Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knowles, James Sheridan
KNOWLES, JAMES SHERIDAN (1784–1862), dramatist, born at Cork on 12 May 1784, was son of James Knowles [q. v.] the lexicographer, by his first wife. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, from whom he derived his second name, was his father's first cousin. At the age of six he was placed in his father's school at Cork, but in 1793 moved with the family to London. There he made early efforts in verse, and at the age of twelve attempted a play, in which he acted with his juvenile companions, as well as the libretto of an opera on the story of the Chevalier de Grillon. A few months later he wrote ‘The Welch Harper,’ a ballad, which was set to music and became popular. He was befriended by the elder Hazlitt, an acquaintance of the family, who helped him with advice and introduced him to Coleridge and Lamb.
His mother, from whom he received much encouragement, died in 1800; and on his father's second marriage to a Miss Maxwell soon afterwards, Knowles, unable to agree with his stepmother, left the parental roof in a fit of anger, and lived for some time from hand to mouth, helped by his friends. During this period he served as an ensign in the Wiltshire, and afterwards (1805) in the Tower Hamlets militia; studied medicine under Dr. Willan, obtained the degree of M.D. from the university of Aberdeen, and became resident vaccinator to the Jennerian Society. Meanwhile he was writing small tragedies and ‘dabbling in private theatricals.’ Eventually he abandoned medicine and took to the provincial stage. He made his first appearance probably at Bath. Subsequently he played Hamlet with little success at the Crow Street Theatre, Dublin. In a company at Wexford he met, and on 25 Oct. 1809 married, Miss Maria Charteris of Edinburgh. They acted together in Cherry's company at Waterford, and there Knowles made the acquaintance of Edmund Kean, for whom he wrote ‘Leo, or the Gipsy,’ 1810, which was performed with favour at the Waterford Theatre. About the same time he published a small volume of poems. After a visit to Swansea, where his eldest son was born, Knowles appeared on the boards at Belfast. There he wrote, on the basis of an earlier work of the same name, a play entitled ‘Brian Boroihme, or the Maid of Erin,’ 1811, which proved very popular.
But these efforts produced a very small income, and Knowles was driven to seek a living by teaching. He opened a school of his own at Belfast, and composed for his pupils a series of extracts for declamation under the title of ‘The Elocutionist,’ which ran through many editions. In 1813 he was invited to offer himself for the post of first head-master in English subjects in the Belfast Academical Institution; but this appointment he declined in favour of his father, contenting himself with the position of assistant. Three years later the dismissal of his father made it necessary for the son to leave Belfast, and Knowles removed to Glasgow, where he carried on a school for about twelve years.
On 13 Feb. 1815 his tragedy of ‘Caius Gracchus’ had been brought out with great success at the Belfast Theatre. When Kean visited Glasgow he suggested to Knowles a play on the subject of Virginius. Though at this period he was teaching thirteen hours a day, Knowles wrote the drama in three months; but by the time it was ready Kean had accepted another play on the same theme, which was not performed at Drury Lane until 29 May 1820 (Genest, Hist. Stage, ix. 36). Knowles meanwhile produced his drama at Glasgow, where Tait, a friend of Macready, saw it, and brought it under that actor's notice. It was afterwards performed at Covent Garden on 17 May 1820, with Macready in the title-rôle, Charles Kemble as Icilius, Miss Foote as Virginia, and Mrs. Faucit as Servia; and although Genest denounces it as dull, it ran successfully for fourteen nights (ib. pp. 56–7). Among the congratulations which Knowles received was one in verse from Charles Lamb. Knowles then remodelled his ‘Caius Gracchus,’ and Macready brought it out at Covent Garden on 18 Nov. 1823. At Macready's suggestion he afterwards wrote a play on ‘William Tell,’ in which the actor appeared with equal success two years later. Knowles's reputation was thus established, and Hazlitt in his ‘Spirit of the Age,’ 1825, spoke of him as the first tragic writer of his time. But Knowles made little money by his dramatic successes. In 1823 and 1824 he added to his income by conducting the literary department of the ‘Free Press,’ a Glasgow organ of liberal and social reform. His school did not prosper, and he took to lecturing upon oratory and the drama, a field in which he won the praises of Professor Wilson in the ‘Noctes Ambrosianæ.’
