Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Maria Foote

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MARIA FOOTE


" IF there was ever a creature who merited the sympathy of the world, it is Maria Foote. If there was ever a wife who deserved its commiseration, it is her mother." With these words begins a notice of the actress in The Examiner for 1825.

About the year 1796 an actor appeared in Plymouth under the name of Freeman, but whose real name was Foote, and who claimed relationship with Samuel Foote, the dramatist and performer. He was of a respectable family, and his brother was a clergyman at Salisbury. Whilst on a visit to his brother, he met the sister of his brother's wife, both daughters of a Mr. Charles Hart; she was then a girl of seventeen, in a boarding-school, and to the disgrace of all parties concerned therein, this simple boarding-school maid was induced to marry a man twenty-five years older than herself, and to give great offence to her parents, who withdrew all interest in her they had hitherto shown. Foote returned to Plymouth with his wife, a sweet innocent girl. He was at the time proprietor and manager of the Plymouth Theatre; and as, in country towns, actors and actresses were looked down upon by society, no respectable family paid Mrs. Foote the least attention, and although the whole town was interested in her appearance, it regarded her simply with pity.

Deserted by the reputable of one sex, she threw herself into the society of the other; and in Plymouth, her good humour, fascinating manner, long silken hair, and white hat and feather made havoc among the young bloods. The husband was too apathetic to care who hovered about his wife, with whom she flirted; and she, without being vicious, finding herself slighted causelessly, became indifferent to the world's opinion. Her elderly husband, seeing that she was not visited, began himself to neglect her.

The produce of this ill-assorted union was Maria Foote, ushered into the world without a friend on the maternal, and very few on the paternal side, who took any interest in her welfare, and she was brought up amid scenes little calculated to give her self-respect, sense of propriety, or any idea of domestic love and happiness.

From the disappointment and weariness of mind that weighed on the slighted wife, Mrs. Foote sought relief in attending the theatre nightly and acting on the stage. Daily and hourly seeing, hearing, and talking of little else but the stage, as might be expected, a wish to become an actress took possession of the child's mind at an early age.

When Maria was twelve years of age, her mother was so far lost to all delicacy of feeling, and her father so insensible to the duties of a father, that he suffered his only daughter to act Juliet to the Romeo of his wife.

Plymouth was disgusted, thoroughly disgusted, and whatever claims Mr. Foote had before to the notice of some private friends, they now considered these as forfeited for ever. From this moment a sort of reckless indifference seemed to possess the whole family. Nothing came amiss, so that money could be obtained; and Foote, who had been brought up as a gentleman,

MARIA FOOTE, AFTERWARDS COUNTESS OF HARRINGTON

From an engraved portrait in the collection of A. M. Broadley, Esq.

and his wife as a lady, took a small inn in Exeter, in 1811, lost his wife's fortune, became the dupe of rogues, and was ruined.

The fame of Maria Foote's beauty and charm of manner had reached London, and in May, 1814, she made her first appearance at Covent Garden Theatre, and personated Amanthis in "The Child of Nature" with such grace and effect that the manager complimented her with an immediate engagement. Young, beautiful, intelligent, and with natural refinement, she was almost the creature she represented. A liberal salary was assigned to her, and the managers always considered the announcement of her name as certain of obtaining for them a crowded house. That she had no pretensions to a rank higher than that of a second-rate actress must, perhaps, be allowed. "I was never a great actress," she used to say in later life, "though people thought me fascinating, and that I suppose I was."

