A fine biography is a remarkable thing. By narrating the story of a single life, a writer enables us to speculate about the forms of subjectivity that formed an individual we might otherwise know mainly from his or her products—works of art, political speeches, or periods of institutional management.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of biography is to position one's subject at the center of a particular discursive universe. If done well, not only does the figure come to seem central to his or her age but also to take a place in any of a number of further studies that might be written about the period in question. A biography's success today, from the viewpoint of scholarly readers, is determined not solely by the book's accuracy, by its author's narrative skill, nor by how many and controversial are the books' revelations about its subject. An important scholarly biography presents its subject in a way that immediately invites further detailed scholarship studying the figure's relationship with a number of themes, historical contexts, and political or aesthetic movements. Linda Kelly's Richard Brinsley Sheridan , in these terms, is undoubtedly a success and a book which, if widely read, may enrich scholarship in the period by opening a significant place for Sheridan in British cultural studies—as author, as politician, and as public figure. To read Kelly's biography of Sheridan is to round every corner of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Britain and find, standing at the center of everything, "Old Sherry." Kelly's is a remarkable accomplishment when we recognize that Sheridan has often fallen through the cracks between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and between literary, theatrical, and political histories; Kelly proves Sheridan is more central than we could have imagined.
Kelly, however, is too canny and experienced a biographer to make explicit claims for the importance of Sheridan. Her book might seem to some readers to sidestep the kinds of cultural analysis that could place Sheridan in a prominent place in discussions of British reaction to the French Revolution, to Ireland and Catholic emancipation, to national party politics, or to theatrical institutions and aesthetics. However, since each of these are key themes in her narration of the life of Sheridan, her book enables further consideration of the roles Sheridan—and others close to him—played in the making of British culture in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Through extensive (though unobtrusively cited) use of public and private documents, Kelly demonstrates that from Sheridan's life you can connect to almost any part of British culture of the period.
The sections below examine briefly some of the most important themes touched on in Kelly's biography of Sheridan:
Sheridan and his father, Thomas Sheridan
Kelly repeatedly draws attention to Sheridan's troubled relationship with his father, Thomas. She notes her subject's childhood perception that his father neglected him (19), and traces the continued conflict between father and son through the success of The Rivals in 1775 (65) and into the early years of Sheridan's management of Drury Lane in the period just after Garrick's retirement (86). Kelly goes on to make a convincing case for interpreting Sheridan's adult character psychobiographically: that is, as in many ways a result of the complex of feelings provoked in him by his relationship with his father. Kelly quotes a comment made after Sheridan's death by his friend the Prince of Wales: "[H]e was so systematically jealous of his own honour, that he was always willing to grant what he was not willing to accept in return—favours, which might be interpreted as affecting his own independence" (103). Though Kelly never spells out the implications of this strand of Sheridan's character, she does invite us to believe that reacting against his own feeling of having been neglected, Sheridan deplored his own need later in life and resisted feelings of vulnerability; instead, through identifying with those in need, he became known for his generosity. What we might make of Sheridan's feelings about the death in 1766 of his mother, the author Frances Sheridan, whom his sister Alicia later blamed for many of Richard's adult troubles with drink and money, seems a further area of psychobiography ripe for speculation.
