the mother of one more famous than the rest, Lord Byron, the "lord of himself, that heritage of woe." Lady Gray, of Gask, told my friend, Mr. Robert Chambers, that she "never could forget those ominous sounds of, 'Oh, my Biron!'"

Notwithstanding all this success, I find contemporary critics expressing an opinion that she played too frequently. "If she hopes," says one, "to have the gratification of being followed by crowds, she should never perform more than once a week, or twelve times in a season." The arithmetical computation seems defective; but it is singular that Mrs. Delaney made a similar remark with respect to Garrick.

Mrs. Siddons was, however, equal to more fatigue than some of her admirers would have had her undergo. I find it recorded, with admiration, in a paper three-quarters of a century old, that in four days she had achieved the (then) incredible task of acting in three theatres, so wide apart as London, Reading, and Bath!

Walpole thus speaks of her in Isabella, "I have seen Mrs. Siddons; she pleased me beyond my expectation, but not up to the admiration of the ton, two or three of whom were in the same box with me, particularly Mr. Boothby, who, as if to disclaim the stoic apathy of Mr. Meadows in "Cecilia," was all bravissimo. Mr. Crawfurd, too, asked me if I did not think her the best actress I ever saw? I said, 'By no means; we old folks were apt to be prejudiced in favour of our first impressions.' She is a good figure, handsome enough, though neither nose nor chin according to the Greek standard, beyond which both advance a good deal. Her hair is rather red, or she has no objection to its being thought so, and had used red powder. Her voice is clear and good; but I thought she did not vary its modulations enough, nor ever approach enough to the familiar; but this may come when more habituated to the awe of the audience of the capital. Her action is proper, but with little variety; when without motion her arms are not genteel. Thus you see, madam, all my objections are very trifling; but what I really wanted, but did not find, was originality, which announces genius, and without both which I am never intrinsically pleased. All Mrs. Siddons did, good sense or good instruction might give. I dare to say that, were I one-and-twenty, I should have thought her marvellous; but, alas! I remember Mrs. Porter and the Dumesnil; and remember every accent of the former in the very same part." Subsequently, he says:-"I cannot think Mrs. Siddons the greatest prodigy that ever appeared, nor go to see her act the same part every week, and cry my eyes out every time; were I five-and-twenty, I suppose I should weep myself blind, for she is a fine actress, and fashion would make me think a brilliant what now seems to me only a very good rose-diamond."

That Mrs. Siddons abandoned the reddish-brown powder then in fashion, we shall see in the chapter on costume. Meanwhile, let us keep to her career on the London stage. On her return thither from Ireland, she found the town possessed by reports of her pride, arrogance, and lack of kindness to her poorer colleagues. A cabal interrupted her performance during several nights; but even when she triumphed over it, by proving the injustice of her accusers, she did not entirely recover her peace of mind. She felt that she had chosen a humiliating vocation. There were, however, bright moments in it. In Franklin's absurd tragedy, the "Earl of Warwick," her superb Margaret of Anjou caused the playgoers who had applauded Mrs. Yates to acknowledge that, great as the original representative was, a greater had arisen in Mrs. Siddons. But when the latter played Zara, the supremacy of Mrs. Cibber was only divided. In Cumberland's "Carmelite," in which she played Matilda to the Montgomeri of Kemble, she produced little effect.[60] The great actress had no such poets as the great Mrs. Barry had, to fit her with parts; and, lacking such, fell back upon the old. Her Camiola, in Massinger's "Maid of Honour," was, however, only a passing success.

She made ample amends for all by her triumph in Lady Macbeth, in 1785. With this character her name and fame are always most closely associated. Walpole himself could hardly have questioned the grand originality of her conception of the part. Mrs. Siddons imagined the heroine of this most tragic of tragedies to be a delicate blonde, who ruled by her intellect, and subdued by her beauty, but with whom no one feeling of common general nature was congenial; a woman prompt for wickedness, but swiftly possessed by remorse; one who is horror-stricken for herself and for the precious husband, who, more robust and less sensitive, plunges deeper into crime, and is less moved by any sense of compassion or sorrow.

