Thursday, October 28, 2010




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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010



Since Catherine Stephens wore her coronet—and before—many an actress has found in the stage-door a portal to the Peerage. Elizabeth Farren, who was cradled in the year before George III came to his Throne, was the daughter of a gifted and erratic Irishman, who abandoned pills and potions to lead the life of a strolling actor, a career which came to a premature end while his daughter was still a child. Fortunately for Elizabeth, her mother was a woman of capacity and character, who made a gallant struggle to give her children as good a start in life as was possible to her straitened means; and by the time she was fourteen the girl, who had inherited her father's passion for the stage, was able to make a most creditable first appearance at Liverpool, as Rosetta, in Bickerstaff's Love in a Village.

So adept did she prove in her adopted art that within four years she made her curtsy at the Haymarket as Miss Hardcastle, in She Stoops to Conquer; and at once, by her grace and brilliant acting, won the hearts of theatre-going London; while her refinement, at that time by no means common on the stage, and her social graces won for her a welcome in high circles. Many a lover of title or eminence sought the hand of the sparkling and lovely Irishwoman, and none of them all was more ardent in his wooing than Charles James Fox, then at the zenith of his career as statesman; but she would have naught to say to any one of them all. Her fate, however, was not long in coming; and it came in the form of Edward Stanley, twelfth Earl of Derby, who, before his first wife, a daughter of the Duke of Hamilton, had been many months in the family-vault, was at the knees of the beautiful actress. He had little difficulty in persuading her to become his Countess; and one May day, in 1797, he placed the wedding-ring on her finger in the drawing-room of his Grosvenor Square house.

For more than thirty years Lady Derby moved in her new circle, a splendid and gracious figure, received at Court with special favour by George III and his Queen, before she died in 1829, transmitting her blood, through her daughter, Lady Mary Stanley, to the Earl of Wilton of to-day.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010



Duchess Lavinia had been dead thirty years when Mary Catherine Bolton, who was to follow in her footsteps, was obscurely cradled in Long Acre in 1790. Like Lavinia Fenton, Mary Bolton was born for the stage. As a child the sweetness of her voice and the grace of her movements charmed all who knew her. The greatest teachers of the day taught her to sing, and when only sixteen she made a brilliant début as Polly, recalling all the triumphs of her famous predecessor.

But it was as Ariel that she made her real conquest of London. "So pretty and winning in pouting wilfulness, so caressing, her voice having the flowing sweetness of music, she bounded along with so light a foot that it scarcely seemed to rest upon the stage." It is little wonder that Ariel danced her way into many hearts, and that even such a sedate personage as Edward, second Lord Thurlow, should so far succumb to her fascinations as to offer her marriage. Her wedded life was only too brief, but she rewarded her lord with three sons; and a liberal share of her blood flows in the veins of the Baron of to-day, her grandson.

Not many years after Mary Bolton had danced her way into the Peerage London was losing its head over still another "Polly Peachum"—Catherine Stephens, daughter of a carver and gilder in the West of London. Miss Stephens, who like her predecessors in the rôle, sang divinely even as a child, was but seventeen when she made her first stage curtsy, and won fame at a bound, as Mandano in Artaxerxes. One triumph succeeded another until she reached the pinnacle of success as Polly of the Beggar's Opera.

Catherine Stephens had no lack of gilded and titled lovers; but she was too much wedded to her art to listen to any vows or to be lured from it even by a coronet. Although, however, she eluded her destiny until the verge of middle age she was fated to die a Countess; and a Countess she became when George Capel, fifth Earl of Essex, asked her to be his wife. The Earl had passed his eightieth birthday, and was nearly forty years her senior; but he made her his bride, though he left her a widow within a year of their nuptial-day.

Sunday, October 24, 2010



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.