Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Lavinia Fenton
In his own day it was a constant accusation against William Hogarth, that he could not paint in “the historical manner”—that he could not rise out of “Low Art.” The cognoscenti of the period delighted in a complicated jargon, which seemed to mean, so far as it had any meaning, that painting was a sort of dead language—of no use but to a refined and gifted few—an exotic which could never flourish in a cold climate—that it had nothing to do with Nature or reality, and that, when it ventured to be intelligible to ordinary comprehensions, it became necessarily degraded and base.
If Hogarth had listened to all this elegant idiocy! But he presumed to think for himself: he turned his back, sturdily, resolutely, upon foreign art; he refused to multiply specimens of fifth-rate Italian schools; to produce compositions out of which ceaseless repetition had fairly beaten all the religion that had been planned originally to be their chief characteristic; to squander his life amid the clouds of an inane mythology or a ridiculous allegory. He set up his easel in the middle of the town to sketch the common life around him. He was nothing if not real and true. He comes down to us now a most trustworthy witness, whose evidence, touching the history of his own time, cannot be gainsaid. Once or twice—provoked by the carpings of his critics—worrying him while he painted, as small dogs might, snapping at his calves as he sat before his easel—he rose in his rage, determined to demonstrate that, an’ he chose, he could paint in the manner they would have him, and paint, too, as well as the best of the masters they were for ever lauding. Of course, in his haste, his anger, and his vanity, he made a great mistake. It is not within our purpose here to dwell upon the matter. Still, if he represented Danae as “a mere nymph of Drury,”—and Mr. Horace Walpole accused him of so doing, with great show of reason, it must be allowed,—if he treated Sigismunda as “a maudlin vigaro,” there can be no fear that he would be liable to a converse error. He would leave it to others to convert the Kitty Fishers of the hour into Cleopatras; to invest the Nelly O’Briens with the loveliness of innocence, or to make a goddess of grace out of such materials as a Nancy Parsons could furnish. He was safe enough while he was upon the ground; it was an error in such a man to attempt to mount into the skies: that was all. He was like an aëronaut who carries too much earth in his car—who may cut the tie-ropes one after another; but, for all that, his balloon will not soar into the empyrean.
Be sure, then, that we may place confidence in his portraits,—that we may accept these as unmistakably actual and life-like, needing no allowance to be made on the score of flattery; with no dimples to be deducted, no unlovely lines to be added; with no natural blemishes wilfully forgotten by the painter. And it is to the subject of one of his portraits we desire to bring the reader—a thoroughly English-looking girl, beautiful quite as much from her healthiness and freshness, and natural gifts of colour, as from the regularity of her features or the symmetry of her form. With frank, open grey eyes, delicately arched brows, well-shaped mouth, with luscious cherry-red lips and soft round chin; brown hair, gathered lightly—not brushed—back from her forehead, probably over a small pillow, surmounted by a dainty lace “mob” cap with many flaps, a string of pearls round her white neck; a dress of rich but sad-coloured silk, with broad ribbon and cord trimming à la militaire down the front; the dress high on the shoulders, low in the bosom, edged with a narrow frilling of lace, casting delicate reflections of light on the superbly-moulded bust. The dress very charming; but then it is, at all times, hard to say how much the prettiness of a costume may be attributable to the prettiness of the lady who wears it.
Such is the portrait, painted by Hogarth, of Lavinia Fenton, in the character of Polly Peachum, in the “Beggars’ Opera,”—an actress, who, during a very brief career upon the stage, seems to have ruled the London playgoers as absolutely—to have created as great a “sensation” (applying the word in a sense she never heard it invested with)—as in later times, within modern knowledge,—a Mademoiselle Jenny Lind or a Mademoiselle Adelina Patti has succeeded in doing. The audiences of more than a century ago were not less susceptible than are those of to-day to the charms of a reigning favourite, and the “Lavinia Fenton mania” of the past will stand a comparison with any more recent furore created by actresses or singers of the present.