From this night, Mrs. Pritchard, the Lady Macbeth of past days, was unse

ated from her throne in the hearts of many old admirers. Mrs. Siddons certainly never had a superior in this part, the night of her first success in which formed an epoch in dramatic history. Sheridan, the manager, had dreaded a fiasco, for no other reason than that in the sleep-walking scene Mrs. Siddons would not carry the candlestick about with her! Mrs. Pritchard had always done so, and any omission in this respect-so he thought-would be treated by the audience as a mark of disrespect to the memory and to the observances of the older actress. The audience were too enthralled by the younger player to think of such stage trifles. Mason, the poet, hated Mrs. Siddons for surpassing his idol, Pritchard, and friends abstained from pronouncing her name in his presence. She subdued him, of course, and they played duets together at Lord Harcourt's; but she could make nothing of the old poet's Elfrida, played to the Athelwold of Smith-and Mrs. Pritchard was never displaced from the shrine she occupied in his memory.

Lord Harcourt's judgment of Mrs. Siddons, in Lady Macbeth, is thus expressed:-"To say that Mrs. Siddons, in one word, is superior to Mrs. Pritchard in Lady Macbeth, would be talking nonsense, because I don't think that it is possible; but, on the other hand, I will not say with those impartial judges, Mr. Whitehead and Miss Farquhar, that she does not play near as well. But there are others too, and in the parts for Mrs. Siddons, that are of this opinion; that she has much more expression of countenance, and can assume parts with a spirit, cannot be denied; but that she wants the dignity, and above all, the unequalled compass and melody of Mrs. Pritchard. I thought her wonderful and very fine in the rest of that scene. She throws a degree of proud and filial tenderness into this speech, 'Had he not resembled,' &c., which is new and of great effect. Her 'Are you a man!' in the banquet scene, I thought inferior to Mrs. Pritchard's; and for the parts spoken at a great distance her voice wanted power. Her countenance, aided by a studious and judicious choice of head-dress, was a true picture of a mind diseased in the sleeping scene, and made one shudder; and the effect, as a picture, was better in that than it had ever been with the taper, because it allows of variety in the actress of washing her hands; but the sigh was not so horrid, nor was the voice so sleepy, nor yet quite so articulate as Mrs. Pritchard's."

This is a less summary criticism than that of the Calais landlady, on whom Mrs. Siddons had made an impression. "She looks like a Frenchwoman; but it will be a long time before she gets the grace and dignity of a Frenchwoman!"

If Walpole may be trusted, Mrs. Siddons's ideas of Lady Macbeth had not always been identical. I find this in a pretty picture painted by Walpole, in 1783:[61]-"Mrs. Siddons continues to be the mode, and to be modest and sensible. She declines great dinners, and says her business and the cares of her family take her whole time. When Lord Carlisle carried her the tribute money from Brooks's, he said she was not maniérée enough. 'I suppose she was grateful,' said my niece, Lady Maria. Mrs. Siddons was desired to play Medea and Lady Macbeth. 'No,' she replied, 'she did not look on them as female characters.'"

At that time she had not made up her mind to attempt a part in which Mrs. Pritchard had been unrivalled. As far as Medea was concerned, Mrs. Siddons left the laurels of Mrs. Yates unshaken, and declined to play that supremely tragic part. One of her chief desires was that Walpole should see her in Portia, in which she had failed; Walpole preferred witnessing her Athenais. In the passionate scenes of so poor a play as "Percy," Walpole greatly admired her; but he found her voice hollow and defective in cool declamation.

