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Sheridan As Maniac Post by :Paula Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :2811

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Sheridan As Maniac

All allowances made for the near alliance of great wits--"the lunatic, the lover, and the poet"--there comes a point where the vagaries of temperament overlap and are confounded, and where the historian, at least, must take a line. None of Sheridan's biographers, and he has had, as I think, more than his share, refer to an eclipse of his rational self which he undoubtedly suffered; probably because it was not made public until the other day. Yet there have always been indications of the truth, as when, on his death-bed, he told Lady Bessborough that his eyes would be looking at her through the coffin-lid. Being the woman she was, she probably believed him, or thought that she did. It is from her published letters that we may now understand what reason she had for believing him.

These letters are contained in the correspondence of Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, who was our Ambassador in Paris on and off between 1824 and 1841, a correspondence published in 1916, in two hefty volumes. The period covered is from 1781 to 1821, and the documents are mainly the letters to him of Lady Bessborough, which reveal a relation between the pair so curious that, to me, it is extraordinary that nobody should have called attention to them before. I can only account for that by considering that the letters, which are very long, and the volumes, which are very heavy, do not readily yield what store of sweetness they possess, and that those in particular of Lord Granville Gower have no store of sweetness to yield. They are the wooden letters of a wooden young man. He may have been a beautiful young man, and an estimable young man; but he was insensitive, dull, and a prig. The best things he ever did in his days were to be belettered by Lady Bessborough and married, finally, to her witty and sensible niece.

Meantime, there is no need to disguise the fact, since we have it in cold print, that the acquaintance of the couple, begun at Naples in 1794 as a flirtation, developed rapidly, on the lady's side, into a love affair which was only ended by her death. In 1794, when it all began, Lady Bessborough was thirty-two, had been married for fourteen years, and had four children. Granville Gower was twenty, well born, rich, exceedingly good-looking, and with no excuse for not knowing all about it. In fact, he knew it perfectly, and was not afraid to allude to himself as Antinous. We hear more than enough of his fine blue eyes from Lady Bessborough--and perhaps he did too. She, in her turn, was to hear, poor soul, more than her own heart could bear. All that need be said about that is that, being the woman she was, it was to be expected. And exactly what sort of woman she was she herself puts upon record, in April, 1812, in the following words:--

"Pour la rareté du fait et la bizarrerie des hommes, I must put down what I dare tell nobody--I should be so much ashamed of it were it not so ridiculous. At this present April, 1812, in my fifty-first year, I am courted, follow'd, flatter'd, and made love to en toutes les formes, by four men--two of them reckoned sensible, and one of the two whom I have known half my life--Lord Holland, Ward, young M----n, and little M----y. Sir J.C. wanted to marry me when I was fifteen; so from that time to this--36 years, a pretty long life--I have heard or spoke that language; and for 17 years of it lov'd almost to Idolatry the only man from whom I could have wish'd to hear it, the man who has probably lov'd me least of all those who have profess'd to do so--tho' once I thought otherwise."

Arrant sentimentalist, born and trained flirt, as this confession shows her to have been, it also shows that she lived to rue it. She rued more than that, for she was the mother of Lady Caroline Lamb; and if anything more need be said of her misfortunes, let it be added that she was sister to Georgiana of Devonshire. Nevertheless, it is impossible to read her letters with her wooden young lord without seeing that she had a good heart, if a very weak head. She loved much; and for those whom she loved--her sister, her children, Granville Gower--she was ready to dare all things, and fail in most. Of her husband there is nothing to tell, for she hardly names him, except to say that he has the gout. Not much is known of him, and nothing but good. Horace Walpole wrote of his marriage in 1780: "I know nothing to the prejudice of the young lady; but I should not have selected for so gentle and very amiable a man a sister of the empress of fashion, nor a daughter of the Goddess of Wisdom." The goddess of wisdom was her formidable and trenchant mother, Lady Spencer.

