FOOTLIGHTS AND CORONETS REGENCY ROMANCE ERA ACTRESSES WHO MARRIED INTO THE PEERAGE
While my Lady Derby was still new to her dignities, Eliza O'Neill was beginning to prattle in the most charming brogue ever heard across the Irish Channel, and to grow through beautiful childhood to witching girlhood. The daughter of a strolling actor who led his company of buskers through every county in Ireland from Cork to Donegal, the love of things theatrical was in her veins; and while she was still playing with her dolls she was impersonating the Duke of York to her father's Richard III. Everywhere the little witch, with the merry dancing eyes, won hearts and applause by her sprightly acting, until even so excellent a judge of histrionic art as John Kemble sought to carry her away to London and to a wider sphere of activity.
From Dublin, he wrote to Harris, manager of Covent Garden Theatre:
"There is a very pretty Irish girl here, with a touch of the brogue on her tongue; she has much talent and some genius. With a little expense and some trouble we might make her an object for John Bull's admiration in the juvenile tragedy. I have sounded the fair lady on the subject of a London engagement. She proposes to append a very long family, to which I have given a decided negative. If she accepts the offered terms I shall sign, seal and ship herself and clan off from Cork direct. She is very pretty, and so, in fact, is her brogue, which, by the way, she only uses in conversation. She totally forgets it when with Shakespeare and other illustrious companions."
And thus it was that John O'Neill's daughter carried her charms and gifts to London town in the autumn of 1812, when she justified Kemble's discernment by one of the most brilliant series of impersonations, ranging from Juliet to Belvidera, that had been seen up to that time on the English stage. For seven years she shone a very bright star in the firmament of the drama, winning as much popularity off as on the stage, before she consented to yield her hand to one of the many suitors who sought it—Mr William Wrixon Becher, a Member of Parliament of some distinction. Eliza O'Neill lived to be addressed as "my Lady," and to see her eldest son a Baronet, and her second boy wedded to a daughter of the second Earl of Listowel.
Five years before Miss O'Neill's Juliet came to captivate London, another idol of the stage was led to the altar by William, first Earl of Craven. Louisa Brunton, for that was the name of Craven's Countess, was cradled, like her successor, on the stage; for her father was well known at every town on the Norwich Circuit as manager of a popular company of actors, as devoted to his family of eight children as to his art. When Louisa made her entry into the world she was the sixth of the clamorous flock who roamed the country in the wake of their strolling father; and it would have been odd indeed if she had not acquired a love of the theatre to stimulate the acting strain in her blood.
Such were the charms and talent that the child developed that, by the time she came to her eighteenth birthday she was carried off to London to appear at Covent Garden Theatre as Lady Townley in The Provoked Husband; and the general verdict was that no such clever acting had been seen since Miss Farren was lured from the stage by a coronet. And not only did she create an immediate sensation by her acting; her beauty, which a contemporary writer tells us, "combined the stateliness of Juno with the gentler and beauty of a Venus," made her a Queen of Hearts as of actresses. So seductive a prize was not likely to be long left to adorn the stage; and although Miss Brunton consistently turned a blind eye to many a seductive offer, she had to succumb when his Lordship of Craven joined the queue of her courtiers. Four years of stage sovereignty and then the coronet of a Countess; such was the record of this daughter of a strolling player, whose greatest ambition had been to provide food enough for his hungry family. Lady Craven lived nearly sixty years to enjoy her dignities and splendours, surviving long enough to see her grandson take his place as third Earl of his line.
For twenty years the English stage had no star to compare in brilliancy with Harriet Mellon, whose life-story is one of the most romantic in theatrical annals. From the January day in 1795 when she made her bow on the Drury Lane stage as Lydia in The Rivals, to her farewell appearance in February 1815, a month after she had become a wife, her career was one unbroken sequence of triumphs. To quote the words of a chronicler,
She shone supreme, splendid, unapproachable, not only by her brilliant genius, but by her beauty and social fascinations.
That she revelled in her conquests is certain; for to not one of her army of wooers, many of them men of high rank, would she deign more than a smile, until old Thomas Coutts came, with all the impetus of his money-bags behind him, and literally swept her off her feet The lady who had spurned coronets could not resist a million of money, qualified though it was by the admiration of a senile lover.
Nor did she ever have cause to regret her choice; for no husband could have been more devoted or more lavish than this shabby old banker who used to chuckle when he was taken for a beggar, and alms were thrust into his receptive hand. Wonderful stories are told of Mr Coutts' generosity to his beautiful wife, for whom nothing that money could buy was too good.
One day—it is Captain Gronow who tells the tale—Mr Hamlet, a jeweller, came to his house, bringing for the banker's inspection a magnificent diamond-cross which had been worn on the previous day (of George IV's Coronation) by no less a personage than the Duke of York. At sight of its rainbow fires Mrs Coutts exclaimed: "How happy I should be with such a splendid piece of jewellery!" "What is it worth?" enquired her husband. "I could not possibly part with it for less than £15,000," the jeweller replied. "Bring me a pen and ink," was the only remark of the doting banker who promptly wrote a cheque for the money, and beamed with delight as he placed the jewel on his wife's bosom.
Upon her breast a sparkling cross she wore
Which Jews might kiss and infidels adore.
And this devotion—idolatry almost—lasted as long as life itself, reaching its climax in his will, in which he left his actress-wife every penny of his enormous fortune, amounting to £900,000, "for her sole use and benefit, and at her absolute disposal, without the deduction of a single legacy to any other person."
That a widow so richly dowered with beauty and gold should have a world of lovers in her train is not to be wondered at. For five years she retained her new freedom, and then yielded to the wooing of William Aubrey de Vere, ninth Duke of St Albans (whose remote ancestor was Nell Gwynn, the Drury Lane orange-girl and actress), who made a Duchess of her one June day in 1827.
For ten short years Harriet Mellon queened it as a Duchess, retaining her vast fortune in her own hands and dispensing it with a large-hearted charity and regal hospitality, moving among Royalties and cottagers alike with equal dignity and graciousness. At her beautiful Highgate home she played the hostess many a time to two English Kings and their Queens.
"The inhabitants of Highgate still bear in memory," Mr Howitt records, "her splendid fêtes to Royalty, in some of which, they say, she hired all the birds of the bird-dealers in London, and fixing their cages in the trees, made her grounds one great orchestra of Nature's music."
When her Grace died, universally beloved and regretted, in 1837, she proved her gratitude and loyalty to her banker-husband by leaving all she possessed, a fortune now swollen to £1,800,000, to Miss Angela Coutts (grand-daughter of Thomas Coutts and his first wife, Eliza Stark, a domestic servant) who, as the Baroness Burdett-Coutts of later years, proved by her large munificence a worthy trustee and dispenser of such vast wealth.
Such are but a few of the romantic alliances between the peerage and the stage, of which, during the last score of years, since Miss Connie Gilchrist blossomed into the Countess of Orkney and Miss Belle Bilton into my Lady Clancarty, there has been such an epidemic.