Of course, there were various individuals who were said to be-who affected to be-or who really were in love with the great actress. Among these was Brereton, son of the major of that name, and who was a poor actor till rehearsing Jaffier to Mrs. Siddons's Belvidera she inspired him, as Malibran did Templeton, into something like excellence. Mrs. Siddons having thus effected for him what Garrick had failed to do, Brereton was exceedingly grateful, and his good-natured friends not only conduced to Mrs. Brereton's peace of mind, by reporting that he was in love with the great actress, but when "a malady not easily accounted for," as the theatrical biographies call the insanity which impeded his performances with Mrs. Siddons in Dublin, compelled him to leave the stage, the madness was set down to over much regard for, and a little difference with "a great tragic actress, of whom he is said to be very fond." To this matter Mrs. Siddons doubtless alludes in a curious letter to Dr. Whalley, dated March 13, 1785. "I have been very unhappy; now 'tis over, I will venture to tell you so, that you may not lose the dues of rejoicing. Envy, malice, detraction, all the fiends of hell have compassed me round about to destroy me; 'but blessed be God who hath given me the victory,' &c. I have been charged with almost everything bad, except incontinence; and it is attributed to me as thinking a woman may be guilty of every crime, provided she retain her chastity. God help them, and forgive them; they know but little of me."

Poor Brereton died in confinement, in 1787; and if his wife had ever been rendered unhappy by the report of his love for Mrs. Siddons, his widow was rendered happy by the love of Mrs. Siddons's brother for herself; and Mrs. Brereton, the lively Priscilla Hopkins of the old days when her father was prompter, became Mrs. John Kemble. Meanwhile, at other adorers of her own, Mrs. Siddons only laughed. "If you should meet a Mr. Seton," she writes to Dr. Whalley, "who lived in Leicester Square, you must not be surprised to hear him boast of being very well with my sister and myself, for since I have been here I have heard the old fright has been giving it out in town. You will find him rather an unlikely person to be so great a favourite with women." But her Desdemona certainly increased the number of her lovers, old and young. The character is in such strong contrast with that of Lady Macbeth, that the public were not prepared for the new and more delicate fascination. "You have no idea," she writes, "how the innocence and playful simplicity of my Desdemona have laid hold on the hearts of the people. I am very much flattered by this, as nobody has ever done anything with that character before."

Nevertheless, the sense of humiliation does not seem to have left her. She announces the marriage of her sister Elizabeth with Mr. Whitelock, a "worthy man," though an actor; but that of another sister, Frances, has a more jubilant tone in the proclaiming: "Yes, my sister is married, and I have lost one of the sweetest companions in the world. She has married a most respectable man, though of small fortune; and I thank God, that she is off the stage." This was Mrs. Twiss. Of another sister, we only remember her as the old-fashioned novelist, "Anne" (Hatton) "of Swansea."[62]

Of theatrical gossip, Mrs. Siddons's letters do not contain much, but it is generally epigrammatic; "Miss Younge," she writes to Dr. Whalley, "is married to Mr. Pope, a very boy, and the only one she will have by her marriage." In 1786, she says, "We have a great comic actress now, called Mrs. Jordan. She has a vast deal of merit, but, in my mind, is not perfection." What Mrs. Siddons had acquired already by the stage, we learn from her own words: "I have at last, my friend, attained the ten thousand pounds which I set my heart upon, and am now perfectly at ease with respect to fortune." From lodgings, at 149 Strand, she had gone to a house of her own, in Gower Street, Bedford Square, "the back of it is most effectually in the country, and delightfully pleasant." There, in then suburban Gower Street, was established a happy and flourishing household, the master of which had friends who borrowed four hundred pounds at a time, and the mistress others to whom she lent smaller sums, and who thought her exceedingly ungrateful when she asked, as she did without scruple, for her money.