But I don't intend to follow the vain stages of her sentimental pilgrimage in pursuit of Lord Granville Gower's heart, vain because apparently the young man had not such an organ at her disposal. It was not, perhaps, for nothing that they exchanged reflections upon Les Liaisons Dangereuses. A new Choderlos de Laclos would get a new sentimental novel out of the Granville Gower correspondence; or it may be taken as it stands for a recovered Richardson, quite as long as Sir Charles Grandison and much more amusing--for the poor lady is often witty. The affair dragged on, with much scandal, much whispering about it and about, until 1809, when the hero of it married Lady Harriet Cavendish, his mistress's niece. J.W. Ward, one of her lovers, according to her, sharply sums it up in a letter to Mrs. Dugald Stewart: "Lord Granville Leveson is going to marry Lady Harriet Cavendish. Lady Bessborough resigns, I presume, in favour of her niece. I have not heard what are supposed to be the secret articles of the treaty, but it must be a curious document." It was in 1812, as I have said, that she wrote out the pathetic confession of what we must suppose to have been the truth.

But I intended to write about Sheridan. This correspondence reveals him as the evil genius of Lady Bessborough's life; and perhaps, if all the truth were known, she may have been the evil genius of his, or one of them, anyhow. She had adventures with him behind her in 1794, when she began adventures anew; for they became intimate at Devonshire House, where, as the crony of Charles Fox, he was always at hand. The Duchess herself was one of his familiars. His initials for her, in letter-writing, were T.L., which a biographer pleasantly interprets as "True Love." The sisters, Countess and Duchess, shared in all good and evil things, and they seem to have shared Sheridan. His chosen initial for Lady Bessborough's address was "F," her second name being Frances. Mr. Sichel prints a letter from him to her, and guesses it to be of 1788. Extracts will suffice for the judicious: "I must bid 'oo good-night, for by the light passing to and fro near your room I hope you are going to bed and to sleep happily with a hundred little cherubs fanning their white wings over you in approbation of your goodness. Yours is the sweet, untroubled sleep of purity." It is to be feared that she could swallow this over-succulent stuff. A very little more will do for us: "And yet, and yet--Beware! Milton will tell you that even in Paradise serpents found their way to the ear of slumbering innocence. Then, to be sure, poor Eve had no watchful guardian to pace up and down beneath her windows.... And Adam, I suppose--was at Brooks's ... I shall be gone before your hazel eyes are open to-morrow...."

Lady Duncannon, as she was then, lived in Cavendish Square. Sheridan's leaguer of the house is thus betrayed. He never again left either her or it alone for long, but beset them until his death. Bitterly enough she was to rue that dalliance with the vainest sentimentalist ever begotten in Ireland or fostered in England. His wife, as lovely as a Muse and with the voice of a seraph, was to die; he was to adore, pursue, and capture another; but he never let Lady Bessborough go, and the antics of his mortified vanity were to lead her as far into the mire as any woman could go without suffocation. Such experiences may be common enough; it is rare to have them so nakedly portrayed as they are in this lady's letters, and not easy to avoid the conclusion that she made use of them to pique her wooden Antinous into some more active kind of pose than that of allowing himself to be adored.

Sheridan was forty-three and married to his second wife when Lady Bessborough fell in with Antinous at Naples; but it was not until the attachment of those two had become a notoriety that he began to make scenes about it. In 1798, when Granville Gower was in Berlin, Lady Bessborough writes to him that she had been at a concert at Sheridan's. "It was as pleasant as anything of the sort can be to me, as I sat by Fitzpatrick and Grey, who always amuse me. Sheridan says, when he found I did not come to town, he imagined that you had interdicted my coming till your return, and is always asking me whether what I am doing is allowed." That was March 12th; between that and the 17th she seems to have met Sheridan every day and nearly every night. "I must tell you, by the by ... that I am in great request this year.... I have had three violent declarations of love--one from an old man, another from a very young one, and the third between the other two.... Pray come back. If you stay long in Prussia, Heaven knows what may happen."