She was always dressed tastefully, looked charming, and was a universal favourite among the lobby loungers. A writer in The Drama for 1825 says: "To those who know nothing of a theatre, it may be new to tell them that an interesting girl is in the jaws of ruin, who enters it as an actress, unless watched and protected by her family and friends. Constantly exposed to the gaze of men—inflaming a hundred heads, and agitating a thousand hearts, if she be as Maria was, fascinating and amiable—surrounded by old wretches as dressers, who are the constant conveyers of letters, sonnets and flattery—dazzled by the thunders of public applause, and softened by the incense of a thousand sighs, breathed audibly from the front of the pit or the stage boxes—associating in the green-room with licensed married strumpets, because she must not be affected! Or supping on the stage, after the curtain is dropped, with titled infamy or grey-headed lechery!—Let the reader fancy an innocent girl, from a country town, plunged at once into the furnace of depravity—let him fancy her father sanctioning her by his indifference or helping her by his example, and then let him say, if she be ultimately seduced and abandoned, whether it ought not to be a wonder she was innocent so long."

In spite of an education that never cherished the best feelings of a child, Maria had a far sounder understanding than her parents, and an instinctive modesty that withstood the evil with which she was surrounded.

In the summer of 1815, Maria Foote was engaged as a star to perform at Cheltenham, and there attracted the attention of Fitzharding Berkeley, better known as Colonel Berkeley. This gentleman was the son of Frederick Augustus, fifth Earl of Berkeley, by Mary Cole, the beautiful daughter of a butcher at Gloucester, to whom he was married in 1796. The Colonel was born in 1786. The Earl, indeed, affirmed that a private marriage had taken place in 1785; the House of Lords disallowed the proofs, in consequence of which one of the Colonel's younger brothers, born after 1796, became entitled to the earldom; he, however, always refused to assume the title. Colonel Berkeley was an enthusiastic amateur of the stage, and he offered his services to perform at the benefit of Miss Foote, and she accepted his offer. The house was full to the ceiling, and Maria, of course, felt grateful for the aid thus lent her. After thus ingratiating himself, he seized the opportunity to plead the passion with which she had inspired him. The old Earl, his father, had died in 1810, and the Colonel was endeavouring to establish his claim to the earldom. He pleaded with her, that till his claim was allowed he could not well marry her, as such a marriage, he asserted, would prejudice his suit to recover the forfeited earldom of Berkeley, but he solemnly vowed his intention to make her his wife the moment that he could do so without injuring his cause. By this means he deluded the unfortunate girl into a connexion with him that lasted for five years, and during all that time he made her no allowance beyond the payment of those expenses which he himself had led her to incur, and the presents he made to her did not in all that time amount to £100. In 1821, Maria bore the Colonel a child, and had again expectations of becoming a mother in 1824, and in the June of that year all connexion ceased between them.

In the spring of 1823, Mr. Joseph Hayne, a young man of fortune, commonly known, from the colour of his coat, as "Pea-green" Hayne, saw Maria Foote at Covent Garden Theatre, was struck with her beauty, called at her house in Keppel Street, and invited Mr. Foote to spend some days with him at Kitson Hall in Staffordshire, one of his seats. The invitation was accepted, and there Hayne informed the father that he desired to pay his addresses to his charming daughter. Mr. Foote hurried back to town, and as Maria was expecting her confinement, sent off his wife with her into the country under the feigned name of Forbes, to remain in concealment till after that event.

In the following January, Hayne again called at Keppel Street, and announced to Mrs. Foote that he seriously desired to be united in marriage to her daughter. Mrs. Foote informed him that Maria was engaged to be married to Colonel Berkeley, and that her daughter could not listen to his suit unless the Colonel failed to fulfil his promise. Hayne then said that he was about to go into the country, and asked permission to escort Mrs. and Miss Foote to the opera, and to tender to them his private box. To this the lady consented. As it happened, Colonel Berkeley with a Mr. Manse happened to be in the pit that evening, and the Colonel at once dispatched his friend to the box to request Hayne to speak with him in the pit. When the young buck came to him, Berkeley asked him for an explanation of his conduct with respect to Miss Foote, and desired a meeting on the following day. When they met the Colonel disclosed to Hayne everything relative to his connexion with Maria Foote, and told him that he was the father by her of two children. On hearing this Mr. Hayne at once wrote to the lady to withdraw his proposal of marriage. She, in reply, requested an interview with him in order to explain the circumstances. This took place at Marlborough in the presence of Mrs. Foote. The young man (he was aged only twenty-two) was moved by her sad story, and on his return to town found that his flame had not been quenched by the revelation. So he penned a letter to Maria, stating that his feelings remained unaltered, and begging her to marry him. After some negotiation she agreed to this, and at Hayne's advice the children were sent to Colonel Berkeley, who had asked for them. Hayne proposed to settle £40,000 on Miss Foote, for himself and her to receive the dividends during their joint lives, and after the death of the survivor of them, to be distributed equally among the children of the marriage, if any; and if, at the death of Mr. Hayne, his wife should survive him, but have no children, then £20,000 was to become the absolute property of the widow. The day for the wedding was fixed to take place on the ensuing 4th September, and "May God strike me dead," asseverated the young man, "if ever I consent to separate myself from you, dearest Maria."