Mrs. Jordan, "to my mind, is not perfection," wrote Mrs. Siddons, but the former was more perfect than the latter in Rosalind, which Mrs. Siddons played for her benefit in April 1785, to the Orlando of Brereton; King played Touchstone; Palmer, Jacques. Mrs. Siddons dressed the character ill, as the disguised Rosalind; her costume was severely handled by the critics. As Miss Seward magniloquently put it, "the scrupulous prudery of decency produced an ambiguous vestment, that seemed neither male nor female." The character was "totally without archness," said Young; "how could such a countenance be arch?" Campbell, like Walpole, says that in comedy she gathered no laurels. Miss Farren and Mrs. Jordan excelled her there; and her Mrs. Lovemore, in the "Way to Keep Him," must be reckoned amongst her failures. That some of her heroines, in dull and defunct tragedies, rank only next to failures, must be laid to the account of the poets. Throughout the kingdom she was recognised as Queen of Tragedy. In Scotland, a sensitive man in the Glasgow gallery exclaimed, "She's a fallen angel!" and Edinburgh fishwives looked with interest on the lady who had "gar'd them greet, yestreen!"

"I am going to undertake your adored Hermione this winter," writes Mrs. Siddons to Dr. Whalley. "You know I was always afraid of her, and I am not a bit more bold than I was." This timidity was not justified; her Hermione, indeed, was not equal to that of a later actress, Rachel, but it had grand points. The simple words, "Why, Pyrrhus!" when Orestes (Smith) asked her whom she would have him murder, thrilled the remotest auditor by their emphasis. But she could thrill actors as well as auditors; playing Ophelia for her second benefit, 1786, in the mad scene, she spoke some words in so strange a manner, as she touched the arm of the Queen, that the memory of so practised a player as Mrs. Hopkins was disturbed, and she stood awed and silent.

Though Ophelia was not a triumph, nor the Lady in "Comus," nor Cleone, to which nobody went on the second night, for the strange reason, that Mrs. Siddons was too affecting!-her position was unassailably established. Mrs. Jordan she put out of all competition with her in certain parts, by playing Imogen; for which she asked of the artist Hamilton to sketch for her "a boy's dress to conceal the person as much as possible."

Whether she desired to set aside Mrs. Jordan altogether as a rival in comedy, is doubtful; but she certainly continued to try comic parts, but the laugh excited was not hearty; her Lady Townly had no airiness; her smiles are spoken of as glorious condescensions; when Bannister was asked if her comic acting had ever pleased him, he "shook his head, and remarked," says Campbell, "that the burthen of her inspiration was too heavy for comedy," in which, according to Colman, she was only "a frisking Gog." Miss Baillie, on the other hand, insists that but for unfair discouragement she would have been a great comic actress. In private life, she had great relish for humour, and told laughable stories in her slow way, as well as read scenes in comedy with great effect. And yet Katharine, with its passionate expression, was as little thought of as Rosalind. One would have thought this character would have fitted her; her own judgment as to what suited her is not satisfactorily exhibited in her preference of Tate's Cordelia and of Dryden's Cleopatra to those of Shakspeare. But she distrusted her own judgment in some things. "Mr. Siddons," she remarks to Dr. Whalley, "is a much better judge of the conduct of a tragedy than myself."

This remark occurs in a letter written in September 1787 under perplexing circumstances. Young Mr. Greatheed, of Guy's Cliff, was the author of a tragedy, the "Regent," the heroine in which he designed for her acting. She liked neither the play nor her own part in it; but how could she disoblige the present head of a family where she had found an asylum, when love had disturbed the tenor of her life. Therefore, she wrote this letter to her friend Dr. Whalley, who did not burn it, as he ought to have done:-"September 1, 1787.-Mrs. Piozzi may be an excellent judge of a poem possibly, but it is certain that she is not of a tragedy, if she has really an opinion of this. It certainly has some beautiful poetry, but it strikes me that the plot is very lame, and the characters very, very ill-sustained in general, but more particularly the lady, for whom the author had me in his eye. This woman is one of those monsters (I think them) of perfection, who is an angel before her time, and is so entirely resigned to the will of heaven, that (to a very mortal like myself) she appears to be the most provoking piece of still life one ever had the misfortune to meet. Her struggles and conflicts are so weakly expressed, that we conclude they do not cost her much pain, and she is so pious that we are satisfied she looks upon her afflictions as so many convoys to heaven, and wish her there, or anywhere else but in the tragedy.... Mr. G. says that it would give him too great trouble to alter it, so that he seems determined to endeavour to bring it on the stage, provided I will undertake this milksop lady.... Mr. Siddons says it will not do at all for the stage in its present state, for the poetry seems to be all its merit; and if it is to be stripped of that-which it must be, for all the people in it forget their feelings to talk metaphor instead of passion-what is there to support it? I wish, for his own sake, poor young man, that he would publish it as it is....