Knowles's first comedy, ‘The Beggar's Daughter of Bethnal Green,’ was produced at Drury Lane on 28 May 1828. It was based on the well-known ballad, which had already inspired a play by Henry Chettle and John Day (written about 1600, and printed London, 1659). Though expectation ran high, Knowles's play was damned at the first performance; the verdict was perhaps unduly emphasised by the presence of many ill-wishers from the rival house of Covent Garden, then temporarily closed. Knowles at once set to work to redeem the failure. In 1830 he and his family left Glasgow and settled near Newhaven, by Edinburgh, and there, while working at a new comedy, he put the last touches to his ‘Alfred the Great, or the Patriot King.’ This came out at Drury Lane on 28 April 1831, and met with some success, partly, perhaps, from the political circumstances of the time.
Knowles's second comedy, ‘The Hunchback,’ was meanwhile accepted by the authorities at Drury Lane, with some qualification as to the underplot, which, in Macready's judgment, was defective. The play was remodelled, and again offered to Drury Lane at the beginning of 1832, but there was delay in producing it. Knowles demanded his manuscript back, and took it to Charles Kemble at Covent Garden. It was produced there on 5 April 1832; Julia was played by Miss Kemble, and Master Walter by the author himself, who thus returned to his early calling. The comedy was a great success, and enjoyed an almost uninterrupted run till the end of the season, but Knowles's acting did not meet with much approval. On taking ‘The Hunchback’ to Glasgow and Edinburgh, he was received with enthusiasm by his former friends and pupils. When his next important play, ‘The Wife,’ was brought out at Covent Garden on 24 April 1833, Charles Lamb wrote both prologue and epilogue; and an article in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ at this date described Knowles as the most successful dramatist of the day.
On 10 Oct. 1837 appeared ‘The Love Chase,’ which, with the exception of ‘The Hunchback,’ has retained more public favour than any of Knowles's plays. With Strickland as Fondlove, and Elton, Webster, Mrs. Glover, and Mrs. Nisbett as Waller, Wildrake, Widow Green, and Constance respectively, the play was a brilliant success, and ran until the end of December.
Knowles, notwithstanding adverse criticism, continued to act up till 1843, and by his own account thus made a fair income. He acted in ‘Macbeth’ and in some of his own plays at the Coburg Theatre, and also in the provinces and in Ireland. After playing with Macready in ‘Virginius’ before an enthusiastic London audience, he paid, in 1834, a very successful visit of nine months to the United States. Between his return from America and 1843 he brought out eight more plays of his own (see list below), besides adapting Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Maid's Tragedy’ under the name of ‘The Bridal,’ and later on the same authors' ‘Noble Gentleman;’ the latter, however, was not acted. In 1841 he composed the libretto of a ballad-opera, ‘Alexina,’ which after his death was re-arranged and brought out as a play under the name, ‘True unto Death.’ He also wrote tales in the magazines and continued his public lectures. Two novels by him—‘George Lovell’ and ‘Fortescue’—appeared in 1846–7, but neither of them is remarkable. Although he was now in receipt of a comfortable income, his resources were hampered by his ready charity and his chivalrous efforts to discharge his father's debts. In 1848 Knowles was granted a civil-list pension of 200l. He was an original member of the committee formed for the purchase of Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-on-Avon, and it was reported in 1848, when the purchase was completed, that the custodianship was offered to him. He never filled the office, but at his death the trustees of the birthplace recorded their belief that he had been in receipt of the dividends of 1,500l., invested in the names of Forster and Dickens, ‘for the ostensible purpose of founding a custodianship of the birthplace,’ and inquiries were made into the investment and appropriation of the dividends (extract from Trustees' Minute-book, 31 Dec. 1862).
Knowles had always had strongly religious and philanthropic interests, and had in early days been greatly impressed by the preaching of Rowland Hill at the Surrey Chapel. About 1844 he embraced an extreme form of evangelicalism and joined the baptists, professing that he had hitherto lived ‘without God and without hope in the world.’ He delivered sermons from chapel pulpits and at Exeter Hall. He denounced Roman catholicism, attacked Cardinal Wiseman on the subject of transubstantiation, and wrote two books of controversial divinity; but he avoided preaching against the stage. He was a great believer in the water-cure. In his last years he visited various parts of the kingdom, and in 1862, soon after entering his seventy-ninth year, was entertained at a banquet in his native city of Cork. On 30 Nov. of the same year he died at Torquay. He was buried in the Necropolis at Glasgow. His first wife died in 1841, and in the following year he married a Miss Elphinstone, a former pupil, who had played Meeta in his ‘Maid of Mariendorpt.’ His son by his first wife, Richard Brinsley Knowles, is noticed separately.