We do not purpose to tell over again the story of the great success of the “Beggars’ Opera.” It is certain, however, that to the charm and cleverness of the original Polly Peachum, a great share of that success was due. Swift wrote from Dublin to Gay for “Polly’s messo-tinto.” The print-shops could barely keep pace with the demand for the engravings of her portrait; ladies of fashion wore her likeness as part of the decoration of their fans; band of devoted admirers guarded her every night on her way home from the theatre after her performance; and, as the Notes to the “Dunciad” inform us, “her life was written, books of letters and verses to her published, and pamphlets made even of her sayings and jests.”
The life of a lady but just twenty years of age, could in no case pretend to be a very voluminous work. “The Life of Lavinia Beswick, alias Fenton, alias Polly Peachum,” is simply an octavo pamphlet numbering forty-eight pages. It is “Printed for A. Moore, near St. Paul’s, and sold by the booksellers and pamphlet shops in London and Westminster, 1728, price one shilling.” We are bound to say that the work is of a most catchpenny order—of very coarse execution—in literary worth little better than those productions of Mr. Catnach’s press which follow the execution of a malefactor at Newgate. Among its contents it professes to give information touching the heroine’s “birth and education;” “her first acquaintance with a certain Portuguese nobleman;” “on the Portuguese nobleman being confined in the Fleet, and the honourable method she took to gain him his liberty;” “a copy of verses which she composed on a fop, which conduced to her acquaintance with Mr. Huddy, for whose benefit at the New Theatre in the Haymarket she first appeared on the stage; a particular account of a benefit she shared with one Mr. Gilbert, a few weeks after Mr. Huddy’s, at the same theatre; her first admittance into the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s Inn Fields; her weekly salary both now and then, and the time when, and the cause why, it was raised;” “her judgment in poetry and history painting, and the reasonable reason why so many great men have been her humble servants.” “The whole interspersed with convincing proofs of her ingenuity, wit, and smart repartees, and concluding with some remarkable instances of her humanity to the distressed.”
All this, with much other corresponding matter, is printed on the title-page, which in this instance resembles very much the platform outside a booth at a fair, on which are generally exhibited very much more interesting performances than are ever to be witnessed by paying the admission-fee and contemplating the stage inside. The book is by no means so full of entertainment as its title-page would seem to promise.
We gather, however, that the lady was born in 1708. Her father, whose name was Beswick, was a lieutenant of a man-of-war. Called away for professional duties before the birth of his child, he departed with a request that, in the event of the unborn proving to be a boy, the name of Porteus (probably his own name) should be bestowed upon him; but if a girl, that she should be called Lavinia. The little girl was so baptised; but the father does not appear again upon the scene, if indeed he ever came back from the voyage on which he had started. When the little girl was still quite an infant, her mother married one Fenton in the Old Bailey, and soon afterwards set up a coffee-house in the more fashionable neighbourhood of Charing Cross. The child was then called by the surname of her mother’s husband, and “being,” we are told, “of a vivacious, lively spirit, and a promising beauty,” she became a favourite plaything and romp with the fops frequenting the coffee-house. Soon, it seems, while she was yet quite a child, the charm of her voice became a subject of remark, and not less so the extraordinary correctness of her ear for music. She caught at once the tunes the “humming beaux”—so the musical gentlemen were called,—or habitués of the coffee-house, brought from the playhouses, and repeated accurately every song she had once heard her mother sing: and her mother would seem to have had considerable ability in this respect. “A comedian belonging to the old house” took great delight in the exhibition of the child’s cleverness, and was at some pains to teach her new songs, and to impart to her such instruction as he could command. She was then sent to a boarding-school, but was withdrawn when she was thirteen, and went to reside with her mother, who had, meanwhile, quitted Charing Cross and returned to the Old Bailey.