A few days later, Mr. Bebb, "Pea-green" Hayne's solicitor, called in Keppel Street, at Mr. Foote's house, and left a verbal message to the effect "that Mr. Hayne would never see Miss Foote again." Great consternation was produced in the family, and the young actress at once wrote to her new lover to entreat an interview and an explanation. The bearer of the letter encountered Hayne in Bond Street, and he returned with the servant in a coach to Keppel Street. Hayne informed Maria that it was not his fault that he had acted in so strange a manner towards her; that it had been his firm intention to fulfil his engagement, but that, on his return home on Sunday, some persons had first plied him with liquor, so as to make him in such a beastly state of intoxication that he knew not what he did; that they afterwards locked him up in a little back room, from which he had only that moment made his escape, which his exhausted appearance would prove, and that when he met the servant with the letter he was on his way to see his dearest Maria. The explanation was received, a reconciliation was effected, and as "Peagreen" was so evidently a weak young man, liable to be swayed this way or that according to whom he was with, it was resolved that a special licence should at once be procured, and that the marriage should take place on the following morning at nine o'clock.

The night passed anxiously enough on the part of Miss Foote, who realized that there was many a slip between the cup and the lip. At length the morning arrived, everything was prepared, the bride's maid was in attendance, as were also Mr. Gill, the lawyer with the marriage settlement, and Mr. Robins, the trustee; but the bridegroom did not turn up, or send any notice that he was kept away. The parties waited till three o'clock, and then a note was dispatched to him at Long's Hotel, where he was staying. The servant who took it was ushered into a private room, and was there detained, under one pretext or another, for a considerable time, and was finally informed that Joseph Hayne, Esq., had gone into the country, to his seat at Burdeson Park, Wiltshire. For six days did the young lady wait in anxious expectation of receiving some communication from the defaulting bridegroom. At length, on the sixth day, she wrote to him a distressed and piteous appeal. To this she received an answer: "My dearest Maria, you are perfectly correct when you say that my heart and thoughts are still with you." Hayne then stated that the world was censorious, that he was divided between love for her and esteem for his friends and dread of their disapproval. The letter then went on to state, "I am resolved to sacrifice friends to affection; I cannot, will not lose you."

After a short interval, Hayne returned to London and called on Miss Foote, at her father's residence, and they became perfectly reconciled, and the 28th September was finally fixed for the day of their marriage. This fell on the Tuesday, and Monday was appointed for the execution of the marriage settlement. On Saturday, Hayne, accompanied by Mr. Foote, went to Doctors' Commons, and there procured the marriage licence, which Hayne himself delivered into the hands of his intended bride, and solicited leave to wait on her the following morning. But instead of calling himself, a gentleman named Manning appeared at the house of the Footes, and brought a letter from Mr. Hayne to the father of Maria, which stated that poor Joseph was so wretched as to be unable himself to call, but that the bearer would explain everything, and finally concluded by breaking off the match.

After this, Miss Foote received another letter from Hayne: "My dearest Maria,—We know each other well; but with all my faults, you have a regard for my honour,—my attachment to you is unabated. I entreat you to grant me an interview in any other place than Keppel Street."

