1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sheridan

SHERIDAN, the name of an Anglo-Irish family, made illustrious by the dramatist Richard Brinsley (No. 4 below), but prominently connected with literature in more than one generation before and after his.

1. Thomas Sheridan (1687–1738), grandfather of the dramatist, was born at Cavan in 1687, and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, taking his B.A. degree in 1711 and that of M.A. in 1714; he became B.D. in 1724 and D.D. in 1726. By a marriage with Elizabeth, heiress of Charles MacFadden, he restored to the Sheridan family Quilcagh House, which they had forfeited by their Jacobite sympathies. Thomas Sheridan is chiefly known as the favourite companion and confidant of Swift during his later residence in Ireland. His correspondence with Swift and his whimsical treatise on the “Art of Punning”[1] make perfectly clear from whom his grandson derived his high spirits and delight in practical joking. The “Art of Punning” might have been written by the author of The Critic. Swift had a high opinion of his scholarship, and that it was not contemptible is attested by a translation of the Satires of Persius, printed in Dublin in 1728. He also translated the Satires of Juvenal and the Philoctetes of Sophocles. When Swift came to Dublin as dean of St Patrick’s, Sheridan was established there as a schoolmaster of very high repute, and the two men were soon close friends. Sheridan was his confidant in the affair of Drapier’s Letters; and it was at Quilcagh House that Gulliver’s Travels was prepared for the press. Through Swift’s influence he obtained a living near Cork, but damaged his prospects of further preferment by a feat of unlucky absence of mind. Having to preach at Cork on the anniversary of Queen Anne’s death he hurriedly chose a sermon with the text, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” and was at once struck off the list of chaplains to the lord-lieutenant and forbidden the castle. In spite of this mishap, for which the archdeacon of Cork made amends by the present of a lease worth £250 per annum, he “still remained,” said the earl of Orrery (Remarks on the Life and Writings of Jonathan Swift, 1751), “a punster, a quibbler, a fiddler and a wit,” the only person in whose genial presence Swift relaxed his habitual gloom. His latter days were not prosperous, probably owing to his having “a better knowledge of books than of men or of the value of money.” He offended Swift by fulfilling an old promise to tell the dean if he ever saw signs of avarice in him, and the friends parted in anger. He died in poverty on the 10th of October 1738.

The original source of information about Dr Sheridan is his son’s Life of Swift (vol. i. pp. 369-395), where his scholarship is dwelt upon as much as his improvident conviviality and simple kindliness of nature.

2. Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788), son of the above, was born in Dublin in 1719. His father sent him to an English school (Westminster); but he was forced by stress of circumstances to return to Dublin and complete his education at Trinity College, where he took his B.A. degree in 1739. Then he went on the stage, and at once made a local reputation. He even wrote a play, Captain O’Blunder, or the Brave Irishman, which became a stock piece, though it was never printed. There is a tradition that on his first appearance in London he was set up as a rival to Garrick, and Moore countenances the idea that Garrick remained jealous of him to the end. For this tradition there is little foundation. Sheridan’s first appearance in London was at Covent Garden in March 1744, when, heralded in advance as the brilliant Irish comedian, he acted for three weeks in a succession of leading parts, Hamlet being the first. In October he appeared at Drury Lane, playing Horatio in Rowe’s Fair Penitent, and subsequently as Pierre in Otway’s Venice Preserved, and in Hamlet and other parts. On his return to Dublin he became manager of the Theatre Royal, and married Frances Chamberlaine. He was driven from Dublin as a result of his unpopular efforts to reform the theatre. A young man named Kelly had insulted the actresses, and when Sheridan interfered threatened him. A riot followed, in consequence of which Kelly was imprisoned, but he was released on Sheridan’s petition. This disturbance was followed in 1754 by another outbreak, when he refused to allow the actor, West Digges, to repeat a passage reflecting on the government in James Miller’s tragedy, Mahomet the Impostor. After two seasons in London he tried Dublin again, but two years more of unremunerative management induced him to leave for England in 1758. By this time he had conceived his scheme of British education, and it was to push this rather than his connexion with the stage that he crossed St George’s Channel. He lectured at Oxford and Cambridge, and was incorporated M.A. in both universities. But the scheme did not make way, and we find him in 1760 acting under Garrick at Drury Lane. His merits as an actor may be judged from the description of him in the Rosciad (l. 987) at this period. He is placed in the second rank, next to Garrick, but there is no hint of possible rivalry. Churchill describes him as an actor whose conceptions were superior to his powers of execution, whose action was always forcible but too mechanically calculated, and who in spite of all his defects rose to greatness in occasional scenes. Churchill never erred on the side of praising too much, and his description may be accepted as correct, supported as it is by the fact that the actor eked out his income by giving lessons in elocution. Sheridan solicited a pension for Samuel Johnson from Lord Bute through Wedderburn. The pension, £300 a year, was granted, and shortly afterwards Bute was so favourably impressed with a scheme submitted to him by Sheridan of his Pronouncing Dictionary that he bestowed a pension of £200 on him also. Some hasty remarks of Johnson’s on the matter were repeated to Sheridan, who broke off his acquaintance with the doctor in consequence. Sheridan, however, attracted attention chiefly by his enthusiastic advocacy, in public lectures and books, of his scheme of education, in which elocution was to play a principal part. In the case of his son, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, his instruction was certainly not wasted. Sheridan’s indictment of the established system of education was that it did not fit the higher classes for their duties in life, that it was uniform for all and profitable for none; and he urged as a matter of vital national concern that special training should be given for the various professions. Oratory came in as part of the special training of men intended for public affairs, but his main contention was one very familiar now that more time should be given in schools to the study of the English language. He rode his hobby with great enthusiasm, published an elaborate and eloquent treatise on education, and lectured on the subject in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and other towns. In 1764 he went to live in France, partly for economy, partly for Mrs Sheridan’s health, and partly to study the system of education. His wife died in 1766 and soon afterwards he returned to England. In 1769 he published a matured Plan of Education for the Young Nobility and Gentry with a letter to the king, in which he offered to devote the rest of his life to the execution of his theories on condition of receiving a pension equivalent to the sacrifice of his professional income. His offer was not accepted; but Sheridan, still enthusiastic, retired to Bath, and prepared his pronouncing General Dictionary of the English Language (2 vols., 1780). After his son’s brilliant success he assisted in the management of Drury Lane, and occasionally acted. His Life of Swift, a very entertaining work in spite of its incompleteness as a biography, was written for the 1784 edition of Swift’s works. He died at Margate on the 14th of August 1788.

3. Frances Sheridan (1724–1766), wife of the above and mother of the dramatist, was the daughter of Dr Philip Chamberlaine of Dublin. When only fifteen years of age she wrote a story, Eugenia and Adelaide, published after her death in two volumes. She took Sheridan’s part in the so-called Kelly riots, writing some verses and a pamphlet in his defence. This led to her acquaintance, and finally in 1747 to her marriage, with the unpopular manager. It was by Richardson’s advice that she wrote the Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph. . . . It was issued anonymously in 1761 with a. dedication to Richardson, and had great success, both in England and France. A second part (2 vols.) was published in 1767. Two of her plays were produced in 1763 at Drury Lane, The Discovery and The Dupe. We have it on the authority of Moore that, when The Rivals and The Duenna were running at Covent Garden, Garrick revived The Discovery at Drury Lane, as a counter-attraction, “to play the mother off against the son, taking on himself to act the principal part in it.” But the statement, intrinsically absurd, is inaccurate. The Discovery was not an old play at the time, but one of Garrick’s stock pieces, and Sir Anthony Branville was one of his favourite characters. It was first produced at Drury Lane in 1763. So far from being jealous of the elder Sheridan, Garrick seems to have been a most useful friend to the family, accepting his wife’s play—which he declared to be “one of the best comedies he ever read”—and giving the husband several engagements. The Dupe was a failure and was only played once. Her last work was an Oriental tale, Nourjahad, written at Blois, where she died on the 26th of September 1766. Her third play, A Journey to Bath, was refused by Garrick, and R. B. Sheridan made some use of it in The Rivals.

4. Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan (1751–1816), third son of Thomas and Frances Sheridan, was born in Dublin on the 30th of October 1751. There is a story, discredited by Mr Fraser Rae, that Mrs Sheridan on placing her sons with their first schoolmaster, Samuel Whyte, said that she had been the only instructor of her children hitherto, and that they would exercise the schoolmaster in the quality of patience, “for two such impenetrable dunces she had never met with.” One of the children thus humorously described was Richard Brinsley, then aged seven. At the age of eleven he was sent to Harrow school. Sheridan was extremely popular at school, winning somehow, Dr Parr confesses, “the esteem and even admiration of all his schoolfellows”; and he acquired, according to the same authority, more learning than he is usually given credit for. He left Harrow at the age of seventeen, and was placed under the care of a tutor. He was also trained by his father daily in elocution, and put through a course of English reading. He had fencing and riding lessons at Angelo’s.

After leaving Harrow he kept up a correspondence with a school friend who had gone to Oxford. With this youth, N. B. Halhed, he concocted various literary plans, and between them they actually executed and published (1771) metrical translations of Aristaenetus. In conjunction with Halhed he wrote a farce entitled Jupiter, which was refused by both Garrick and Foote and remained in MS., but is of interest as containing the same device of a rehearsal which was afterwards worked out with such brilliant effect in The Critic. Some of the dialogue is very much in Sheridan’s mature manner. Extracts given from papers written in the seven years between his leaving Harrow and the appearance of The Rivals—sketches of unfinished plays, poems, political letters and pamphlets—show that he was far from idle. The removal of the family to Bath in 1770–1771 led to an acquaintance with the daughters of the composer Thomas Linley. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth Ann (b. 1754), a girl of sixteen, the prima donna of her father’s concerts, was exceedingly beautiful[2] and had many suitors, among them Sheridan, N. B. Halhed and a certain Major Mathews. To protect her from this man’s persecutions, Sheridan, who seems to have acted at first only as a confidential friend, carried out the romantic plan of escorting Miss Linley, in March 1772, to a nunnery in France. Sheridan returned and fought two duels with Mathews, which made a considerable sensation at the time. The pair had gone through the ceremony of marriage in the course of their flight, but Sheridan kept the marriage secret, and was sternly denied access to Miss Linley by her father, who did not consider him an eligible suitor. Sheridan was sent to Waltham Abbey, in Essex, to continue his studies, especially in mathematics. He was entered at the Middle Temple on the 6th of April 1773, and a week later he was openly married to Miss Linley.

His daring start in life after this happy marriage showed a confidence in his genius which was justified by its success. Although he had no income, and no capital beyond a few thousand pounds brought by his wife, he took a house in Orchard Street, Portman Square, furnished it “in the most costly style,” and proceeded to return on something like an equal footing the hospitalities of the fashionable world. His first comedy, The Rivals, was produced at Covent Garden on the 17th January 1775. It is said to have been not so favourably received on its first night, owing to its length and to the bad playing of the part of Sir Lucius O’Trigger. But the defects were remedied before the second performance, which was deferred to the 28th of the month, and the piece at once took that place on the stage which it has never lost. His second piece, St Patrick’s Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant, a lively farce, was written for the benefit performance (2nd of May 1775) of Lawrence Clinch, who had succeeded as Sir Lucius. In November 1775, with the assistance of his father-in-law, he produced the comic opera of The Duenna, which was played 75 times at Covent Garden during that season. Sheridan now began to negotiate with Garrick for the purchase of his share of Drury Lane, and the bargain was, completed in June 1776. The sum paid by Sheridan and his partners, Thomas Linley and Dr Ford, for the half-share was £35,000; of this Sheridan contributed £10,000. The money was raised on mortgage, Sheridan contributing only £1300 in cash.[3] Two years afterwards Sheridan and his friends bought the other half of the property for £35,000.

