Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 31.djvu/304

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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