An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy

Letter XX

March 18, 17--.

[p. 128] To show my readiness to obey your commands, Madam, (for the request of a friend is as obligatory as a command) I employ almost every hour on the continuation of my narrative; and shall esteem myself sufficiently [p. 129] repaid, if I can prevent it from proving tiresome. You must remember that it is the history of a weak woman, recited by the same weak woman. Be therefore, to her faults, whether relative to her conduct, or her literary ones, a little blind. But a truce with apologies. Such as it is, I give it unto you.

The next winter, when our theatrical campaign commenced, we were very apprehensive that we should feel the desertion of so able a general as Garrick. But through the exertions of the manager, who was deservedly a great favourite with the gentlemen of the college, at which he was bred, as the provost and professors had been his fellow-students, our success was not less than when we were aided by his powerful assistance -- He who, in himself alone, was a tower of invincible strength.

A droll circumstance happened about this time, which I must not omit. Going one evening to Fishamble-street concert, I happened to be seated next to Lord Chief Baron Bowes. A gentleman, who was lately come to Dublin, entering into conversation with his Lordshiop, remarked to him (at the same time fixing his eyes upon me) that his daughter was vastly like him. We were at this period reviving at the theatre The Merchant of Venice; upon which it instantly occurred to me, to make particular observations on the manner of the person I was thus supposed to resemble, in order to adopt it in the part of Portia, which I was to play.

[p. 130] I accordingly did so; and succeeded so happily, that when I made my appearance as the counsellor, the audience, struck with the similitude, universally exclaimed "Here comes the young Lord Chief Baron." And I retained that title during my residence in the kingdom.

The Lord Chief Baron himself was so much pleased with the imitation, that he paid me many compliments upon the occasion. He humorously remarked that I had even got his cough in the middle of a long word. This indeed was true, but it proceeded entirely from accident; as I never had the pleasure of hearing his Lordshiop speak in any of the courts. I however, luckily hit off this peculiarity in repeating the word predicament. Was it not that I am apprehensive of incurring the imputation of vanity, I would give you the conclusion of his Lordshop's complimentary address to me. I will therefore omit it; but guess something very flattering, and even then, I assure you, that you will fall far short of the purport of it.

Early in the season, the tragedy of All for Love, or the World Well Lost1, was revived; in which Barry and Sheridan stood unrivalled in the characters of Antony and Ventidius. The getting it up produced the following extraordinary incidents. The manager, in an excursion he had made during the summer to London, had purchased a superb suit of clothes that had belonged to the Princess [p. 131] of Wales, and had been only worn by her on the birth-day. This was made into a dress for me to play the Character of Cleopatra; and as the ground of it was silver tissue, my mother thought that by turning the body of it in, it would be a not unbecoming addition to my waste, which was remarkably small. My maid-servant was accordingly sent to the theatre to assist the dresser and manuta-maker in preparing it; and also in sewing on a number of diamonds, my patroness not only having furnished me wiht her own, but borrowed several others of her acquaintance for me. When the women had finished the work, they all went out of the room, and left the door of it indiscreetly open.

Mrs. Furnival (who owed me a grudge, on account of my eclipsing her, as the more favourable reception I met with from the public, gave her room to conclude I did; and likewise for the stir which had been made last season about the character of Constance_) accidently passed by the door of my dressing room in the way to her own, as it stood open. Seeing my rich dress thus lying exposed, and observing no person by to prevent her, she stopped in and carried off the Queen of Egypt's paraphernalia, to adorn herself in the character of Octavia, the Roman matron, which she was to perform. By remarking from time to time my dress, which was very different form the generality [p. 132] of heroines, Mrs. Furnival had just acquired taste enough to despise the black velvet in which those ladies were usually habited. And without considering the imprppriety of enrobing a Roman matron in the habiliments of the Egyptian queen; or perhaps not knowing that there was any impropriety in it, she determined for once in her lifetime, to be as fine as myself, and that at my expence. She accordingly set to work to let out the cloaths, whch through my mother's oeconomical advice, had been taken in.

When my servant returned to the room, and found the valuable dress, that had been committed to her charge, missing, her fright and agitation were beyond expression. She ran like a mad creature about the theatre, enquiring of every one whether they had seen any thing of it. At length she was informed that Mrs. Furnival had got possession of it. When running to that lady's dressing-room, she as nearly petrified at beholding the work, which had cost her so much pains, undone. My damsel's veins, unfortunately for Mrs. Furnival, were rich with the blood of the O'Bryens. And though she had not been blest with so polished an education as such a name was entitled to, she inherited at least the spirit of the kings of Ulster. Thus qualified for carrying on an attack even of more important nature, she at first demanded the dress [p. 133] with tolerable civility; but meeting with a peremptory refusal, the blood of her great forefathers boiled within her veins, and without any more ado, she fell tooth and nail upon poor Mrs. Furnival. So violent was the assault, that had not assistance arrvied in time to rescue her from the fangs of the enraged Hibernian nymph, my theatrical rival would probably have never had an opportunity of appearing once in her life adorned with real jewels.

