Locked in a Room with a Pile of Anchovy Sandwiches, Two Bottles of Claret and Act III of ‘The Critic’

David Edgar

  • A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Fintan O’Toole
    Granta, 516 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 1 86207 026 1
  • Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life by Linda Kelly
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 366 pp, £25.00, April 1997, ISBN 1 85619 207 5
  • Sheridan’s Nightingale: The Story of Elizabeth Linley by Alan Chedzoy
    Allison and Busby, 322 pp, £15.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 7490 0264 6

Fintan O’Toole’s publishers announce that Richard Brinsley Sheridan has been generally ill-served by biographers, ‘who rehash the familiar outlines of his story every decade or so without bringing any intelligent new insights to the task’. By contrast, O’Toole has written a ‘gripping, carefully composed exploration of Sheridan’s career’. His biography comes hard on the heels of Linda Kelly’s, and it would be comforting to report that O’Toole’s was the rehash, but the Granta puff has it the right way round, while Alan Chedzoy’s life of the first Mrs Sheridan (the noted soprano and beauty Elizabeth Linley) is more boisterously entertaining than either of them.

The subject of all this feverish activity was born in Ireland to a theatrical father and moved with his family to England at the age of eight. After a miserable period at Harrow, the young Sheridan settled with his family at Bath, where his father attempted to set up a Rhetorical and Grammatical Academy. Here Sheridan met Eliza Linley, rescued her from the unwelcome attentions of a soi-disant army captain, and eloped with her to France. On their return, Sheridan fought two duels on Eliza’s account; once married, the couple relied on Sheridan’s income as a theatre manager (he bought a controlling interest in the Drury Lane Theatre at the age of 25), and his earnings from the three major plays and one operetta he wrote before his 29th birthday. In 1780 he became an MP for Stafford and, aside from a couple of short periods of government office, remained a leading member of the Whig opposition (and in particular, a harrier of Pitt the Younger) throughout what was a long political career. His most noted campaign was against Warren Hastings, the supposedly corrupt Governor of the East India Company, but he also supported the French Revolution and the cause of Irish emancipation (although he was never to return to the land of his birth). Chaotic in his personal finances, a heavy drinker and moderate philanderer, Sheridan lost Eliza to tuberculosis in 1792, saw the theatre he rebuilt burnt to the ground in 1809, and died in debt and some privation in 1816.

The different approaches of the three writers can be seen in their treatment of two early incidents. Describing the two duels Sheridan fought with Eliza’s inamorato ‘Captain’ Mathews, Kelly gives a dispassionate summary of the various accounts, while O’Toole follows Sheridan’s report of the first contest, which Sheridan won, tending to Mathews’s view of the second, in which Sheridan was severely wounded. Alan Chedzoy combines historical rigour with romance: noting that the course of duels fought by candlelight in small rooms is often a matter of dispute, he cannot resist the story that a locket containing Eliza’s miniature deflected Mathews’s frenzied stabbing, without which ‘the blows would certainly have pierced Dick Sheridan’s heart’.

On a more substantial issue the three biographers also diverge. There is no dispute that, in accordance with her new husband’s wishes, Eliza Sheridan stopped singing professionally after her marriage, completing her outstanding commitments and placing her last fee – a £100 banknote – in the collection plate at Gloucester Cathedral. At issue is her attitude to the matter. For Linda Kelly, ‘Sheridan’s first action on their marriage was to refuse to allow his wife to sing in public any more.’ Eliza is subsequently ‘delighted’ with the initial failure of his first play The Rivals, as now ‘there is nothing for it but my beginning to sing publicly again, and we shall have as much money as we like.’ For Chedzoy, Eliza’s actions were explained not by her own desires but by her husband’s vanity and sexual jealousy, while O’Toole argues that she ‘hated being on public display and had been determined to stop performing once she was no longer her father’s indentured servant’, explaining her later remarks as a change of heart.

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