In August of the same year she writes again. "Sheridan call'd in the morning and found out that I was alone, and told me he would dine with me. I thought, of course, he was in joke, but, point du tout, he arriv'd at dinner, dined, and stayed the whole evening. He was very pleasant, but--it was not you, and the seeing anybody only increas'd my regrets, which I suppose were pretty visible, for every five minutes he kept saying: 'How I am wasting all my efforts to entertain you, while you are grieving that you cannot change me into Lord Leveson. You would not be so grim if he was beaming on you.' At length, as I thought he was preparing to pass the night as well as the evening with me, and as he began to make some fine speeches I did not quite approve of, I order'd my Chair, to get rid of him. This did not succeed, for as I had no place to go to, he follow'd me about to Anne's and Lady D----'s, where I knew I should not be let in, and home again. But, luckily, I got in time enough to order every one to be denied, and ran upstairs, while I heard him expostulating with the porter...." It does not appear, from this narrative, that the hunted fair was seriously annoyed at being hunted, and the implication of Lord Granville in the unpleasant business is patent. Next year she has asked her persecutor to help Antinous at his election, for his reply, beginning "Dear Traitress," is given here.

After that, peace or silence, until 1802, when Sheridan changed his tactics.

"The opera was beautiful.... The Prince paid us two visits, but our chief company were Hare, Grey, and Sheridan, the latter persecuting me in every pause of the music and telling me he knew such things of you, could give me such incontrovertible proofs of your falsehood, and not only falsehood but treachery to me, that if I had one grain of pride or spirit left I should fly you. And guess what I answered, you who call me jealous. I told him I had such entire reliance on your faith, such confidence in your truth, that I should doubt my own eyes if they witness'd against your word. He pitied me, and said: 'How are the mighty fallen,' and then went on telling me things without end to drive me mad." That was in March. In August she writes, actually under siege: "Here I am quite alone in C. Square ... no carriage to watch for, no rap at the door ... and alas! no chance of hearing your step upon the stair.... Whilst I was regretting all this, suddenly, the knock did come, to my utter astonishment. I ran to the stair, and in a moment heard Sheridan's voice. I do not know why, but I took a horror of seeing him, and hurried Sally down to say I was out. I heard him answer: 'Tell her I call'd twice this morning, and want particularly to see her, for I know she is at home.' Sally protested I was out, and S. answered: 'Then I shall walk up and down before the door till she comes in,' and there he is walking sure enough. It is partly all the nonsense he talk'd all this year, and the hating to see any one when I cannot see you, that makes me dislike letting him in so much."

He solemnly did sentry-go for nearly an hour, she goes on to say. In that hour he was in his fifty-first year, she in her fortieth.

If she revealed these sorry doings to Antinous with the view of fanning embers, she did not succeed in drawing more than a languid protest from him. "As to Sheridan, in the morning I purposely staid in my room till the time of our setting out, and only saw him as I was getting into the carriage, so had nothing more to tell.... You say I am not angry enough. I am provok'd, vex'd, and asham'd. To feel more deeply I must care for the person who offends me...." I cannot myself read either vexation or shame in her reports. Provocation I can and do read--but it is not she who is provoked.

In 1804, Antinous in Petersburg, there are new antics to record. "You will think I live at the play; I am just return'd from Drury Lane.... Sheridan persists in coming every night to us. He says one word to my sister; then retires to the further corner of the box, where with arms across, deep and audible sighs, and sometimes tears! he remains without uttering and motionless, with his eyes fix'd on me in the most marked and distressing manner, during the whole time we stay. To-night he followed us in before the play begun, and remained as I tell you thro' the play and farce. As we were going I dropped my shawl and muff; he picked them up and with a look of ludicrous humility presented them to Mr. Hill to give me." And this was the author of The School for Scandal.