In the year 1726, when she was but eighteen years of age, we find the lady making her first appearance on the stage. A Mr. Huddy, who had been turned out of the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and had become the master of a strolling company, took a benefit at the New Theatre in the Haymarket, when was performed Otway’s tragedy of “The Orphan; or, the Unhappy Marriage,” in which the part of Monimia was sustained by Miss Fenton. She gained great applause; various presents were sent to her as pledges of public esteem, a customary mode at that day of paying tribute to the success of a performer; and she received many letters expressive of love and admiration on the part of certain members of the audience. In her Life is quoted at length a “billet,” represented to proceed from an ensign, very much overcome with the charms of the lady. The letter is certainly amusing, but then it is very likely to be apocryphal. The gentleman woos rather in the King Cambyses vein. Let the reader judge for himself:
Madam, You may be a person of Honour, for aught I know to the contrary, and I hope you will be so honourable as not to let a Man of Honour die dishonourably at your feet. For, by Heavens! though I thought nothing so bright as my sword, yet I find your eyes are much brighter. My Dear, Dear Guardian Angel, could you conceive the anxiety I suffer on your account, you would surely pity me; for there’s never an officer of our Regiment but takes notice of my being changed (since I saw you upon the stage) from the most lively, brisk, fashionable, mannerly, genteel Beau in the whole Army, to the most dull, insipid, slovenly, out-o’-the-way-tempered Dunce in Christendom. D—n me, Madam, if I am not so over-charged with Love that my Heart, which is the Bullet in the Barrel of my Body, will certainly burst and blow me into atoms if I have not your help to discharge the Burthen. And then, Blood! Madam, I am guilty of so many Blunders and mistakes in the execution of my office that I am become quite a Laughing-stock to the whole Army. Yesterday I put my sword on the wrong side, and this morning I came into the Park with one of my stockings the wrong side outward, and instead of applying myself to the Colonel, in the usual terms of Most Noble Sir, I looked pale, and with an affected d—d cringe called him Madam. Thus, Madam, you see how far I am gone already. Then, to keep me from Bedlam, take me to your Arms, when I will lay down my arms and be your slave and vassal.”
Five weeks after her performance for Mr. Huddy’s benefit, she was allowed to share a benefit with one Mr. Gilbert at the same theatre, on which occasion she played the part of Cherry, the innkeeper’s daughter, in Farquhar’s comedy of the “Beaux Stratagem.” She was then engaged by a company of comedians who played twice a week during the summer season at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The management appears to have been conducted upon the principle of a commonwealth, and the actors shared in the profits of the performances.
Her success was remarkable. She became the talk of the coffee-houses—the most celebrated toast in town. Her face, her form, her grace, her voice, her archness, her simplicity, were lauded alike on all hands. Rich, the manager, was not slow to perceive the advantage that would accrue to him by securing the lady’s services for his theatre during the winter season; forthwith he offered her an engagement, at the rate of fifteen shillings per week. The proposal was accepted; but after the extraordinary success of the “Beggars’ Opera,” Polly’s salary was raised to thirty shillings per week.
On the 29th of January, 1728, Miss Fenton first appeared as Polly Peachum. “In his ‘Beggars’ Opera,’” as Cibber was constrained to admit, “Gay has more skilfully gratified the public taste than all the brightest authors that ever writ before him.” The theatre was crowded night after night. There was no change in the performance until the 9th of March. The play had had, up to that date, an uninterrupted run: such an event was without precedent, for it was much more the custom of the theatre at that time to present to its patrons as great a variety of performances as possible, than to go on repeating night after night the same entertainment. Lavinia Fenton’s name was in every mouth: on all sides her praises were sounded. It is not to be supposed, however, that her singing was the perfection of art, or that she was even an accomplished vocalist. Her musical education had been of an indifferent character enough. Italian singing was little cultivated at that time, and probably was far beyond the reach of her parents’ means. But she had learnt, perhaps as much from intuition, as from other instruction, how to sing a simple English ballad in the most effective style. She had real feeling, and she had a lovely voice; she had, indeed, “tears in her voice,” as was said of a more recent singer,—it was mellow, powerful, and very tender and plaintive. And when the appeal to Mr. and Mrs. Peachum to spare Macheath,—“O! ponder well: be not severe,”—rang through the house in tones of the deepest emotion, she fairly carried the whole audience away with her; and, as soon as their tears would permit them, they overwhelmed her with their plaudits.