Sheridan and his first wife, Elizabeth (née Linley) Sheridan
Sheridan's first wife, Elizabeth, who had been a well-known musical performer before the marriage, continued a kind of salon performance career that contributed to the Sheridans' social identity. Since several feminist theatre historians have urged scholars to investigate the range of social performance in Britain around 1800 (Tracy Davis, Catherine Burroughs), a paragraph like the following from Kelly's biography points in directions that invite follow-up historical research:
Elizabeth seems to have acquiesced quite happily in her husband's refusal to let her sing in public. Fine musician though she was, she had always disliked the publicity to which she had been exposed. However, once settled in Orchard Street, where a music room had been set up, she sang in a number of private concerts to a selected audience. Alicia LeFanu, Sheridan's niece, insists that these were private entertainments, given in repayment for the hospitality they had received "from many persons of fashion and consequence." In fact the invitation was more general; according to a paragraph in the Morning Post of 4 February 1774: "Sheridan has taken a house in Orchard St., Oxford St., where he purposes . . . to give concerts twice a week to the Nobility." Not surprisingly they proved immensely popular. "The highest circles of society were attracted to them by the talents, beauty and fashion of Mrs Sheridan," wrote Fanny Burney in her diary. "Entrance to them was sought not only by all the votaries of musical taste and excellence, but by the leaders of the ton and their followers and slaves."56
Though Kelly goes on to note that Elizabeth's abandoning her career as a public performer was not as simple a matter as it may have appeared, it does seem that at first by a complex and perhaps intuitive process, Richard and Elizabeth Sheridan choose an effective way of merging their two careers, using her renown as a singer to entice people into a social circle with the Sheridans at the center. If Sheridan's life as theatre manager and author is viewed not from the patent-centric view of London performance that has often prevailed but rather by asking how various forms of performance—social, theatrical, musical, interpersonal—interacted with one another, further scholarship could begin to account for the complex interweaving of all these performances. Inquiries that connect social and theatrical performance are especially valuable in making visible the varied roles of public performance in British culture in this period whose theatre has often been ignored in literary studies.
Sheridan's insistence that his wife give up public performance also evidences his discomfort—an unease he shared with his even more vehemently opposed father—with women's role in the public theatre. Ellen Donkin has examined the evidence that suggests that Sheridan was uncomfortable with women in theatrical careers, and was notably less of a positive force in encouraging women playwrights than David Garrick, his predecessor as manager of Drury Lane, had been. Donkin writes, in one particularly suggestive passage,
It is always difficult with Sheridan to distinguish between sloppy management and covert sabotage. In point of fact, during the 1780s and 1790s, Drury Lane actually produced about the same number of women playwrights that had been produced under Garrick, and in a shorter span of time. But virtually every single production failed, most in a single night, and in the end, these repeated failures probably undermined the idea of the woman playwright as professional. The women themselves consistently attribute malicious intentions to Sheridan's behavior.145
Kelly's book, keeping its focus tightly on Sheridan and his career, frames out of its picture this kind of look at Sheridan's influence. While Kelly demonstrates that she has carefully studied the biographies of key men of the era (for example, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, William Pitt, the Prince of Wales, and even Lord Byron) in relation to Sheridan, she does not pursue similarly nuanced interpretations of Sheridan in relation to more multifaceted theatre histories, to the varied history of professional theatre writing by women, or to the period's writing on the roles played by women in their relations with men; these studies remain to be written. Still, many of the details of Kelly's discussion about Sheridan's relationship with his wife, his attitudes toward their marital infidelities, and his management of Drury Lane provide interesting evidence that could both support and complicate an analysis like Donkin's.
Sheridan in Parliament
Several of Sheridan's most electrifying political performances came relatively early in his career in a now-legendary parliamentary oration and then subsequently in a courtroom speech for the prosecution in the case of Warren Hastings, former governor-general of India. Kelly outlines the political forces that came together to turn initial British support for Hastings into bitter criticism. Edmund Burke led the crusade against Hastings, drawing on "a growing feeling that Britain should take responsibility for the welfare of those under its rule and that the policy of self-enrichment and plunder practised by the East India Company—which Hastings had done his best to mitigate—should be checked" (138). As Kelly notes, however, the affair was as much about Britain's internal politics as it was about simple moral positions on colonial practices, especially since, though indeed a representative of the East India Company, Hastings had seemingly adopted more culturally sensitive policies than were the company's habit. Sheridan's speech, on the wrongs inflicted upon the Begums of Oudh, lasted for 5 hours and 40 minutes and was hailed by many who heard it as the greatest piece of political oratory ever (141). Kelly then goes on to outline the political process that led to the trial and Sheridan's role in it; but she also pauses, in a particularly suggestive paragraph, to describe how all in the Sheridan household participated in the physical construction of the manuscript of Sheridan's prosecutorial speech:
Sheridan's speech did not take place till the beginning of June. Fox had suggested that he repeat the oration he had given in the House of Commons, but Sheridan was determined to produce one that was entirely new. For weeks beforehand his entire household was involved in its preparation, some busy with pen and scissors, making extracts, others pasting and stitching together his scattered memorandums. A pamphlet of more than two hundred pages survives amongst his papers, copied out in Elizabeth's neat hand. Throughout the proceedings his wife was Sheridan's greatest help, though her health was still affected by her sister's death, and at one point he had to excuse himself from attending Burke's committee meetings in order to be with her in the country.147
The making of Britain's political dramaturgy was apparently a collective enterprise.
