Page images
PDF
EPUB

During her stay at Birch Farm she was consoled by having her little daughter Cecilia with her, as well as by a visit from Miss Dorothy Place, the dear friend of her lost Šally, who had been with her during all her illness, and had closed her eyes, Her brother John Kemble, and Charles Moore, also came to her in this retreat; and the whole congenial party left Cheltenham in July, to make an excursion among the scenery of the Wye, which proved of benefit to Mrs. Siddons's spirits. After their tour she paid a visit to Mrs. Fitz Hugh, at Bannisters, and then returned to London, where she made an engagement to act the following winter at Covent Garden.*

This change of her theatre promised agreeable results to Mrs. Siddons, in which she was not disappointed. John Kemble was here, as he had been at Drury Lane, both actor and acting manager ; but he was not at Covent Garden subjected to rapacious alienations of the payment due to himself and his fellow-performers ; for Harris, as the managing proprietor, was honourably punctual. On the other hand, Covent Garden Theatre was immediately and well rewarded by the profits that accrued from the united talents of the Kemble and the Siddons, and the addition of sixteen private boxes to those that were taken by the aristocracy, at the rent of 300l. a year, was a flattering earnest of what this new connexion would achieve.

She made her first appearance after this engagement at Covent Garden, as Isabella, in the “ Fatal Marriage," on the 27th of September, 1803. On the 6th of the following month she acted Lady Randolph, and her son Henry was the Douglas, and Kemble took Old Norval.

She made her Elvira no less popular at Covent Garden than it had been at the other theatre, and she performed it oftener than any other character during the season. On the first night, however, that “ Pizarro” was produced at the former house, considerable embarrassment was occasioned by the inability of the actor Cooke to articulate his part. He made matters worse by attempting to say, in the way of apology, Ladies and

* Mr. Robertson, the secretary of Covent Garden Theatre, has fas voured me with the following information respecting the terms of her engagements at that house.

Of the amount of her salary in 1803 there is no document; but, in 1804 and 5, it was 201. per night.

In 1905-6, she acted on an average of 271. per night. In 1806-7, she received 30 guineas per night. In 1810-11, 30 guineas per night; and in 1811-12, 50 guineas per night.

gentlemen, my old complaint." On his removal from the stage, Henry Siddons read his part, and so well as to gain much credit. Mrs. Siddons had no new character this season, nor indeed ever asterward; but, from September, 1803, to May, 1804, she made the amazing exertion of performing sixty nights. *

At the conclusion of the season, she went, with Miss Wilkinson, on a visit to her friend Mrs. Damer, at Strawberry Hill. This lady, like her illustrious guest, was fond of sculpture, and, having no other occupation to engross her time, she was a more skilful artist. A specimen of her statuary stands on the staircase of the British Museurn. At Strawberry Hill, during Mrs. Siddons's residence, the Duke of Orleans, now King of the French, and his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, were occasional visitants. It is creditable to the memory of the latter, that he never met our great actress without showing peculiar and marked respect for her. She was never at Brighton, when the prince was there, without being a guest at the Pavilion.

At the close of the summer she had a severe attack of lumbago, and, for the sake of country air, she removed from Marlborough street to a cottage at Hampstead. Mr. Siddons and she were now, by a sad fatality, invalids with the same rheumatic affection. Their new abode, on the day of their arrival, much delighted the old gentleman. He ate his dinner with uncommon.relish, and, looking out at the beautiful prospect, said, “ Sally, this will cure all our ailments.” But he was mistaken, for Mrs. Siddons was confined for weeks to her bed, with extreme suffering. She tried, at last, the effect of electricity, and it proved beneficial, but the agony of the operation was excruciating. The touch of the sparks made her feel as if burning lead had been running through her veins, and extorted such shrieks from her, that Mr. Siddons said he was afraid of the people from without bursting into the house, under the idea that murder was going on."

Before the winter set in, she was relieved from pain, and they returned to town; but Mr. Siddons having relapsed, while she recovered, he resolved once more to try the waters of Bath

* She acted Isabella five times; Lady Randolph once ; Mrs. Haller three times; Elvira, twelve ; Mrs. Beverley, five ; Calista, four; Belvidera, six ; Isabella, in “ Measure for Measure,” two ; Lady Macbeth, seven; Hermione “ Distressed Mother”), two; Jane Shore, one ; Queen Mary, one ; Desdemona, six ; Constance, two ; Grecian Daughter, one ; Zara (in the “Mourning Bride”), two,

for his rheumatism; and, as Mrs. Siddons and Miss Wilkinson had no occasion for so large a house as that in Marlboroughstreet, she parted with it, and took lodgings in Princess-street, Hanover-square. Her landlord was an upholsterer, of the name of Nixon. He and his wife, at this day, mention their illustrious tenant with a devotion like that of Catholics speaking of a saint ; and they dwell particularly on the suavity of her temper. One day looking at her landlord's card, she found that the upholsterer was also an undertaker, and she said laughingly, “Well then, Mr. Nixon, I bespeak you to bury me." Twentyseven years afterward Mr. Nixon conducted her funeral.