To this letter the fair Maria replied: "Is this the way of proving your love and regard for me? To my honour and your shame be it spoken, that I am now suffering under a painful illness, brought on entirely by your conduct; but that you are actuated by the advice of bad counsels, I have no doubt. I will, however, once more consent to see you, but it must be in the presence of my family: if I am well enough, on Saturday, at one o'clock, it will be convenient to me to grant you an interview." In reply "Pea-green" wrote: "Farewell for ever.—Hayne."

For his breach of promise, Miss Foote brought an action for damages. The Attorney-General was retained on behalf of the plaintiff; and Mr. Scarlett on behalf of the defendant. The case was heard on 21 December, 1824.

It then transpired that Mr. Foote, the father, had been given by Mr. Hayne, to secure his goodwill, the sum of £1150; that Miss Foote had received presents from the defendant to the value of £1000. It was shown that gross deception had been practised on Hayne, at the time of Maria's expected confinement, to conceal from him her condition, and it had been represented to him that she had been taken into the country as suffering from a pulmonary complaint.

However, after he had learned all the circumstances, and knew that she had been "under the protection" of Colonel Berkeley and had borne him two children, he renewed his offer of marriage. Miss Foote demanded £20,000 damages. The jury, after a brief consultation, agreed to accord her £3000; a large slice of which sum, if not the largest portion of it, was eaten up by the lawyers employed in the case by her.

None came out well in the matter. As the Attorney-General remarked: "He could not trust himself in using language he thought sufficient to express his detestation of Colonel Berkeley's conduct." Joseph Hayne appeared as a public fop who did not know his own mind from one day to another.

Mrs. Foote was revealed to be a scheming unprincipled woman, but Mr. Foote came out worst of all. As The Examiner said of him: " There is scarcely a family living, or a family dead, that he has not treated with the dirtiest selfishness, whatever were his obligations—spunging till he was insulted, lying till he was discovered, puffing till he was the butt of the town. The people of Plymouth can relate a thousand instances of this description."

Maria Foote came out best of all. She, brought up by such detestably mean parents, without protection, exposed to temptation at every turn, was more to be pitied than blamed. This the town felt, and when, on 5 February, 1825, her benefit was given at Covent Garden Theatre, the house was packed. The Drama, or Theatrical Magazine, says: "The fullest house of this season, indeed of any season within our experience, assembled this evening. The performance was not the attraction; the overruling anxiety was to be present at the reappearance of Miss Foote. A more intense interest could not have been displayed; it was without parallel in the records of theatrical history. For many weeks past every seat in the boxes —in the dress circle—of the first circle—in the slips—all were engaged, and would have been engaged had the theatre been double its dimensions. Even part of the orchestra was appropriated to the accommodation of visitors with guinea tickets; and an additional douceur was in the course of the evening given even for tolerable sight-room. Not the fraction of a seat was to be had; and before the rising of the curtain the whole interior of the theatre was crowded almost to suffocation. During the first scenes of the performance (The Belle's Stratagem} little else was heard than the din and bustle consequent on the adjustment and regulation of places. At length, at an advanced period of the first act, Miss Foote appeared. The utmost stillness prevailed in the house immediately previous to her expected entrée; she at length appeared, and was received with a burst of loud, continued, and enthusiastic acclamation, such as we never remember to have heard or known to have been equalled at any theatre. All the persons in the pit and, with scarcely an exception, in the boxes and other parts of the house, stood up and welcomed her return to the stage with the most marked and emphatic kindness. The waving of hats, handkerchiefs, was resorted to. There was something, too, in the manner of her appearance, which contributed greatly to enhance, while it seemed to entreat, the indulgent consideration with which the audience were inclined to receive her. She advanced with downcast look and faltering step to the front of the stage, and became affected even to tears. There was a diffidence, a timidity, and a truly distressing embarrassment in her mode of coming forward, which, together with her beauty and the recollection of her sufferings, was calculated to compel pity. It was a scene which did equal honour to the audience, who duly appreciated the distress of her situation, and to the object of their sympathy, who gave such a pathetic attestation of her consciousness of it. Many ladies—and there were many present—could not refrain from tears. Those parts, and there were several throughout the play, capable of being applied to Miss Foote's peculiar situation, were seized on by the audience, and followed by loud plaudits. At the delivery of the lines

