Sheridan: A Life
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
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
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.