Next year, being that of Trafalgar, and Sheridan's fifty-fourth, he began a course of persecution which definitely marks an access of dementia. The affair took an acute turn suddenly, and I don't intend to say more about it than that it took the form of anonymous and obscene letters, some of them addressed to Lady Bessborough's daughter, Caroline, then a child, some to herself, some to the children of the Duchess of Devonshire. The letters, which continued throughout the year, were signed with the names of friends--a Mr. Hill, J.W. Ward, and others. Some were sent out signed with her name. The editor of the correspondence says that "Lady Bessborough was subsequently convinced by evidence which appeared to her conclusive that Sheridan was the writer." There can be no doubt of that whatever, and as all the detail is in the published correspondence, little more need be said. The wooden Antinous, in Petersburg, for his sole comment, writes as follows: "I learn with sorrow that you are still subjected to vexations from anonymous letters, etc. I suppose that Sheridan is the author, though one would have imagined that, however depraved his morals, and however malignant might be his mind, he would have had good taste enough not to have resorted to such a species of vengeance." And that was all the fire to be blown into Antinous. "Good taste" in the circumstances is comic.

By the end of the season of the same year, however, Sheridan seems to have found out what he had done, and Lady Bessborough also sufficient self-respect to have helped him find it out. This is what happened on July 12th, at a ball. "I sat between Prince Adolphus and Mr. Hill at supper; Sheridan sat opposite, looking by turns so supplicating and so fiercely at me that everybody round observ'd it and question'd me about it. I could only say what was so, that he was very drunk. When I got up, he seiz'd my arm as I pass'd him, begging me to shake hands with him. I extricated myself from his grasp and pass'd on; he soon after follow'd and began loudly reproaching me for my cruelty, and asking why I would not shake hands. I was extremely distress'd, but at last told him his own sagacity might explain to him why I never would, and that his conduct to-night did not tend to alter my determination. I then hurried out of the room, and by way of completely avoiding him, cross'd a very formal circle of old ladies, and went and seated myself between Lady Euston and Lady Beverly. He had the impudence to follow me, and in face of the whole circle to enter into a loud explanation of his conduct, begging my pardon for all the offences he had ever committed against me, either on this night or in former times, and assuring me that he had never ceased loving, respecting and adoring me, and that I was the only person he ever really loved...." "Think," she says, "of the dismay of all the formal ladies." But the formal ladies, no doubt, had every reason to know their Devonshire House set; and if society in 1805 would allow Sheridan to be drunk and stay at a ball, it would prefer him maudlin drunk to drunk and disorderly. One is bound to add, too, that Lady Bessborough was a fool, though that, to be sure, is no excuse for Sheridan proving himself both old blackguard and old fool in one.

Next year the Duchess died, and her sister's active persecution appears to have ceased. But Sheridan by no means let her alone. On the contrary, he had the assurance to send as intercessor no less a person than the Prince Regent. "The Prince sent so repeatedly to me, and has been throughout so kind and feeling that I thought it wrong to persist in refusing to see him, so to-day he came soon after two and stayed till six!... He gave me a very pretty emerald ring, which he begg'd me to wear, to bind still stronger the tie of Brotherhood which he has always claim'd. In the midst of all this he brought me a message from Sheridan." This, which she describes as a "well-timed Petition for Forgiveness," she had the prudence to wave aside. She said that she had no wish to injure him, and only asked him to keep out of her way, or, if they happened to meet, to cease to persecute her. And that was very well, or would have been so, if she had had any character at all, a quality which she unfortunately had not. In 1807, the following year, she goes out to spend the evening with her daughter, Lady Caroline, now married to William Lamb. "The entrance is, you know, very dark; to my dismay, I saw a ruffian-like looking man following me into the house. I hasten'd upstairs, but to my great dismay he also ascended and enter'd the room immediately after me. It was so dark I could not at first make out who he was. When I did, I was not the better pleas'd with his establishing himself and passing the whole evening with us; but much as I was displeased with him, I was still more so with myself for being unable to resist laughing and appearing entertained (he was so uncommonly clever), tho' I persevered in my determination of not speaking to him. I do not like his having got the entrée there, and think him, even old as he is, a dangerous acquaintance for Caroline. Of course you perceive it was Sheridan." Considering that she suspected him of having written and sent grossly indecent letters to that girl of hers, one would have said that he was even more than a dangerous acquaintance. Light-mindedness here spills over into something rather worse. However, there he was, established, and it was no way to dispossess him to laugh at his jokes.