"Your truly affectionate S. Siddons."

The event justified her sentiments, and the "Regent" did not live. She continued, however, to reap her harvest of laurels, gathering them most profusely by her acting in that Queen Katharine, which had been recommended to her by Dr. Johnson. We continue to associate her name with this part, in which she was more queenly and dignified, I suspect, than Katharine herself; certainly more imposing, if it be true that by simply saying, "You were the Duke's Surveyor, and lost your office on the complaint o' the tenants," she put the surveyor, to whom the words were addressed, into such perspiring agony, that as he came off, crushed by her earnestness, he declared he would not for the world meet her black eyes on the stage again!

I doubt, however, if the poor fellow could afford to give up his engagement; and I know that some of these "affectations" are assumed by inferior actors. I have heard of a lady so audibly affected, as she stood at the wing, by the acting of her manager, then on the stage, that she was invited to his room to partake of cake and wine. But Mrs. Siddons undoubtedly possessed power above all other actresses of attracting and subduing. In the procession scene, in her brother's barbarous mutilation of Shakspeare's Coriolanus, which he played so inimitably, her dumb show, as Volumnia, triumphing in the triumph of her son, attracted every eye, touched every heart, and caused the pageant itself to be as nothing, except as she used it for her purpose. It is strange that one so gifted should have ventured, at four-and-thirty, to act Juliet, who

"Even or odd, of all days in the year,

Come Lammas-eve at night, shall be fourteen!"

and to Lammas-eve it wanted "a fortnight and odd days."

But authors, of course, make as many mistakes as actresses. When the King, in Miss Burney's tragedy, "Edwy and Elgiva," cried, "Bring in the Bishop," the audience, thinking of the pleasant mixture so called, broke into laughter, which was only exceeded by that which broke forth when Mrs. Siddons died, under a hedge and on a superb couch! I do not believe, with Genest, that anybody ever laughed at her dying Zara; but when, in "Edward and Eleanora," the two babes were brought in, in imperial frocks and long coating, and were handed into the bed of their dying mother, the audience did break forth into loud hilarity. Indeed, babies in arms were stumbling-blocks to Mrs. Siddon's dignity. At a later period than that above-mentioned, when acting in Sotheby's "Julian and Agnes," she had to make her exit, carrying an infant. The exit was made precipitately, and in the doing of it she so violently struck the passive baby's head against a door-post as to discover that the said head was made of wood. The audience laughed again, and Agnes, Countess of Tortona, all taken aback as she was, laughed heartily too. Once also, when Mrs. Siddons was playing Agnes in Lillo's "Fatal Curiosity," and the flesh of the audience crept at her suggestion of murdering the stranger, who is her son,-as the scene proceeded towards the murder, one gentleman in the pit laughed aloud; he would have been roughly treated by the audience, but for the discovery that he was in hysterics at her acting.

At other times, the actress was overcome by herself. In the pretended fainting scene of Arpasia, in "Tamerlane," after the wild cry, "Love! Death! Moneses!" Mrs. Siddons fell back violently, clutching her drapery, and her dress all disordered,-a swoon in earnest, which caused a rush, from the pit and boxes, of part of the excited and sympathising audience. The agitation of the actress was almost perilous to her life!