Mr. Hogarth has painted the scene, as all the world knows. He has given us the only representation extant of the interior of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, which stood in Portugal Row, was afterwards Spode and Copeland’s china warehouse, and was pulled down in 1848 to enlarge the museum of the College of Surgeons. It was opened by Davenant in 1662: it ceased to be a theatre in 1737. It had witnessed the triumphs of Betterton and Mrs. Bracegirdle; the production of the plays of Dryden and Congreve; the introduction of Harlequin to an English audience; and the performance of the first English opera. Thanks to this last, Mr. Rich made money enough to move to larger premises—Covent Garden Theatre, which he opened in 1732—the Crown being then in treaty for the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, to use as an office for the Commissioners of the Stamp Duties.
The proscenium is supported by satyrs. Above, in the centre, the royal arms, with large flying garters, inscribed—according to custom—with the words “Veluti in speculum,” and “Utile Dulci.” (Does the reader bear in mind the burlesque sentences put into the mouth of democratic William Cobbett, by the ingenious authors of “Rejected Addresses,” touching the reopening of Drury Lane Theatre in 1812? “And now, most thinking people, cast your eyes over my head, to what the builder—I beg his pardon—the architect calls the proscenium. No motto, no slang, no Popish Latin to keep the people in the dark. No Veluti in speculum. Nothing in the dead languages—properly so called—for they ought to die, ay, and be d—d, to boot;” and he goes on to congratulate the audience on the absence of the time-honoured inscriptions.) The side-boxes encroach on the stage;—they are filled by a select audience: His Grace the Duke of Bolton, a comely English gentleman with a star on his breast; Major Pounceford; Sir Robert Fagg, a baronet from Kent, famous for his horse-racing; Cock, the picture auctioneer, who whispers Mr. Rich, the manager, and Mr. Gay the poet, in the background. On the other side we find the Lady Jane Cook, with Anthony Henley, Lord Gage, Sir Conyers D’Arcy, and “long Sir Thomas Robinson,” so called to distinguish him from a diplomatist of the same name known afterwards as Lord Grantham. On the stage are to be seen Tom Walker, as Macheath; Hall, as Lockit; Hippesley, as Peachum; Clark, as Filch; Mrs. Egleton, as Lucy—her back is turned towards the spectator; and Polly, Miss Fenton. Mr. Ireland writes in reference to the picture:—“Polly’s charms have fascinated the Duke of Bolton; his eye is fixed on her face, and his mind wholly engrossed by the contemplation of that beauty which he afterwards made his own.” Certainly Polly’s wail:
“When my hero in court appears,
And stands arraigned for his life,
Then think of poor Polly’s tears,
For, oh! poor Polly’s his wife.”
seems addressed rather to the Duke than to Peachum.
In the “London Chronicle” of April 2nd, 1762, is contained a paragraph referring to this picture: “On Friday last, at the sale of the late Mr. Rich’s pictures, jewels, &c., a clock by Graham was bought by the Right Honourable the Earl of Chesterfield for 42l., and a scene in the “Beggars’ Opera, where Polly and Lucy are pleading for Macheath’s life, painted by Hogarth, was sold for 32l. 14s., to his Grace the Duke of Leeds.” From this picture a fine print engraved by William Blake, with the permission of the Duke, was published by Messrs. Boydell, in 1790.
On the 14th March, 1728, Miss Fenton, on the occasion of Quin’s benefit, appeared as Alinda, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s comedy of “The Pilgrim,” as altered for the stage by Sir John Vanbrugh; on the 18th, she played Ophelia, in “Hamlet;” on the 6th April, we find her in the character of Leanthe, in Farquhar’s “Love and a Bottle,” played for Tom Walker’s benefit; on the 24th, she was playing Marcella in Tom Durfey’s comedy of “Don Quixote;” and on the 29th she took her benefit, when she appeared as Cherry, in the “Beaux Stratagem.” But it seems that she offended a great number of her patrons by laying pit and boxes together, and many of her tickets were returned to her by those who objected to pay box-prices for a seat in the pit. However, Mr. Rich, the manager, who had the reputation of being an enthusiastic admirer of “Pretty Polly,” took the receipts of that night to himself, and on the following Saturday (May 4th) gave her a second benefit, when the “Beggars’ Opera” was played for the forty-seventh time. On the 19th June, the opera was played for the last time that season, and Lavinia Fenton made her last appearance on the boards of a theatre. On the 6th July, Swift, writing to Gay, says:—“The Duke of Bolton has run away with Polly Peachum, having settled 400l. a year upon her during pleasure, and, upon disagreement, 200l. a year.” This may have been near the truth, but the exact terms were never known; and a disagreement never ensued. Miss Fenton’s theatrical career was over, having lasted but two years, during which she had assumed some half-dozen characters. But her success, her beauty, and her talents, made her live long in the memory of her admirers.