I must now invite the reader to a farce, and, if he can forget that Sheridan was a grandfather and fifty-six, a very good farce it is. It is 1807, the 28th July. Lady Bessborough is staying with her daughter for her first confinement, and receives a message from Mrs. Sheridan, a rather wild young woman in her way, known to all Devonshire House as Hecca. She goes at midnight,

"... and was carried up to her bedroom, where we had not sat long when a violent burst at the door announc'd the arrival of Sheridan, not perfectly sober. The most ridiculous scene ensued--that is, ridiculous it would have been if I had not felt myself too indignant and disgusted to be entertain'd. He began by asking my pardon, entreating my mercy and compassion, saying that he was a wretch, and was even at that moment more in love with me than with any woman he had ever met with, on which Hecca exclaimed: 'Not excepting me? Why, you always tell me that I am the only woman you were ever in love with.' 'So you are, to be sure, my dear Hecca; you know that, of course--you know that I love you better than anything on earth.' 'Except her!' 'Pish, pish, child! Do not talk nonsense.' Then he began again at me, upbraiding me for my cruelty, both for quarrelling with him and setting Hecca against him. The first, I said, I did in my own defence, the other was false, Hecca every now and then coming in with: 'Why, S----, I thought Lady B---- pursued you, and that you reviled all her violence like a second Joseph? So you us'd to tell me.' I cannot give you all the conversation, for it lasted till near three in the morning.... Getting away was the difficulty; he wanted to come down with me, and seiz'd my arm with such violence once before Hecca, that I was obliged to call her maid to help me, and at last only escaped by locking him in."

This sort of thing happened once more, in the same year, at Brocket. On this occasion Sheridan pursued his victim into the nursery, and threw himself on his knees. It gave Lady Bessborough an opportunity which even she could not fail to perceive--and she used it. "I interrupted the most animated professions by showing him the child and asking him if his grandchildren were as pretty as mine. He jump'd up, but with such fury in his looks that I was really frighten'd..." And that may very well be the end: solvuntur tabulæ risu. Lord Granville Gower married in 1809, and the confidential correspondence died the death; but Sheridan lingered until 1816, and actually carried on his desperate pursuit within three days of the end. She visited him, and described what took place to Lord Broughton. He assured her, she said, that he should visit her after his death. She asked, "Why, having persecuted her all her life, would he now carry it into death?' 'Because I am resolved you shall remember me.'"(A) The story of his telling her that his eyes would see her through the coffin-lid is well known, and may be apocryphal; but the melodrama is Sheridan all over.

(Footnote A: Mr. Sichel, in his monumental book on Sheridan, doubts the lady's memory, one of his grounds of doubt being that Sheridan "would not have been likely to have thus behaved before his wife." But Mr. Sichel did not then know what Sheridan was capable of doing before his wife.)

Curiosity rather than edification is served by the publication of such frank revelations as Lady Bessborough's, but that is a matter for her descendants, and was probably considered. What relates to Sheridan is quite another thing. On his death Byron hailed him with eloquent if extravagant praise; he was buried in Westminster Abbey; three long biographies have been written round him, not one of which has failed to do justice to his abilities, and not one pointed out the extent of his moral aberration. Mr. Sichel, the latest of them, says that "he had pursued his own path and spurned the little arts of those who twitted him with roguery." But if the Granville Gower correspondence is to be believed--and how can it not--he was either a very bad rogue or a madman. Sheridan, after all's said, made a great figure in his day, and must stand the racket of it, so to speak. Gossip about Harriet may be left to the idle; but Sheridan belongs to History.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Sheridan As Maniac

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