In concluding her discussion of Sheridan's role in the Hastings trial, Kelly notes the moral ambiguity of the change in British colonial policy that the trial set in motion:
There had been much that had been indefensible in the policies of the East India Company. However mistaken in its persecution of Hastings, the trial had been motivated by a moral impulse. . . . But by dramatising the question of Britain's responsibility for the peoples under its rule it brought about lasting changes in our attitude to India. Not all were desirable. Hastings had ruled alongside the Indians, entering far more fully into their laws and customs than any governors after him. His successors had a more colonialist approach. The plundering of the East India Company had been checked, but relations between Indians and British were never so natural again. Nonetheless a new era was beginning, based, in theory at least, on more humanitarian ideals. Sheridan had voiced them in unforgettable terms.151
If we set aside the questions we might have about Kelly's assessment of the history of British colonial policy, her comments here certainly suggest the importance of Sheridan's speech to the changing rhetoric of colonialism in Britain. As Kelly notes, Sheridan "dramatised" Britain's responsibility, and in doing so brought onto a public stage features of the country's colonial activity in a way that activated widespread response.
Sheridan and Ireland
Kelly outlines how, later in his career, Sheridan's political and theatre-managerial roles overwhelmed him; piles of plays accumulated at the theatre and he wrote little dramatic material, but he engaged in extensive correspondence often in response to requests that he lend his support to numerous causes. Sheridan's was an important voice on many of the key issues facing Britain; he established himself through his positions on post-revolutionary France, on colonial policy, and on Ireland and Catholic emancipation.
Kelly sees the background to Sheridan's positions on Ireland in his own family's origins:
No one could be less self-consciously Irish than Sheridan. He was as proud of his mother's English blood as of his father's Irish ancestry and he had been given a thoroughly English education at Harrow. Despite his miseries as a child, his friendships and formation there had given him an insight into English life that his elder brother had been denied. In a way, it was this measure of distance which made it easier for him to take up the cudgels on behalf of his fellow countrymen. Burke, whose father had been a convert from Catholicism in order to practise as a lawyer, was always in danger of being dubbed a Papist and sometimes trod warily where Irish questions were concerned. Sheridan, from a family which had been Protestant for at least five generations, could speak for Irish Catholics, who still made up three quarters of the population, without such reservations.125-6
Kelly does not simply assume Sheridan's position in relation to Irish issues was a result of early character formation. She suggests that, whatever the influences of his family on his beliefs, Sheridan was perhaps just as influenced by his awareness of the unique role he might play in shaping public opinion because of what his family background signified to the British public.