Charles, third Duke of Bolton, was born on the 3rd September, 1685. He had married, in 1713, the Lady Anne, daughter and sole heiress of Lord Vaughan, and Earl of Carberry in Ireland, and Baron Emlyn in the county of Carnarvonshire. But the Duke and Duchess lived apart; and the marriage was without issue. On the breaking out of the rebellion in 1745, he raised for the King’s service a regiment of foot, and was appointed to be Lieutenant-General of his Majesty’s forces. Soon after the death of the Duchess, which happened on the 20th September, 1751, he married Lavinia Fenton. Of this marriage there was no lawful issue. The Duke died at Tunbridge Wells on the 26th August, 1754, aged sixty-nine. Lavinia Fenton survived him only six years, dying on the 24th January, 1760; her Grace was interred at Greenwich with all appropriate ceremony. “Though raised to so high honour,” says a biographer, “she never once forgot what she owed to her benefactor and to fortune.” Dr. Joseph Warton, in a note subjoined to one of Swift’s letters to Gay, says of her: “She was a most accomplished and agreeable companion: had much wit, good strong sense, and a just taste in polite literature. Her person was agreeable and well made: though I think she could never be called a beauty.” (On this question the Doctor was probably in a minority.) “I have had the pleasure of being at table with her, when her conversation was much admired by the first characters of the age, particularly old Lord Bathurst and Lord Granville.”
After this favourable opinion, it is, perhaps, hardly necessary to turn to the pages of our anonymous author of the shilling pamphlet for his views as to the subject of the biography. Not that these are by any means unfavourable. For instance: “Polly,” he writes, “has so many smart as well as polite repartees, such a grace in the delivery, and, withal, so little of that affectation which frequently makes a witty woman’s company intolerable, that the oftener any one hears her converse, the oftener he will desire it, and will improve himself by her profound skill in several faculties, as well as divert himself with her merry sayings and smart returns of gallantry. For it must be acknowledged that her beauty has not gained her so many admirers, as her sense and the good use she makes of it.”
As to her accomplishments, the same authority informs us: “She is a good judge of poetry, and often exerts herself in the praise or dispraise of any performances that appear either beautiful or contemptible.” “She is a good historian, and will frequently quote the authority of Plutarch to confirm her opinion of things. She will argue very profoundly both with regard to politics and plays, and will rally and criticise as finely as any of her sex in Christendom, and never leaves a company but she leaves them something to charge their memories withal.” “She is such a judge of painting that the greatest of our modern artists in this profession are glad to have her opinion of a piece, before it is shown to the world, knowing that, if it escapes her censure, it will gain the approbation of the whole town.” Further, our author tells us, by way of summing up his case:—“Notwithstanding her wit and skill, she is the most humble, the most affable, and the least conceited of any woman that is both wise and beautiful in the King’s dominions. Nor will she bear to hear encomiums of herself, it being a greater affront to praise her before her face, and she resents it more, than if she was to be publicly called jilt or “coquet,” or even by coarser terms of abuse in vogue at our biographer’s period.