From the first the direction of the theatre would seem to have been mainly in the hands of Sheridan, who derived very material assistance from his wife. In February 1777 he produced his version of Vanbrugh’s Relapse, under the title of A Trip to Scarborough. This is printed among Sheridan’s works, but he has no more title to the authorship than Colley Cibber to that of Richard III. His chief task was to remove indecencies; he added very little to the dialogue. The School for Scandal was produced on the 8th of May 1777. Mrs Abington, who had played Miss Hoyden in the Trip, played Lady Teazle, who may be regarded as a Miss Hoyden developed by six months' experience of marriage and town life. The lord Chamberlain refused to license the play, and was only persuaded on grounds of personal friendship with Sheridan to alter his decision. There are tales of the haste with which the conclusion of The School for Scandal was written, of a stratagem by which the last act was got out of him by the anxious company, and of the fervent “Amen” written on the last page of the copy by the prompter, in response to the author’s “Finished at last, thank God!" But, although the conception was thus hurriedly completed, we know from Sheridan’s sister that the idea of a “scandalous college ” had occurred to him five years before in connexion with his own experiences at Bath. His difficulty was to find a story sufficiently dramatic in its incidents to form a subject for the machinations of the character-slayers. He seems to have tried more than one plot, and in the end to have desperately forced two separate conceptions together. The dialogue is so brilliant throughout, and the auction scene and the screen scene so effective, that the construction of the comedy meets with little criticism. The School for Scandal, though it has not the unity of The Rivals, nor the same wealth of broadly humorous incident, is universally regarded as Sheridan’s masterpiece. He might have settled the doubts and worries of authorship with Puff’s reflection: “What is the use of a good plot except to bring in good things?”

Sheridan’s farce, The Critic, was produced on the 29th of October 1779, The School for Scandal meantime continuing to draw larger houses than any other play every time it was put on the stage. In The Critic the laughable infirmities of all classes connected with the stage—authors, actors, patrons and audience-are touched off with the lightest of hands; the fun is directed, not at individuals, but at absurdities that grow out of the circumstances of the stage as naturally and inevitably as weeds in a garden. It seems that he had accumulated notes for another comedy to be called Affectation, but his only dramatic composition during the remaining thirty-six years of his life was Pizarro, produced in 1799—a tragedy in which he made liberal use of some of the arts ridiculed in the person of Mr Puff. He also revised for the stage Benjamin Thompson’s translation, The Stranger, of Kotzebue’s Menschenhass und Reue.