What is your fortune, my pretty maid?
My face is my fortune, sir, she said,

a burst of acclamation was sent forth, almost equal to that which greeted her entrance. The two lines which succeeded were, if possible, still more applicable to recent events, which have occupied so much of the attention of the Bar and of the public.

Then I'll not marry you, my pretty maid.
There's nobody asking you, sir, she said.

The good-humoured approval that followed these lines, which was in no degree abated by the arch air with which Miss Foote gave them, cannot be conveyed by verbal description. At the expression of the sentence, 'This moment is worth a whole existence,' Miss Foote bowed to the audience in grateful acknowledgment of the reception she had met with. Altogether Miss Foote's reappearance has been most gratifying. She has been hailed as a favourite of the public, who has been basely lured from virtue, but who is not on that account treated as an alien from its path."

The total receipts that evening amounted to £900. 16s. At the latter end of 1830, Madame Vestris took the Olympic Theatre, and opened it, on 3 January of the following year, with a drama on the subject of Mary Queen of Scots, in which Miss Foote, who appears for a time to have been in partnership with her, played the heroine. But she soon after quitted the stage, and on 7 April, 1831, was married to the eccentric Charles Stanhope, eighth Earl of Harrington and Viscount Petersham. He was aged fifty-one and she aged thirty-three. They had one daughter; he died in 1851, and she, as Dowager Countess of Harrington, lived until 27 December, 1867.

Mrs. Bancroft, in On and Off the Stage (London, 1888), gives us a pleasant recollection of Maria Foote in her old age as Dowager Countess of Harrington.

"My father had known her slightly when she was in her zenith, and would often speak of her as one of the loveliest and most amiable of women. He would often recall not only the charm she possessed as an accomplished actress, but her good-nature to everybody, high and low, in the theatre. … My mother had never met Lady Harrington, but she soon grew much attached to one who became a true friend to me, and as time went on seemed more and more endeared to me. She must have been very beautiful when young, being still extremely handsome as an old lady. She was as good, too, as she was handsome; and I can never forget her kindness to me. When I was once seriously ill with an attack of bronchitis, Lady Harrington was unwearying in her attention to me, and would, day after day, sit by my bedside reading to me, and would bring with her all the delicacies she could think of. When I had sufficiently recovered my strength, she sent me to the seaside to recruit my health. To record all the kindnesses she bestowed on me and mine would fill up many pages, but my gratitude is indelibly written on my heart. She gave me a portrait of herself, as Maria Darlington in A Roland for an Oliver, and by it one can see how lovely she must have been. Among her other gifts was a beautiful old-fashioned diamond and ruby ring, which she told me was given to her by the Earl when he was engaged to be married to her. … Lady Harrington was much attached to (her old butler) Payne, and also to her maid, who, I believe, had been in her service since she was quite young, and often spoke of them as Romeo and Juliet. I recall many a happy visit to Richmond Terrace, and until her last illness I had no better friend than Lady Harrington.

"On the afternoon of Friday, 27 December, 1867, my mind was unaccountably full of thoughts about her. I had been making some purchases in Regent Street, and on my way home in a cab was wondering, as I was driven through the crowd of vehicles, if I should ever see her in her well-known carriage again, with its snuff-coloured 'Petersham brown' body, the long brown coats, the silver hat cords of the coachman and footman, the half-crescents of white leather which formed part of the harness across the foreheads of the horses.

"On the following day I received the sorrowful news that Lady Harrington was dead at the time I had thought so much of her, and that I had lost a friendship for which Time can never lessen my gratitude."