We regret to have to state, however, that the proofs of Polly’s “ingenuity, wit, and smart repartees” adduced in the biography are less convincing than the title-page had led us to believe they would be. The sayings attributed to her are not brilliant, nor are they refined, even after due allowance has been made for the freedom of her time. Her verses halt a good deal; and their intellectual qualities do not redeem their mechanical deficiencies. The “remarkable instances of her humanity to the distressed” are comprised in three items: she maintained, it seems, her reputed father, Fenton; she stood godmother to the daughter of a poor tailor’s wife, the child being christened “Polly Peachum;” and in the third case a poor milk-woman married to a black husband, having given birth to twin tawny children, and being too poor to be “provided with gossips at their being baptised,” Polly, who had heard of the business, despatched her maid “to stand godmother for her by proxy, and gave the woman half-a-guinea for an immediate supply, and after the ceremony herself relieved the woman and ordered her to send to her house for such necessaries as she should have occasion for.”
But we stated at the outset that the book we have been quoting was not deserving of high praise; it is indeed more curious than commendable; by no means exhaustive, meriting admiration neither in regard to its conception nor its execution. It is remarkable only as a piece of evidence. That such a work could find a public, could result as the supply answering to a certain sort of demand, testifies curiously to the fact that the town has gone mad about a singer long before our own day, and that the state of feeling of an audience of a past generation assimilates very closely to the excitement of a present public upon a corresponding occasion.
One or two notes, however, we may be permitted to add relative to the play in which Miss Fenton won her fame.
The music of the “Beggars’ Opera” was selected and arranged by John Christopher Pepusch, who was born at Berlin in 1667, the son of a dissenting minister. At the age of fourteen he had been employed to teach the harpsichord to the Prince of Prussia. He came to England soon after the Revolution, and was engaged in the band at Drury Lane Theatre, employing his leisure in pursuing his musical studies and in composing and arranging music for dramatic purposes. In 1713 he obtained the degree of Doctor of Music from the University of Oxford, and was appointed Chapel-master to the Duke of Chandos, at Canons. In 1722 he married an Italian actress, with a fortune of 10,000l., but he still continued his professional occupations. With some other performers he assisted in the plan of the Academy of Ancient Music; and when, in 1724, Bishop Berkeley started the notion of a college at the Bermudas, Pepusch set sail as one of the Professors, but returned to England in consequence of the vessel being wrecked. When public taste pronounced itself unmistakably in favour of what was then considered the “new style” of music of Handel and Bononcini, Pepusch, who had attached himself to more antiquated forms, relinquished composition. In 1737 he was appointed organist to the Charter House, and soon after was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, to whose Transactions he contributed an Account of the Ancient Genera of Music. He lost his wife in 1740, and died in 1752, leaving his manuscripts to the Academy of Ancient Music. He told Dr. Burney that when he was a young man he determined never to go to bed at night till he knew something he did not know in the morning. His most valuable publications were considered to be his edition of Corelli’s sonatas and concertos in score, and a short treatise of his own on harmony, first published by the Earl of Abercorn, one of his pupils, in 1731.
During the season after Miss Fenton’s retirement the “Beggars’ Opera” was performed by a company of children, called the Lilliputians, when we read that, in order “that the childish exhibition might be supported in all its branches, the managers contrived to send a book of the songs across the stage by a flying Cupid to Frederick, Prince of Wales.” The children gave their performance sixteen times; but, in addition, the regular comedians of the theatre seem to have represented the opera forty-three times, Miss Fenton’s character being sustained now by a Miss Warren, now by a Miss Cantrell, neither of whom, however, gained any great fame by her assumption of Polly. For many years the play was repeated regularly, more or less often, according as performers were found competent to undertake the characters. In 1745, three performances of the “Beggars’ Opera” were given by Rich at Covent Garden for the benefit of the soldiers engaged in the suppression of the rebellion. Every comedian gave his services gratis, and the tallow-chandlers presented the candles. Rich stated in the “General Advertiser” that he had paid into the fund of the Veteran Scheme at Guildhall the sum of 602l. 7s, being the profits of the three nights. In 1759, when Mr. Beard played Captain Macheath, and Miss Brent, afterwards Mrs. Pinto, a pupil of Dr. Arne, played Polly, the opera was given for thirty-seven nights successively, and altogether fifty-two nights during the season. The profits were very large, and seriously affected the interests of the rival theatre. “In vain did Garrick,” says Davies, his biographer, “oppose his Ranger and Benedick, his Hamlet and Lear, to Polly Peachum: the public was this season allured by nothing but the power of song and sing-song; Shakespeare and Garrick were obliged to quit the field to Beard and Brent.” A Miss Vincent, two years later, pleased very highly in Polly. Churchill honours both ladies with favourable mention in the “Rosciad.”