He entered parliament for Stafford in 1780, as the friend and ally of Charles James Fox. Apparently he owed his election for Stafford to substantial arguments. He is said to have paid the burgesses five guineas each for the honour of representing them, beside gifts in dinners and ale to the non-voting part of the community, for their interest and applause. His first speech in parliament was to defend himself against the charge of bribery, and was well received. He spoke little for a. time and chiefly on financial questions, but soon took a place among the best speakers in the House. Congress recognized his services in opposing the war in America by offering him a gift of £20,000 which, however, he refused. Under the wing of Fox he filled subordinate offices in the short-lived ministries of 1782 and 1783. He was under-secretary for foreign affairs in the Rockingham ministry, and secretary of the treasury in the Coalition ministry. In debate he had the keenest of eyes for the Weak places in an opponent’s argument, and the happy art of putting them in an irresistibly ludicrous light without losing his good temper or his presence of mind. In those heated days of parliamentary strife he was almost the only man of mark that was never called out, and yet he had no match in the weapon of ridicule. Sheridan found his great opportunity in the impeachment of Warren Hastings. His speeches in that proceeding were by the unanimous acknowledgment of his contemporaries among the greatest delivered in that generation of great orators. The first was on the 7th of February 1787, on the charges brought against Hastings with regard to the begums or princesses of Oude. Sheridan spoke for more than five hours, and the effect of his oratory was such that it was unanimously agreed to adjourn and postpone the final decision till the House should be in a calmer mood. Of this, and of his last great speech on the subject in 1794, only brief abstracts have been preserved; but with the second, the four days' speech delivered in his capacity of manager of the trial, in Westminster Hall, on the occasion so brilliantly described by Macaulay, posterity has been more fortunate. Gurney’s verbatim reports of the speeches on both sides at the trial were published at Sir G. Cornewall Lewis’s instigation in 1859, and from them we are able to form an idea of Sheridan’s power as an orator. There are passages here and there of gaudy rhetoric, loose ornament and declamatory hyperbole; but the strong common sense, close argumentative force and masterly presentation of telling facts enable us to understand the impression produced by the speech at the time. From the time of the break-up of the Whig party on the secession of Burke he was more or less an “independent member,” and his isolation was complete after the death of Fox. When Burke denounced the French Revolution, Sheridan joined with Fox in vindicating the principle of non-intervention. He maintained that the French people should be allowed to settle their constitution and manage their affairs in their own way. But when the republic was succeeded by the empire, and it became apparent that France under Napoleon would interfere with the affairs of its neighbours, he employed his eloquence in denouncing Napoleon and urging the prosecution of the war. One of his most celebrated speeches was delivered in support of strong measures against the mutineers at the Nore. He was one of the few members who actively opposed the union of the English and Irish parliaments. When the Whigs came into power in 1806 Sheridan was appointed treasurer of the navy, and became a member of the Privy Council; After Fox’s death he succeeded his chief in the representation of Westminster, and aspired to succeed him as leader of the party, but this claim was not allowed, and thenceforward Sheridan fought for his own hand. When the prince became regent in 1811 Sheridan’s private influence with him helped to exclude the Whigs from power. Throughout his parliamentary career Sheridan was one of the boon companions of the prince, and his champion in parliament in some dubious matters of payment of debts. But he always resented any imputation that he was the prince’s confidential adviser or mouthpiece. A certain proud and sensitive independence was one of the most marked features in Sheridan’s parliamentary career. After a coolness arose between him and his Whig allies he refused a place for his son from the government, lest there should be any suspicion in the public mind that his support had been bought.

His last years were harassed by debt and disappointment. He sat in parliament for Westminster in 1806–1807. At the general election of 1807 he stood again for Westminster and was defeated, but was returned as member for Ilchester, at the expense apparently of the prince of Wales. In 1812 he failed to secure a seat at Stafford. He could not raise money enough to buy the seat. He had quarrelled with the Prince Regent, and seems to have had none but obscure friends to stand by him. As a member of parliament he had been safe against arrest for debt, but now that this protection was lost his creditors closed in upon him, and the history of his life from this time till his death in 1816 is one of the most painful passages in the biography of great men. It may be regarded as certain, however, that the description of the utter destitution and misery of the last weeks of his life given in the Croker Papers (i. pp. 288-312, ed. L. ]. Jennings) is untrue. In any attempt to judge of Sheridan as he was apart from his works, it is necessary to make considerable deductions from the mass of floating anecdotes that have gathered round his name. It was not without reason that his grand-daughter Mrs Norton denounced the unfairness of judging of the real man from unauthenticated stories. The real Sheridan was not a pattern of decorous respectability, but we may fairly believe that he was very far from being the Sheridan of vulgar legend. Against the stories about his reckless management of his affairs we must set the broad facts that he had no source of income but Drury Lane theatre, that he bore from it for thirty years all the expenses of a fashionable life, and that the theatre was twice rebuilt during his proprietorship, the first time (1791) on account of its having been pronounced unsafe, and the second (1809) after a disastrous fire. Enough was lost in this way to account ten times over for all his debts. The records of his wild bets in the betting book of Brooks's Club date from the years after the loss, in 1792, of his first wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. He married again in 1795, his second wife being Esther Jane, daughter of Newton Ogle, dean of Winchester. The reminiscences of his son's tutor, Mr Smyth, show anxious and ftdgetty family habits, curiously at variance with the accepted tradition of his imperturbable recklessness. He died on the 7th of July 1816, and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.