There were occasions, however, on which that audience refused to be sympathetic. When she and her brother acted in Jephson's dull "Conspiracy," we are told that they "acted to vacancy: the hollow sound of their voices was the most dreary thing in the world." This was among the least of her troubles; at the moment of her greatest exertions, family cares and sorrows pressed on her. Mr. Siddons's speculations alarmed her prudent mind. Mr. Sheridan's money, when he held the purse at Drury Lane, flowed but slowly and intermittently into her banker's coffers; and if this, or even illness, drove her into temporary retirement, she had enemies who reported that her brain was not as well as it might be.

At the beginning of the present century Mrs. Siddons more than once expressed a desire "to be at rest." The labours of her life, and the troubles of it, too, were equal in magnitude to her triumphs. Could she but realise £300 a year above that she had already acquired for her family by her sole and brilliant exertions, she would begin to be "lazy, saucy, and happy." Nevertheless, when the period of 1812 arrived, and she had determined on retirement, she was less bold in spirit. It was like taking the first step of the ladder, she said, which led to the next world. Once she was in peril of taking that first step less agreeably. While standing as the statue in the "Winter's Tale," the flowing white drapery of her dress caught fire from behind, but it was extinguished by the courage and prudence of a poor scene-shifter, before she knew the whole of her danger. He saved her life; and she not only rewarded him liberally, but saved his son, a deserter from the army, from the horrible punishment which was then inflicted on such offenders.

She upheld the dignity of her vocation, by refusing to act with the "young Roscius," while to act inferior parts in the same piece with her, actresses of reputation esteemed it an honour. Miss Pope, on having the part of Lucy, in "George Barnwell," sent to her, returned it with some anger; but when she was told that Mrs. Siddons was about to play Milwood to Charles Kemble's Barnwell, Miss Pope resumed the character with eagerness. On the stage, and even in the green-room, she seldom departed from the humour of the part she sustained on that particular evening; but she had no sooner concluded it than she was herself again. Miss Seward records with particular delight, after seeing the great actress in Beatrice, at Birmingham, that Mrs. Siddons having made a curtesy generally to the house, made one in particular, with an especial smile of benignity, to Miss Seward and her friends in the stage-box.

She began and ended her London theatrical life with Shakspeare,-commencing in 1775 with Portia, and terminating in June 1812 with Lady Macbeth. Some few subsequent appearances, indeed, there were. When her son, Henry Siddons, was the somewhat unlucky proprietor of the Edinburgh Theatre, he thought that if his mother and uncle would but play for him in the same pieces, on the same night, he should retrieve his fortunes. He wrote separately to both, and received respective answers. That from Mrs. Siddons intimated that she would act, for half the receipts and a free benefit. The reply from John Kemble expressed his readiness to act,-for a free benefit and half the receipts! Henry Siddons, much perplexed, had to look elsewhere for less expensive aid. After his death, and subsequent to his mother's farewell to the London stage, she played several nights, in Edinburgh, gratis, for the benefit of his family; and critics saw no other change in her, than that she looked older. Her "last" appearance in public was in June 1819, when she played Lady Randolph, for the benefit of Charles Kemble. The Shakspearian characters for which she enjoyed the greatest fame, are Lady Macbeth and Queen Katharine; and these were included in the readings which she continued to give during a few years. These last were especially relished by Queen Charlotte and her family;-the guerdon for many of which, including Othello, read aloud at Windsor one Sunday evening, was a gold chain with a cross of many-coloured jewels.

Her beauty, personal and mental, she retained to the last,-the former only slightly touched by time. That was marked, in the Gallery of the Louvre, even amid the finest examples of mortal and godlike beauty from the hands of Greek sculptors. Her sense of the beautiful was also fresh to the last. Standing rapt at the sublimity of the scenery in the neighbourhood of Penmanmawr, she heard a lady remark, "This awful scenery makes me feel as if I were only a worm, or a grain of dust, on the face of the earth!" Mrs. Siddons turned round and said: "I feel very differently."

