Kelly, Frances Maria (DNB00)

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KELLY, FRANCES MARIA (1790–1882), actress and singer, was born at Brighton on 15 Oct. 1790. Her father, Mark Kelly (born at Dublin in 1767), was the younger son of Thomas Kelly, a wine merchant, and official master of the ceremonies at Dublin Castle, by his wife, formerly a Miss McCabe of Westmeath. Michael Kelly [q. v.] was her father's brother. Fanny Kelly's mother, Mary Singleton (b. 12 Aug. 1763), was the daughter of a physician, and widow of a Mr. Jackson, by whom she was the mother of Anne, wife of Charles Mathews the elder. The marriage with Mark Kelly was not happy, and in 1795 the husband, having incurred heavy debts by extravagance, deserted his wife, who thenceforward was left to her own resources. Fanny Kelly was taught gratuitously until her own earnings enabled her to secure higher instruction. At the age of seven she made her first appearance, under John Kemble's management, on the boards of Drury Lane Theatre, in her uncle Michael Kelly's opera of ‘Bluebeard,’ on 16 Jan. 1798. In 1799 she was formally enrolled in the Drury Lane company as a chorister, and appeared in the same year as the Duke of York in ‘Richard III.’ Fox, upon seeing her performance of Prince Arthur in ‘King John’ in 1800 (see KELLY, Reminiscences, ii. 178), prophesied to Sheridan that she would reach the head of her profession. Sheridan ‘perfectly agreed.’ Mrs. Siddons, who acted Constance in the same piece, was equally impressed (ib. ii. 179). Charles Lamb introduced an incident of the same period in his ‘Barbara S——.’ Her identity with Barbara is proved in Kent's ‘Popular Centenary Edition of the Works of Charles Lamb,’ 1875. At p. 496 is the facsimile of a note from Lamb acknowledging that Miss Kelly was the true heroine of the narrative, and at pp. 15–17 of the prefatory memoir is a letter from Miss Kelly (then aged 85) to the editor describing the circumstances. As a girl she took most of the characters previously undertaken by Madame Storace, while in her early womanhood she took many of those formerly assumed by Mrs. Jordan. From 1800 to 1806 she played at Drury Lane and the Italian Opera. At the opera she picked up Italian; she afterwards learnt French under M. Bareze, and Latin from Mary Lamb and George Darley. She learnt the guitar under Ferdinand Sor, and the harp under Philip Meyer. In the summer of 1807 she acted with brilliant effect at Glasgow, and afterwards visited nearly all the chief provincial theatres. At Drury Lane she was a popular favourite until the fire of 24 Feb. 1809. From June to September of that year she acted at the Haymarket, but on 25 Sept. migrated, with the rest of the Drury Lane company, to the Lyceum. In the newly reconstructed Drury Lane Theatre of Wyatt, opened on 10 Oct. 1812, she co-operated with Edmund Kean in restoring the fortunes of the theatre. Although she occasionally appeared elsewhere, she acted chiefly at Drury Lane for thirty-six years without abatement of her popularity. During the opening scene of the farce of ‘Modern Antiques, or the Merry Mourners’ at Covent Garden (17 Feb. 1816), one George Barnett fired a pistol at her from the pit. Some of the shot fell into the lap of Mary Lamb, who was there with her brother. On 8 April Barnett, who was a total stranger to Miss Kelly, was tried at the Old Bailey, and acquitted on the ground of insanity. Another desperado fired at her not long after in a theatre at Dublin, injuring a bystander. When the Lyceum Theatre was reopened, on 15 June 1816, Miss Kelly was chosen to deliver the inaugural address. She made her farewell appearance at Drury Lane on 8 June 1835. Besides impersonating many of the heroines of Shakespeare, she had played all the leading comedy characters in the British drama, and had made pre-eminently her own a long series of melodramatic creations. Genest (ix. 423) says that ‘in a melodrama [she] was certainly superior to all actresses.’ She was noted for her original conception, and often brought out previously unsuspected pathos, especially in her Madge in ‘Love in a Village’ and Lucy Lockit in the ‘Beggar's Opera.’ She often raised minor characters into unexpected importance; her Patch in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Busybody’ was the delight of Lord Byron. One of her most brilliant triumphs was as Lisette in the ‘Serjeant's Wife,’ during a scene in which she was supposed to witness a murder in an adjoining apartment. The stage-manager had predicted failure, but her horror-stricken gesticulations, with her back throughout the scene turned to her audience, produced an exceptional outburst of enthusiasm. Two of Lamb's most graceful sonnets celebrate her acting. She was associated with all the great actors of her time, including John and Charles Kemble, Mrs. Siddons, Mrs. Jordan, Munden and Suett, Liston and Mathews, Bannister and Catalani. She was specially associated with Edmund Kean, her playmate in childhood, and was often the Ophelia to his Hamlet.

Her mother died on 1 Aug. 1827, and her father on 4 April 1833 at Canterbury. Miss Kelly's withdrawal from the company at Drury Lane Theatre was precipitated by her ambition to carry out an early project for counteracting the prejudice against her profession which had found vigorous expression in the article ‘Actress’ in the third edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ published in 1797. She desired to establish a dramatic school for the judicious training of young women. She began by taking the New Strand Theatre, where, to show her capacity for the task, she gave an entertainment in monologue, which became very popular. With this she afterwards travelled through the country. In 1839 she began building at the back of her private residence, No. 73 Dean Street, Soho, a model theatre (now the Royalty), intended solely for the purposes of her dramatic school. She was persuaded to open the house on 24 May 1840 as a regular theatre, but closed it again after five nights, in consequence of the failure of some of the machinery. The dramatic school, however, flourished, and she reopened the theatre and gave occasional performances for seven or eight years. Subsequently she gave a course of Shakespearean readings at various places. She fell into debt, and her theatre was at last seized by the landlord. She wrote an account of the affair to the ‘Times,’ and was assured by Lord Brougham that the seizure was illegal. Her age and the public want of taste ultimately decided her to give up the struggle. She had been patronised all along by the Duke of Devonshire. She had lost the whole of her savings, amounting to nearly 16,000l. She continued to give Shakespearean readings, and to receive a few remaining pupils in the new home to which, in 1850, she had retired at Bayswater. Thence, a few years afterwards, she removed to Ross Cottage, Feltham, Middlesex, where she died 6 Dec. 1882. She was buried (16 Dec.) in Brompton cemetery. In answer to a memorial to the prime minister (Mr. Gladstone), signed by most of the leading actors, artists, and authors of the time, she was awarded a royal grant of 150l. a very few days before her death. It was spent upon raising a suitable memorial over her grave. Miss Kelly herself told the present writer that some years before her retirement from the stage Charles Lamb made her an offer of marriage, which, though she was devoted to him and his sister, she felt bound to decline on account of their constitutional malady.

[Many of the facts stated in this memoir are derived from the writer's personal recollections, and from those of Miss Kelly's adopted daughter, Miss Mary Ellen Greville; reference may be also here made to Michael Kelly's Reminiscences, 2 vols. 1826; Charles Lamb's Works; Times, 11 Dec. 1882; Genest's English Stage, ix. and x.]

C. K.