Sheridan's only son by his first marriage, Thomas Sheridan (1775-1817), was a poet of some merit. He became colonial treasurer at the Cape of Good Hope. His wife, Caroline Henrietta, nee Callander (1779-1851), wrote three novels, which had some success at the time. She received, after her husband's death, quarters at Hampton Court, and is described by Fanny Kemble as more beautiful than anybody but; her daughters. The eldest child, Helen Selina (1807-1867), married Commander Price Blackwood, afterwards Baron Dufferin. Her husband died in 1841, and in 1862 she consented to a ceremony of marriage with George Hay, Earl of Gifford, who died a month later. Her Songs, Poems and Verses (1894) were published, with a memoir, by her son, the marquess of Dufferin. The second daughter, Caroline, became Mrs Norton (q. v.). The youngest, Jane Georgina, married Edward Adolphus Seymour, afterwards 12th duke of Somerset.

Bibliography.—Memoirs of the . . . Life of. . R. B. Sheridan, with a Particular Account of his Family and Connexions (1817), by John Watkins (“ who deals, ” said Byron, “ in the life and libel line), was an altogether inadequate piece of work, and made many false statements. The Memoirs, &c.(1825), COmpiled by Thomas Moore did not make full use of the papers submitted by the family. William Smyth (Memoir of Mr Sheridan, 1840), who had been a tutor in Sheridan's house, was responsible for many of the scandalous and sometimes baseless stories connected with Sheridan's name. Accounts of the dramatist's parents and of his grandfather are given by Alicia Lefanu in her Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mrs Frances Sheridan, éfc. (1824). There are numerous references to Sheridan in the Letters and Journals of Byron, and several anecdotes (see especially vol. v. p. 411 seq., ed. Prothero, 1901). Popular works on the Sheridans are Mrs Oliphant's Sheridan (1883) in the “ English Men of Letters ” series; Mr Percy Fitzgerald's Lifes of the Sheridans (2 vols., 1886); and the Life of R. B. Sheridan (1890) by Lloyd C. Sanders in the “Great Writers " series. An admirable sketch of Sheridan's political career is given in Wilkes, Sheridan, Fox: the Opposition under George the Third (1874), by Mr W. Fraser Rae, who reconstructed Sheridan's biography from the original sources and vindicated his reputation from the misstatements of earlier writers, in Sheridan:a Biography (2 vols., 1896), which has an introduction by the marquess of Dufferin and Ava, the great-grandson of the dramatist. The Life of R. B. Sheridan by Walter Sichel (1909) is, however, the best account now available.

Among the numerous modern editions of Sheridan's plays, of which only The Rivals was published by the dramatist himself, may be mentioned: Sheridan's Plays now printed as he wrote them (1902), edited by W. Fraser Rae, who quotes at length the criticisms in the contemporary press; The Plays of R. B. Sheridan (1900), edited by Mr A. W. Pollard; and Sheridan's Comedies (Boston, U.S.A., 1885), with a valuable introduction by Mr Brander Matthews. For further details consult the extensive bibliography by Mr J. P. Anderson in the Life by Lloyd C. Sanders.

  1. Published in Nichols’s Supplement to the works of Swift (1779).
  2. Her portrait, by Gainsborough, one of the best examples of the artist’s work, hangs at Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent.
  3. For the elucidation of these transactions, see Brander Matthews’s edition (1885) of Sheridan’s Comedies (pp. 29-31).