In mid 1798, Sheridan made an important speech in Parliament during the beginnings of the Irish rebellion. Though he emphasized, as had loyalist speakers before him, the importance of keeping Ireland from falling under the power of France, Sheridan vehemently accused the British-influenced Irish Parliament of having failed to make adequate efforts to offer conciliation to the (Catholic) people of Ireland:
I will ask any gentleman to point out a single act of conciliation which has emanated from the government of Ireland. On the contrary, has not that country exhibited one continuous scene of the most grievous oppression, of the most vexatious proceedings; arbitrary punishments inflicted; torture declared necessary by the highest authority in the sister kingdom next to that of the legislature. And do gentlemen say that the indignant spirit which is roused by such exercise of government is unprovoked? Is this conciliation? Is this liberty? Has every thing been done to avert the evils of rebellion? It is the fashion to say . . . that the rebellion which now rages in the sister kingdom has been owing to the machinations of "wicked men". . . . It was my first intention to move that these words should be omitted. But no, Sir, the fact they assert is true. It is indeed to the machinations of wicked men that the deplorable state of Ireland is to be imputed. It is to those wicked ministers who have broken promises they held out; who betrayed the party they seduced into their views, to be the instruments of the foulest treachery that ever was practised against any people. [19 June 1798]225-6
Not only did Sheridan the Parliamentary orator find in the cause of Ireland a subject that stirred him to eloquence, but Sheridan the playwright also discovered a different kind of voice according to Kelly, notably shifting from his earlier mockery of heroic tragedy in The Critic to the rhetorically provocative response to the situation in Ireland, Pizarro . Sheridan's play, inspired by Kotzebue's The Stranger, was staged in May of 1799 just months after Sheridan's arguments against Britain's reasserting its control of Ireland's government had been repeatedly defeated. Though Sheridan lost his battle in Parliament, Pizarro was a triumph in the theatre.
Sheridan's "bad management"
Sheridan had become involved in politics without knowing it would become his chief stage, but as he devoted himself to his political career at the expense of his management of Drury Lane, his reputation for debt, bad management, sexual misadventure, and drinking influenced public perception of his character. Through a complex tangle of interactions between his political and theatrical roles, Sheridan came to seem a comic figure, mocked in periodical commentary and cartoons and slyly disparaged in the comments of others in Parliament and the theatre. Rather than succeeding in building his political and theatrical reputations together, he seemed in the end to manage only to undermine each of his public identities.
Though Kelly seems to endorse the view that Sheridan may have been characterologically a bad manager of his own and Drury Lane's finances, she contextualizes his bad financial dealings. Kelly implies, through references to the relative modesty of Sheridan's debts compared to some of his contemporaries, that perhaps Sheridan's reputation for financial incontinence had as much to do with the particular kind of status he was trying to claim as a political figure, theatre manager, and writer as it did with any objectively bad management on his part. Clearly Drury Lane did not run well during Sheridan's management, but the general propensity in British culture of the time toward debt might provide an interesting subject for further historiographic inquiry. That Sheridan managed one of two of the nation's patent theatres at the time simply made his participation in this cultural tendency toward debt more visible, but dismissing his financial difficulties as the result of a character flaw blocks a more complex analysis of the theatre as an example of Britain's economic culture at the time. Though Kelly attributes Drury Lane's mismanagement to Sheridan's bad habits, the detailed contextualization she provides invites other readings of Sheridan and the contexts of mismanagement that surrounded him.
Conclusion: Sheridan's place
In reading Kelly's biography, I found myself repeatedly questioning the limitations and possibilities of biography as a form of scholarship. Perhaps it has become too easy to accept as doctrine the dependence of any one subject on many cultural forces that "write" that subject's roles for him or her. Still, Sheridan seems a figure who, whether viewed as a product of complex institutional or cultural forces or as an important individual, we must acknowledge occupied a prominent position as an actor on the stage that was Britain in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. And yet, even though Linda Kelly's biography has convinced me of the importance of Sheridan, I came away with the profound impression that here was a man who was dwarfed by the forces of change that surrounded him, a figure who seems in this biography to stand on a huge stage surrounded by spectacular effects shouting his few words into the cavernous house of a Drury Lane-sized historiography. But to say this is, I believe, to appreciate the success of a biography that makes watching this solo figure fascinating theatre.
- Burroughs, Catherine. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers . Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1997.
- Davis, Tracy. "Editorial." Nineteenth Century Theatre 24.1 (Summer 1996). 36-41.
- Donkin, Ellen. Getting into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829 . New York: Routledge, 1995.