When I came to the theatre, I found my servant dissolved in tears at the sad disaster; for notwithstanding her heroic exertions, she had not been able to bring off the cause of the contest. But so far was I from partaking of her grief, that I could not help being highly diverted at the absurdity of the incident. Nothing concerning a theatre could at that time affect my temper. And I acknowledge I enjoyed a secret pleasure in the expectation of what the result would be.I sent indeed for the jewels; but the lady, rendered courageous by Nantz, and the presence of her paranour, Morgan, who was not yet dead, condescended to send me word that I should have them after the play.

In this situation I had no other resource than to reverse the dresses, and appear as plain in the character of the luxurious Queen of Egyt, as Antony's good wife, although the sister of Caesar, ought to have been. In the room of precious stones, with which my head [p. 134] should have been decorated, I substituted pearls; and of all my finery I retained only my diadem, that indispensable mark of royalty.

Every transaction that takes place in the theatre, and every circumstance relative to it, are as well known in Dublin as they would be in a country town. The report of the richness and elegance of my dress had been universally the subject of conversation, for some time before the night of performance; when, to the surprise of the auidence, I appeared in white sattin. My kind patroness, who sat in the stage-box, seemed not to be able to account for sush an unexpected circumstance. And not seeing me adorned with the jewels she had lent me, she naturally supposed I had reserved my regalia till the scene in which I was to meet my Antony.

When I had first entered the green-room, the manager, who expected to see me splendidly dressed, as it was natural to sppose the enchanting Cleopatra would have been upon such an occasion, expressed with some warmth his surprise at a disappointment, which he could only impute to caprice. Without being in the least discomposed by his warmth, I coolly told hm, "that I had taken the advice Ventidius had sent me by Alexis, and had parted with both my clothes and jewels to Antony's wife." Mr. Sheridan could not conceive my meaning; but as it was now too late to make any [p. 135] alteration, he said no more upon the subject. He was not however long at a loss for an explanation; for going to introduce Octavia to the Emperor, he discovered the jay in all her borrowed plumes. An apparition could not have more astonished him. He was so confounded, that it was some time before he could go on with his part. At the same instant Mrs. Butler exclaimed aloud, "Good Heaven, the woman has got on my diamonds!" The gentlemen in the pit concluded that Mrs. Butler had been robbed of them by Mrs. Furnival; and the general consternation, occasioned by so extraordinary a scene, is not to be described. But thenhouse observing Mr. Sheridan to smile, they supposed there was some mystery in the affair, which induced them to wait with patience till the conclusion of the act. As soon as it was finished, they bestowed their applause upon Antony and his faithful veteran; but as if they had all been animated by the same mind, they cried out, "No more Furnival! No more Furnival!" The fine dressed lady, disappointed of the acclamations she expected to receive on account of the grandeur of her habiliments, and thus hooted for the impropriety of her conduct, very prudently called fits to her aid, which incapacitated her from appearing again. And the audience had the good nature to wait patiently till Mrs. Elmy, whom curiosity had led to [p. 136] to the theatre, had dressed to finish the part. Had the character of Octavia been originally cast according to merit, Mrs. Elmy would certainly have had the preference: as the softness of her manner, and the propriety with which she spoke, justly entitled her to it.

The impropriety of Mrs. Furnival's conduct in the affair,just related, warrants my troubling you with an observation I have frequently made, which is, that every attempt to obtain a desirable end, if the means are not consistent with honour and rectitude, mar instead of promoting it. If I recollect aright, I have made a remark somewhat similar to this in a former letter, but it cannot be too often repeated, "Honesty will be always found to be the best policy." -- "More proverbs, and preaching again?" methinks I hear you say; "Pray go on with your narrative!" --- I will, my dear Madame, when I have reminded you that it is by your permission I now and then preach, as you are pleased to term it.

With these interruptions the piece coud not appear to so much advantage, on its first representation, as there was reason to hope it would. But the next night, either inspired with the brilliancy of my ornaments, or animated by the sight of his Excellency Lord Chesterfield, who together with his Lady, graced the theatre, it was the general opinion that I never played with so much spirit, or did greater justice to a part. The applause I received was universal. G. A. B.

  1. John Dryden's rewrite of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.
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