Lo! Vincent comes—with simple grace arrayed;
She laughs at paltry arts and scorns parade;
Nature through her is by reflection shown,
Whilst Gay, once more, knows Polly for his own.
Let Tommy Arne, with usual pomp of style,
Whose chief, whose only merit’s to compile,
Who, meanly pilfering here and there a bit,
Deals music out as Murphy deals out wit,
Publish proposals, laws for taste prescribe,
And chant the praise of an Italian tribe:
Let him reverse kind Nature’s first decrees,
And teach e’en Brent a method not to please.
But the strangest treatment of all of the “Beggars’ Opera,” was reserved for the season of 1781, when Colman at the Haymarket produced the piece with all the men’s characters sustained by women, and the women’s by men. The oddity and grotesqueness of this entertainment attracted immense crowds, and the travestie was repeated several nights in succession. Eccentricities of this kind had been known before, but they had chiefly been confined to benefit nights, when the performers were often in the habit of doing strange things, or playing parts unsuited to them by way of amazing their friends and filling the theatre. The elegant actress, Mrs. Abington, played the low-comedy character of Scrub in the “Beaux Stratagem” on the occasion of her benefit in 1786; while during the same year, a very stout lady, Mrs. Webb, undertook the part of Falstaff, attracting an enormous crowd. Mrs. Cargill, who played Macheath, we read, “though short and thick, appeared quite at ease and acted with spirit.” Mrs. Webb appeared successfully as Lockit. “Edwin’s droll looks and awkward management of his petticoats; his love, his anger, and his distress in Lucy, the odd effect which his appearance, voice, and manner gave the songs, was a combination of burlesque which can never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.” “Any person,” continues the same critic, “who can recollect old Bannister, though he never saw him in Polly, can easily imagine how his rough manly face must look in a female head-dress, and his tall, robust person in a woman’s gown. His first appearance excited a tumultuous roar of laughter; and his fine low courtesies, with his grave, modest looks, conspired to keep it up for a considerable time. Though Bannister could take off Fenducci very exactly, and had performed Aronelli, both songs and dialogues, in falsetto, yet he did not disguise his natural voice either in speaking or singing when he acted Polly, nor excepting in holding up his train rather too high when he went off the stage sometimes, did he seem wilfully to burlesque the character. When he sang the songs, all was silent attention, and the travestie was forgotten; he sang them all in his finest style, and the serious ones in the most pathetic.” But the honours of the evening appear to have been carried off by Mrs. Wilson, who sustained the rôle of Filch. The original Filch had been a man called Nat Clarke, very lean in figure, meagre in face, shambling in gait, whose frequent employment it had been to appear as under or double Harlequin to Rich, whom he much resembled in size and form. Mrs. Wilson was a pretty, slight, dapper, piquant little woman, who played with remarkable spirit, and “seemed to be in reality as complete a young pickpocket as could be found among the boys who lurk about the doors of a theatre, and sang her song as if she had always frequented such society. Gay himself could not have wished for a better Filch!”
One more note and we conclude. Miss Fenton has not been the only lady who has been led to the peerage by her performance of Polly Peachum. Other representatives of the character have been similarly honoured. Lord Thurlow, the son of the chancellor of that name, who succeeded to his father’s title on the 12th September, 1806, was married to Miss Bolton, of Covent Garden Theatre, on the 13th November, 1813; and the famous Miss Stephens, of the same theatre, is now the Dowager Countess of Essex. Other ennobled actresses are chronicled in the following lines:
A Polly in a former age
Resigned the Captain and the stage,
To shine as Bolton’s Duchess;
Derby and Craven since have shown
That Virtue builds herself a throne,
Ennobling whom she touches.
The twelfth Earl of Derby married Miss Farren, and the late Lord Craven married Miss Louisa Brunton.