FOOTLIGHTS AND CORONETS REGENCY ROMANCE ERA ACTRESSES WHO MARRIED INTO THE PEERAGE
Ever since that tough old soldier Charles, first Earl of Monmouth and third Earl of Peterborough, hauled down his flag before the battery of Anastasia Robinson's charms, and made a Countess of his victor, a coronet has dazzled the eyes of many an actress with its rainbow allurement, and has proved the passport by which she has stepped from the stage to the gilded circle which environs the throne.
The hero of the Peninsula and the terror of the French was an old man, with one foot in the grave, when the "nightingale" of the London theatres brought him to his gouty knees; but so resolute was he to give her his name that, to make assurance doubly sure, he faced the altar twice with her, before starting on his honeymoon journey across the Channel.
Pope, who was a friend of the amorous Earl, draws a pathetic picture of him in the latter unromantic days of his romance. During a visit to Bevis Mount, near Southampton, the poet writes:
"I found my Lord Peterborough on his couch, where he gave me an account of the excessive sufferings he had passed through, with a weak voice, but spirited. He next told me he had ended his domestic affairs through such difficulties from the law that gave him as much torment of mind as his distemper had done of body, to do right to the person to whom he had obligations beyond expression (Anastasia Robinson). That he had found it necessary not only to declare his marriage to all his relations, but since the person who married them was dead, to re-marry her in the church at Bristol, before witnesses. He talks of getting toward Lyons; but undoubtedly he can never travel but to the sea-shore. I pity the poor woman who has to share in all he suffers, and who can, in no one thing, persuade him to spare himself."
Pope, however, understated the Earl's vigour or his indomitable spirit; for he not only succeeded in getting to the sea-shore, but as far as Lisbon, where he died in the following October, but a few months after his second nuptials. My Lady Peterborough and Monmouth lived to see many more years, and by her dignity and sweetness to win as much approval in the Peerage as in the lowlier sphere of the stage.
Anastasia Robinson was the first star of the stage to wear a coronet, but where she led the way, there were many dainty feet eager to follow; and, curiously enough, it was Gay's famous Beggar's Opera that pointed the way to three of them.
Any one who chanced to drop in at a certain coffee-house at Charing Cross, kept by a Mr Fenton, in the days when the first George was King, might—indeed, he could not have failed to—have made the acquaintance of a "little witch" (as Swift called her) with a voice of gold, who was destined one day to be a Duchess. This little elf with the merry eyes, dancing feet, and the voice of an angel, was none other than Mrs Fenton's daughter by a former husband, a naval officer, and the prime favourite of all the wits and actors whom her fame drew to the coffee-house.
She sang for her stepfather's customers, danced for them, charmed them with her ready wit, and sent them into fits of laughter by her childish drolleries. Of course there was only one career possible for her, they all declared. She must go on the stage, and then she could not fail to take London by storm. She had the best masters money could secure for her; and when she reached her eighteenth birthday Lavinia Fenton made her first curtsy on the Haymarket stage as Monimia, in The Orphan. Her début was electrifying, sensational. Such beauty, such grace, such wonderful acting were a revelation, a fresh stimulus to jaded appetites. Within a few days she had London at her feet. She was the toast of the gallants, the envy and despair of great ladies. Titled wooers tumbled over each other in their eagerness to pay her homage; but Lavinia laughed at them all. She knew her value; and her freedom was more to her than luxury which had not the sanction of the wedding-ring.
Her real stage triumph, however, was yet to come. After appearing in the Beaux's Stratagem with brilliant success she was offered the part of Polly Peachum in Gay's Opera, which was about to make its first bow to the public. The salary was but fifteen shillings a week (afterwards doubled); but the part was after Lavinia's own heart. For a few intoxicating weeks she was the idol and rage of London; her picture filled the windows of every print-shop; the greatest ladies had it painted on their fans. Royalty smiled its sweetest on her.
Then, at the very zenith of her triumph, the startling news went forth—"The Duke of Bolton has run away with Polly Peachum." And the news was true. The popular idol, who had turned her back on so many tempting offers, had actually run away with Charles Paulet, third Duke of Bolton and Constable of the Tower of London; and the stage knew her no more. For twenty-three years she was a Duchess in all but name, until the Duke, on the death of his legal wife, daughter of the Earl of Carberry, was at last able to put Lavinia in her place.
As Duchess, a title which she lived nine years to enjoy, she won golden opinions by her modest dignity, her large-heartedness, and by the cleverness and charm of her conversation, which none admired more than Lord Bathurst and Lord Granville.