Friday, March 27, 2009

Tart of the Week: Elizabeth Linley Sheridan



One of the most beautiful and musically-gifted women of the late 18th century was Elizabeth Linley. Elizabeth, or Betsy (and even Eliza on occasion) as she was commonly known, was born in 1754 to the composer Thomas Linley and his wife Mary. Together, Thomas and Mary raised their twelve children to be just as musically talented as themselves. Think: Von Trapp family of Bath. Adorable little Betsy would stand outside the Pump Room selling tickets to her father's concerts. Betsy grew gracefully into a stunning Soprano and soon drew her own crowds in with her beautiful voice. By the time Betsey was barely fourteen she had all the guys drooling over her. She had a tall, slim figure, dark hair, and gorgeous porcelain skin. Thomas Gainsborough took notice of her right away. The artist had painted more than one portrait of the musical Linleys but he especially took notice of Betsy. His many portraits of her, flaunt her natural beauty.

Among the many admirers and young men begging for Betsey's hand was twenty year-old Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Sheridan was perhaps more interested in the chase, and the prize at the end was something he could rub in everyone's face. However, a certain Walter Long stood in his way. Long was really wealthy and about four times the age of Betsy. Thomas Linley pressured his daughter into the match for both the money and for the assurance than she would retire from the stage. God forbid she become an actress! The two were about to marry when Long randomly cut off the engagement, causing Thomas to fly into a rage. Rumors surfaced that Betsy had begged him to break it off. The whole drama resulted in a comedy to premiere at the Haymarket Theater called The Maid of Bath.

Another drama quickly followed Betsy's broken engagement with Thomas Long. Sheridan saw his chance and swept Betsy off her feet. She agreed to marry him and the two eloped to France in 1772. Since both were underage, the marriage was invalid, and neither father approved. To save his daughter's reputation Thomas gave his blessing a month later and the two were accepted into polite society as a very talented and good-looking young couple.

While absconding away to France Betsy became very sick and almost died. Sheridan began to realize just how much Betsy meant to him and how he truly did love her, she wasn't just a prize anymore. Although Betsy survived, her illness was to be a precursor to the many that would follow throughout her life. Miscarriages soon burdened the new couple and it wasn't long before Sheridan began wandering into other women's beds. Betsy was devastated; the man she had chosen above others and at a huge risk, couldn't even be faithful to her. Still, they attended the political events and masquerades and men still marveled at her.

It was only a matter of time before Betsy finally had the courage to have her own affair. Her choice: the hunky Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Unfortunately the affair resulted in a pregnancy. Not only would her infidelity be discovered, it would put her life at serious risk. When Sheridan found out he had an usual reaction for a Georgian male with a big ego: he blamed himself. Instead of casting her out, he spent more time with her and helped her through the pregnancy which proved to be difficult. In fact after Eliza managed to deliver a baby girl her health depleted further and she succumbed to tuberculosis.

Betsy was dying and both she and Sheridan knew it. They went to Bristol in hopes that the hot wells would improve her health. Sheridan tried to support his wife but seeing her dying in front of him torn him up from the inside. One night he found her playing piano, "with tears dripping on her thin arms," a shadow of her former self. Not long afterward Elizabeth died. Sheridan, in tears, held her hand, while she told him to stop crying or to leave the room, for she could not bear the sight when she needed fortitude. The guilt after her death sent Sheridan into the realms of madness. He wasn't the only one to morn her. The crowds at her funeral were so large that the carriage could barely get through the street to Wells Cathedral. Everyone crowded one last time to pay tribute to the maid of Bath whose voice was now silenced forever.

15 comments:

Ms. Lucy said...

What a beautiful post Heather. As I was reading the beginning of your post, I couldn't help comparing her to...(don't laugh), Celine Dion. The whole thing about her being born into a large musical family; the much older man (except that Celine really did marry hers)- Elizabeth it seemed was loved and admired by many people as well. Thanks:)

Polonaise said...

Ohhh, thank you, Heather, for posting one of my favorite celebrities. I think being married to Sheridan was a draining experience. And her portraits are so lovely-that Gainsborough at top is one I'd like to see in person. I think it's at the National Gallery with the Duchess, so maybe one day I'll have to make an Museum Trip to DC.

There's a poorly written (or perhaps poorly translated) bio of her out there called Sheridan's Nightingale, which is really quite interesting if one can get past all the bloopers. I recommend finding it used.

mythosidhe said...

Eliza! How delightful to come back from my mini internet hiatus and find her the Tart of the Week :D She's always been one of my favorite Georgian personalities.

mythosidhe said...

P.S. ~ I have that last image sans watermark if you want:

http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v294/Mythosidhe/Art/Gainsborough/ElizabethLinley.jpg

Leslie said...

I'd really like to read more about her--are there any books you would recommend?

Heather Carroll said...

Mythosidhe I was hoping you would be back from your hiatus in time for her, what luck! I remember you mentioning how much you loved her a while ago. Thanks for the better image!

Leslie, There is Sheridan's Nightingale which I haven't read but I would def take Polonaise's advice if you do dive into it. Otherwise I think Eliza is way overdue for a spectacular biography. I might suggest Sheridan's bio by Fintan O'Toole called The Traitor Kiss, which is unfortunately void of pictures!

Polonaise said...

Odd. Sheridan's Nightingale has only a very few black and white pictures. Hers is a good story, and while I liked this book, I agree think she is overdue for a better researched and way better edited bio. If Teresa Cornelys can have one so can Miss Linley.

I'll have to look out for the Sheridan bio now. My book pile already casts a long shadow.

Duchess Dumpling said...

How ironic! I just recently acquired a Gainsborough print for my room, and although I recognized the lady I could not for the life of me remember her name. Now I know!

What an interesting life she lived, and how unfortunate that it ended so early.

Judy said...

That Gainsborough portrait is one of my favorites...just about perfect.

Eliza Ward said...

Thank you! I like her too.

I was just reading about her and Sheridan on a defunct blog a couple of days ago. Someone might have already linked to the site before, but it's worth mentioning again because there are some nice photos as well as quotations. He also includes a poem that Sheridan wrote about her. You can see the posts here and here and here.

By the way, Ms. Lucy, yuck!! I resent that comparison especially because I'm Canadian and I hate when people ask me "Oh, so you Canadians all love Celine Dion, right?" NO! She's so annoying! I don't know or know of anyone who likes her!

Polonaise said...

You go Eliza Ward! I think what Lucy mentioned was interesting and it had never occurred to me, but I just cannot stand Celine Dion. That voice! That wedding dress! Okay, I'll stop now.

Ingrid Mida said...

What a tragic story. Perfect for a movie script!
I love Gainsborough's work and will now appreciate his work on another level.

Ms. Lucy said...

That's too funny, Eliza!! I guess I was looking at it from a Quebecer's point of view...you know the whole home grown thing (bit overrated I suppose:) Still, you'll have to admit there are a lot of people who do love her...that part, and the large family musician thing and older man are the only similariities she shares with this tart;)

Maggie B said...

The picture by Gainesborough is now on exhibit at the Sterling and Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is part of their permanent collection and it is beautiful. We just saw it yesterday. 8/1/11

Heather Carroll said...

Really?! Which one? The Clark is such an American art/Impressionism based museum (and a great one at that!) I'm quite surprised Mrs Sheridan is currently there. I may have to stop by for a visit.