She had the misery to outlive all her children, except her daughter Cecilia, but in successive visitations she was so well-tempered as to create the means of consolation, and in modelling statuary, often found at least temporary relief from sorrow. Hannah More as heartily applauded her in private life as the warmest of her admirers ever did in public; and in truth her religion was cheerful, and her rule of life honest. She was not only a great artist, but a thoroughly English lady, a true, honest, exquisite woman; one of the bravest and most willing of the noble army of workers. Proud, she may have been, and justly so. Simple she was, and simple-minded, in many respects. The viola am?na was her favourite flower; and, from the purple borders of her garden in spring time up at then secluded Westbourne, her managing hand-maid acquired the name of Miss Heartsease.

Those who knew her best have recorded her beauty and her grace, her noble carriage, divine elocution, and solemn earnestness; her grandeur and her pathos, her correct judgment, her identification of whatever she assumed, and her abnegation of self. Erskine studied her cadences and intonations, and avowed that he owed his best displays to the harmony of her periods and pronunciation. According to Campbell, she increased the heart's capacity for tender, intense, and lofty feelings, and seemed something above humanity, in presence of which, humanity was moved, exalted, or depressed, according as she willed. Her countenance was the interpreter of her mind, and that mind was of the loftiest, never stooping to trickery, but depending on nature to produce effect.

She may have borne her professional habits into private life and "stabbed the potatoes," or awed a draper's assistant by asking, "Will it wash?" but there was no affectation in this;-as she said, still in her tragic way, "Witness truth, I did not wish to be tragical!"

I have alluded to the apparent lack of judgment in her assuming, at thirty-four, the character of Juliet, a girl not yet fourteen. Miss Weston, however, writes, "a finer performance was never seen. She contrived to make her appearance light, youthful, and airy, beyond imagination, and more beautiful than anything one ever saw. Her figure, she tells me, was very well fitted by previous indisposition."

In carrying into private life her stately stage manner, Mrs. Siddons undesignedly imitated Clairon, the "Queen of Carthage," as the French called her, from her marvellous acting as Dido. "If," said Clairon, "I am only a vulgar and ordinary woman during twenty hours of the day, I shall continue to be a vulgar and ordinary woman, whatever efforts I may make, in Agrippina or Semiramis, during the other four."

There remains but to be said that this "lofty-minded actress," as Young called Mrs. Siddons, died on the 8th of June 1831-leaving a name in theatrical history second to none, and deep regret that the honoured owner of it had departed from among the living. Of the latter was the elder brother, who owed much of his greatness to her, and who is noticed in the next chapter.


[50] I can find no authority for this date. The birth of Mrs. Siddons is always stated to have taken place on 5th July 1755.

[51] As a child.-Doran MS.

[52] Sergeant Kite is the character which Lee Lewes, who tells the story, says that Mrs. Furnival taught Roger to play. Both characters are in the same play, the "Recruiting Officer."

[53] The Earl of Coventry was said to be an admirer of her mother.

[54] This seems to have been at Wolverhampton.

[55] Two interesting letters were published in the Courier many years ago, which proved that Sir Henry Bate Dudley (then Mr. Bate) was Garrick's ambassador on this occasion. Garrick's letter contains some remarks on Mrs. Siddons's condition which are more expressive than elegant.

[56] Should be the 13th.

[57] This incident is said to have occurred at a rehearsal.

[58] I do not know why Dr. Doran says "alleged" sister.

[59] Campbell's account of this incident makes its meaning quite clear. He says that when, after a supreme effort, the silence was broken by the solitary "that's no' bad!" the audience was convulsed at the "ludicrous parsimony of praise." But the laughter was followed by such thunders of applause that it seemed as if the galleries would come down.

[60] This is inaccurate. The play was a success, and Mrs. Siddons was said to have been seldom more admired than in it.

[61] Walpole's letter is dated Christmas 1782.

[62] This was the notorious Mrs. Curtis, previously mentioned. Mr. Percy Fitzgerald (Kembles, ii. 98) gives an admirable account of her life.

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