Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pennie, John Fitzgerald

1158814Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 44 — Pennie, John Fitzgerald1895Bertha Porter

PENNIE, JOHN FITZGERALD (1782–1848), writer, was born on 25 March 1782 at the vicarage, East Lulworth, Dorset, where his parents were probably acting in some domestic capacity. Pennie had little or no regular education, and was practically self-taught. At fifteen he wrote a tragedy, called ‘The Unhappy Shepherdess,’ founded on a tale in Robert Greene's ‘History of Dorastus and Fawnia.’ A fragment is printed in his ‘Tale of a Modern Genius.’ An appreciative neighbour, Captain Hay Forbes, advised him to take the work to London, and Pennie obtained an introduction to the manager of Covent Garden Theatre, who advised him to go home and write another tragedy. After brief experiences as a solicitor's clerk in Bristol, and as an usher in a private school at Honiton, he joined a travelling company of actors in the west of England, and remained on the stage in a humble capacity for some years. He diversified the occupation by taking a trip to Malta as companion to a young officer. About 1810 he married Cordelia, orphan daughter of Jerome Whitfield, a London attorney, and engaged the theatre at Shaftesbury in order to present a comedy by himself. His company included the mother and sister of Edmund Kean [q. v.] The venture ruined him, and he suffered extreme poverty. In 1814 a company at Chepstow performed for his benefit a play of his own, ‘Gonzanga,’ which was published in No. 10 of Coleman's ‘British Theatre’ (continuation of the ‘Rejected Theatre’) in October 1814. Some other theatrical engagements followed; but he quarrelled with all his managers. His tragedy ‘Ethelwolf, or the Danish Pirates,’ published in 1821, after being performed at Weymouth in 1826, was produced at the Coburg Theatre, London, in 1827, and ‘The Varangian, or Masonic Honor’ (published in pt. ii. of ‘Britain's Historical Drama’), was played with success at Southampton. ‘Ethelred the Usurper,’ a tragedy written in 1817, was considered for production at the Haymarket Theatre, and the ‘Eve of St. Bruce,’ written in 1832 for Covent Garden; but neither was performed.

Meanwhile he had opened a school at Lulworth, and published in 1817 ‘The Royal Minstrel,’ an epic poem, the copyright of which he sold to a London publisher. The school proved a failure. Early in 1828 he moved to Kesworth Cottage, near Wareham, and commenced to write in the ‘Dorset County Chronicle’ and in the ‘West of England Magazine.’ Friends afterwards enabled him to build a cottage on the heath at Stoborough, near Wareham, which he named Rogvald, after his second epic published in 1823. There he resided for the rest of his life. To provide for his son and his son's children he involved himself in debt, from which he had just cleared himself when he died, on 13 July 1848. His wife died two days previously. They were both buried at East Lulworth. Pennie's undisciplined talents lend some interest to his career and writings. His autobiography, ‘The Tale of a Modern Genius,’ published in 1827 under the pseudonym ‘Sylvaticus,’ displays much true æsthetic feeling struggling against a bitter sense of ill-usage and neglect. Pennie left several works in various stages of progress, a prose tale, called ‘The Widowed Bride,’ being in the printer's hands. Besides the works already mentioned, Pennie published: 1. ‘The Garland of Wild Roses,’ poems for children, London, 1822. 2. ‘The Harp of Parnassus,’ London, 1822. 3. ‘Scenes in Palestine, or Dramatic Sketches from the Bible,’ London and Dorchester, 1825. 4. ‘Britain's Historical Drama,’ 1st series (British, Roman, and Saxon periods), London, 1832; 2nd series (Saxon, Danish, and Norman periods), London, 1839.

[Gent. Mag. 1849, i. pp. 656–9; Pennie's Tale of a Modern Genius, passim; Dorset County Chronicle, 20 July 1848.]

B. P.