There is a portrait of Knowles in the ‘Life’ by his son, Richard Brinsley Knowles, and an outline sketch of him in Maclise's ‘Portrait Gallery.’
Judged by literary tests alone, Knowles's plays cannot lay claim to much distinction. His plots are conventional, his style is simple, and, in spite of his Irish birth, his humour is not conspicuous. Occasionally he strikes a poetical vein, and his fund of natural feeling led him to evolve many effective situations. But he is a playwright rather than a dramatist. As an actor, his style, from a want of relief and transition, was apt to become tedious, but his unmistakable earnestness strongly recommended him to audiences with whom, as a dramatist, he was in his lifetime highly popular (see Westland Marston, Our Recent Actors, ii. 122).
His published works may be conveniently divided into three classes. The dates given are those of first publication. I. Dramatic works: ‘Caius Gracchus,’ a tragedy in five acts, 1815; ‘Virginius,’ a tragedy in five acts, 1820; ‘William Tell,’ a play in five acts, 1825 (manuscript copy, Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 27719, f. 29); ‘Alfred the Great, or the Patriot King,’ an historical play in five acts, 1831; ‘The Hunchback,’ a play in five acts, 1832; ‘The Wife, a Tale of Mantua,’ a play, 1833; ‘The Beggar of Bethnal Green,’ a comedy in three acts, 1834 (an abridgment of ‘The Beggar's Daughter of Bethnal Green,’ 1828); ‘The Daughter,’ a play, 1837; ‘The Love Chase,’ a comedy in five acts, 1837; ‘Woman's Wit,’ 1838; ‘The Maid of Mariendorpt,’ a play, 1838; ‘Love,’ a play, 1839; ‘John of Procida, or the Bridals of Messina,’ a tragedy, 1840; ‘Old Maids,’ a comedy, 1841; ‘The Rose of Arragon,’ 1842; ‘The Secretary,’ a play in five acts, 1843. All of the above are in verse, with the exception of parts of ‘Caius Gracchus,’ ‘The Hunchback,’ and ‘The Beggar's Daughter.’
II. Miscellaneous poetical works and adaptations: ‘The Welch Harper,’ a ballad, 1796; ‘Fugitive Pieces,’ 1810; ‘Leo, or the Gipsy,’ 1810 (a fragment preserved in Proctor's ‘Life of Edmund Kean’); ‘Brian Boroihme, or the Maid of Erin’ (adapted from D. O'Meara), 1811; ‘A Masque on the Death of Sir Walter Scott,’ 1832; ‘The Bridal,’ 1837 (adapted from Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Maid's Tragedy’); ‘Alexina,’ a drama in two acts, published posthumously as ‘True unto Death,’ 1863; various political poems and songs set to music.
III. Miscellaneous prose writings: Tales and novelettes printed in various forms between 1832 and 1843; lectures on dramatic literature, 1820–50; ‘Lectures on Oratory, Gesture, and Poetry, to which is added a Correspondence with four Clergymen in defence of the Stage’ (these tales and lectures, together with various dramatic works coming under class II, were revised, edited, and privately issued in five volumes by Francis Hervey in 1873–4; only twenty-five copies of each volume were printed. A complete set is in the British Museum); ‘The Elocutionist,’ a collection of pieces in prose and verse, peculiarly adapted to display the art of reading, 3rd edit. Belfast, 1823, 28th edit. London, 1883; various articles in the ‘Free Press’ of Glasgow, 1823–4; ‘George Lovell,’ a novel, 1846; ‘Fortescue,’ a novel, 1847; ‘The Rock of Rome, or the Arch Heresy,’ 1849; ‘The Idol Demolished by its own Priest,’ an answer to lectures on transubstantiation delivered by Cardinal Wiseman, 1851; ‘The Gospel attributed to Matthew is the Record of the whole original Apostlehood,’ 1855.[Life of J. S. Knowles by his son, Richard Brinsley Knowles, revised and edited by Francis Hervey, London, 1872; only twenty-five copies printed, one in British Museum. This gives full information, and refers to contemporary authorities. For special criticisms see Hazlitt's Spirit of the Age, London, 1825; Edinburgh Review, October 1833; Horne's New Spirit of the Age, London, 1845; Dublin University Magazine, October 1852; Athenæum, February 1847; Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, October 1863; see also Macready's Reminiscences; Doran's Their Majesties' Servants, ii. 556–7; Maclise's Portrait Gallery.]