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Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life
by Amanda Foreman

Review by Cheryl Bolen

Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life
By Linda Kelly
Pimlico, London, 1998
14 pounds, 311 pages

Despite that Richard Brinsley Sheridan (born in Ireland in 1751) lacked pedigree, wealth, and university education, he rose to the loftiest heights of late Georgian society by the force of his own cleverness and high-minded ideals. When he died in 1816 he was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

As part owner of Drury Lane, Sheridan would make his mark as one of the most gifted English playwrights ever — some say second only to William Shakespeare. Lord Byron said Sheridan’s School for Scandal was the best comedy, Sheridan’s The Duenna the best drama, and his The Critic the best farce ever written. These three works were all staged before Sheridan turned twenty-eight.

Sheridan himself would point to his three decades in the House of Commons as his greatest, most satisfying achievement. He was one of a handful of idealistic MPs (including his great friend, the charismatic Charles James Fox) who would lead the Whig party in opposition to George III. The brilliance of his Parliamentary orations won the respect of all — even his opponents.

The son of the great Irish actor Thomas Sheridan, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was always embarrassed that his father, who was born a gentleman, had taken to the stage.

Richard Sheridan left Ireland at age eight to study at England’s Harrow, and he never returned to the country of his birth, though he would champion Irish causes until his death.

Though penniless, Sheridan won the hand of the beautiful, talented Elizabeth Linley, and they married in 1773. Painted by Gainsborough and Reynolds, Elizabeth had become famous for her lovely singing voice, and notables far and wide — including King George III — flocked to hear her sing. Aristocrats fell at her feet, begging her hand, but it was Sheridan whom she honored.

Though he could use the money his wife’s singing would earn, he staunchly refused to ever allow her to sing for profit again. Despite that he was notoriously inept at matters of money, he managed to piece together financing so he could buy David Garrick’s half ownership of Drury Lane.

His wife’s fame opened many doors that would have been closed to the actor’s son, but it was Sheridan’s own wit which kept those doors open. Soon he stood for Parliament from Stafford and quickly made a name for himself in Whig circles.

He was so close to the Prince of Wales that throughout his life he would always have a guest room in Prinny’s Carlton House or Pavilion at Brighton.

In matters of principle, he was honorable. He never asked friends for a loan and never accepted high-paying posts for himself, even though he could have used the money. He refused help from the prince because he wanted to remain completely independent in Parliament.

In matters of personal morals, he was dishonorable. He drank heavily and was a notorious womanizer.

Ever cognizant of her husband’s infidelity, his wife eventually took a lover but died shortly after giving birth to her aristocratic lover’s child. Sheridan loved her to the end and completely blamed himself for causing her to stray. After her death he fiercely doted upon her daughter and was distraught when the child died at eighteen months. (Elizabeth had borne Sheridan just one child, a son, Tom, who died the year after his father’s death.)

Three years later Sheridan remarried a woman twenty-four years his junior, and they had a son, Charles. Sheridan’s drinking and infidelities would drive her into the arms of her cousin, Charles Grey, the famed Whig, who was also married.

By the time his friend became Prince Regent, Sheridan’s life was on a downward spiral. Fox had died in 1807. Sheridan’s Drury Lane burned to the ground in 1809, and when the prince became regent in 1811, he turned his back on the Whigs, leaving them impotent in Parliament. Sheridan lost his seat in Parliament, was excluded from ownership in the newly built Drury Lane, and was stripped of all his possessions by creditors. He died penniless in 1816.

Kelly’s biography neglects many of the personal aspects of Sheridan’s life. She ignores his illegitimate child and barely mentions his love affair with Lady Bessborough, though she does mention his deep affection for that lady many years later. The biography does give a good feel for the theatre and political intrigues of the times.

--This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in May 2006.

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