Mrs. Siddons's health, though she had recovered from excessive agony, was certainly very feeble during the winter and spring of 1804-5, and she performed only twice at Covent Garden in the whole course of the season. Yet I suspect that bad health was not the only cause of her absence from the stage. This was the season when Master Betty made his first appearance on the London boards, and was equally the magnet of attraction at each of the

great
theatres. The

popularity of that baby-faced boy, who possessed not even the elements of a good actor, was a hallucination in the public mind, and a disgrace to our theatrical history. It enabled managers to give him sums for his childish ranting that were never accorded to the acting of a Garrick or a Siddons. His bust was stuck up in marble by the best sculptors ; he was painted by Opie and Northcote ; and the verses that were poured out upon him were in a style of idolatrous adulation. Actors and actresses of merit were obliged to appear on the stage with this minion, and even to affect the general taste for him, in order to avoid giving offence.

But Mrs. Siddons never condescended to act with him, nor even concealed her disgust at the popular infatuation. She went to see him, however, and gave him all the praise that he deserved. At the end of the play, the late Lord Abercorn came into her box, and told her that that boy, Betty, would eclipse every thing which had been called acting in England. "My lord," she answered, “he is a very clever, pretty boy, but nothing more."

CHAPTER XIX.

Mrs. Siddons removes her abode to Westbourne-Mr. Siddons's Verses

on the same—Mrs. Siddons's Letter to her son Henry, from Broadstairs -Characters she played in 1806–7 at Covent Garden—Mr. Siddons's Death Mrs. Siddons's Letter to Mrs. Piozzi on the event—The Burning

of Covent Garden Theatre-Rebuilding of the House, and the O. P. Riots-Letter to Mrs. Siddons from Mr. Jekyll-Another from Hannah More-Mrs. Siddons takes her Farewell of the Stage.

In the April of 1805, Mrs. Siddons took possession of a pleasant cottage at Westbourne, near Paddington, which she furnished for her permanent residence. It was small, but contained more accommodation than its appearance indicated. With the aid of her trusty upholsterer, Nixon, she fitted it up very elegantly, built an additional room for a studio, and laid out the shrubbery and garden with great taste. She was surrounded with fresh air and green fields, and describes herself as delighted with her retreat. Mr. Siddons passed some weeks at Westbourne; but his infirm health obliged him to make arrangements for having a permanent establishment at Bath, as he found no relief from rheumatism anywhere else. To Mrs. Siddons's constitution the sultry summer air of that place was noxiously relaxing, and her profession put it out of the question as a winter sojourn. She went, however, as often as her health and avocations would permit her, to join her husband at Bath; and their partial separation, if such it could be called, was one of convenience, if not of absolute necessity.

Mr. Boaden, in his Life of the great woman, has described this parting as if it had been a formal one occasioned by incompatibility of temper. I find no fault with him for having done so, for he only credited the prevailing, though false rumour to that effect; and because he has also with justice and propriety recorded the fact, that Mr. Siddons, by the last sol. emn act of his life, demonstrated the honour and esteem in which he had held his partner. But the report that they were separated from alienation was absolutely unfounded. Mr. Siddons was obliged to be at Bath on account of his health, and Mrs. Siddons to be in London on account of her profes

sion. They lived as much together as circumstances would permit during the rest of Mr. Siddons's life ; and I would ask any candid person if he can find the slightest symptom of unfriendly feelings between them in the following verses, which Mr. Siddons wrote ?

ON MRS. SIDDONS'S COTTAGE AT WESTBOURNE.

1.
Would you l'a Westbourne Farm describe,

I'll do it then, and free from gall,
For sure it would be sin to gibe
A thing so pretty and so small.

2
The poplar walk, if you have strength,

Will take a minute's time to step it ;
Nay, certes, 'tis of such a length,
"Twould almost tire a frog to leap it.

3.
But when the pleasure-ground is seen,

Then what a burst comes on the view;
Its level walk, its shaven green,
For which a razor's stroke would do.

4.
Now, pray be cautious when you enter,

And curb your strides from much expansion ;
Three paces take you to the centre,
Three more, you're close against the mansion.

5.
The mansion, cottage, house, or hut,

Call 't what you will, has room within
To lodge the king of Lilliput,
But not his court, nor yet his quoen.

6.
The kitchen-garden, true to keeping,

Has length and breadth and width so plenty,
A snail, if fairly set a-creeping,
Could scarce go round while you told twenty.

7.
Perhaps you'll cry, on hearing this,

What! every thing so very small ?
No, she that made it what it is,

Has greatness that makes up for all.

Let the reader judge for himself whether these verses be in the style of a man parting from his wife on unpleasant terms.

If I had met with allusions to the alleged infelicity of Mrs. Siddons as a married woman, in any unfriendly account of her

U

« PreviousContinue »