Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Holcroft, Thomas

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HOLCROFT, THOMAS (1745–1809), dramatist, novelist, and translator, was born in Orange Court, Leicester Fields, London, on 10 Dec. 1745 (O.S.), and was baptised at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields; the name is erroneously spelt ‘Howlcroft’ in the register (Memoirs, p. 7). His father, whose christian name was also Thomas, kept a shoemaker's shop in Orange Court, and let out riding horses for hire, but falling into difficulties left London and turned pedlar. Young Holcroft accompanied his parents in their wanderings, and at the age of thirteen became a stable-boy at Newmarket, where he remained nearly three years. Returning to London he worked for some time with his father, who then kept a cobbler's stall in South Audley Street. In 1764 he went to Liverpool, where he taught children to read in a small school, but in less than a year he returned to London, and resumed his trade of a shoemaker. About this time he appears to have written occasionally for the ‘Whitehall Evening Post,’ and one of his contributions to that newspaper was transcribed into the ‘Annual Register.’ After an ineffectual attempt to set up a day-school in the country, ‘where for three months he lived upon potatoes and buttermilk, and had but one scholar,’ he obtained a situation in Granville Sharp's family. From this he was subsequently dismissed in consequence of his constant attendance at ‘a reading-room or sporting club,’ the members of which indulged in dramatic recitations (ib. p. 67). Being now utterly destitute, he resolved to enlist in the East Indian army, but abandoned his intention on securing an engagement as prompter at a Dublin Theatre through a chance introduction to Macklin. He went to Ireland in September 1770, but returned to England in March 1771. After acting with several strolling companies in the provinces for the next six years and a half with little success, Holcroft obtained in 1778 an engagement at Drury Lane Theatre at twenty shillings a week, and here his first piece, called ‘The Crisis, or Love and Famine’ (not printed), was once performed, on 1 May 1778. In 1780 Holcroft published his first novel, ‘Alwyn, or the Gentleman Comedian,’ in which some of his own adventures as a strolling actor were described under the character of Hilkirk. His first comedy, called ‘Duplicity,’ was produced at Covent Garden in October 1781. Though it proved only a first-night success, Holcroft seems to have thought his fame established, and soon afterwards gave up his engagement at Drury Lane. In 1783 he visited Paris as correspondent of the ‘Morning Herald,’ directing his attention principally ‘to the discovery of new publications,’ with a view to translating them. In the autumn of the following year he paid a second visit to Paris in order to translate Beaumarchais's ‘Mariage de Figaro.’ Being unable to obtain a copy of the comedy, and being afraid of taking notes, Holcroft with his friend Bonneville nightly attended the theatre where it was being performed until they had committed the whole of it to memory (ib. p. 126). The translation was produced at Covent Garden with great success on 14 Dec. 1784, under the title of ‘The Follies of the Day,’ Holcroft appearing as Figaro, in the absence of the actor to whom that part had been allotted. Holcroft received 600l. for this adaptation, in addition to a considerable sum for the copyright. ‘The Road to Ruin,’ his best and most successful play, was performed for the first time at Covent Garden on 18 Feb. 1792. The character of Goldfinch, and the admirable impersonation of it by Lewis the comedian, quickly established the play in popular favour. It was acted no less than thirty-eight times during the season, and became a stock piece. But though the play is rich in the traditions of many histrionic triumphs, its literary merits are not high, and it is chiefly remarkable for ‘a certain measure of appropriateness in the language, some tolerably ingenious scenes, and one or two effective but conventional characters’ (Athenæum, 8 Nov. 1873). The play was revived at the Vaudeville in London on 1 Nov. 1873, when it ran for 118 nights, and has been frequently played since. Though opposed to the use of force, Holcroft ardently embraced the principles of the French revolution, and in November 1792 became a member of the ‘Society for Constitutional Information.’ In company with Thomas Hardy (1752–1832) [q. v.] and ten others Holcroft was indicted for high treason. On 6 Oct. 1794 the Middlesex grand jury returned a true bill against him, and on the next day, having voluntarily surrendered himself at Hicks's Hall, he was committed to Newgate, where he remained until 1 Dec. following, when, in consequence of Hardy's acquittal, he was brought up to the Old Bailey, and discharged without a trial (Annual Register, 1794, Chron., p. 39).

In 1799 Holcroft, owing to financial embarrassment, sold his books and pictures and went to Hamburg. Here he attempted to set up a journal called the ‘European Repository,’ which reached the second number only. He subsequently went to Paris, where he resided for two years. During his absence his ‘Tale of Mystery’ was produced at Covent Garden on 13 Nov. 1802. This adaptation from the French, the music for which was composed by Thomas Busby, was pronounced by Genest to be the first and best ‘of those melo-drames with which the stage was afterwards inundated’ (Account of the English Stage, vii. 579). Holcroft returned to England in 1803, and soon afterwards set up a printing business in connection with his brother-in-law, Mercier, which proved a complete failure. Holcroft died after a long illness in Clipstone Street, Marylebone, on 23 March 1809, aged 63, and was buried at Marylebone in the larger parish cemetery on the south side of Paddington Street.

Holcroft was a stern and conscientious man, with an irascible temper, great energy, and marvellous industry. Charles Lamb [q. v.], in his letter to ‘R. S., Esq., on the Tombs in the Abbey,’ speaks of Holcroft as ‘one of the most candid, most upright, and single-meaning men’ whom he ever knew (Life, Letters, and Writings of Charles Lamb, ed. P. Fitzgerald, 1876, vi. 78), while William Godwin the elder [q. v.], with whom Holcroft was for several years very intimate, numbered him among his ‘four principal oral instructors’ (C. K. Paul, William Godwin, i. 17). As an actor he was harsh and unsympathetic, and he appears to have taken no further part on the stage after his performance of Figaro. In spite of his poverty and many adverse circumstances, Holcroft with great tenacity of purpose contrived to educate himself creditably, and to acquire a competent knowledge of French, German, and Italian. His career, however, was one continuous struggle against misfortune, and owing to his many rash speculations and his ‘picture-dealing insanity’ his affairs were perpetually in an embarrassed condition. He married four times. His son William (by his second wife) when only sixteen committed suicide while attempting to escape to the West Indies after robbing him of 40l. in November 1789 (Memoirs, pp. 140–142). His daughter Fanny (d. 1844) was the authoress of several novels and translations, while another daughter, Louisa, became the wife of Carlyle's friend Badams (Carlyle, Reminiscences, ed. C. E. Norton, 1887, i. 93–95). His widow, whose maiden name was Louisa Mercier, remarried James Kenney [q. v.], the dramatic writer.

One of the three portraits of Holcroft, which were painted at different times by his friend John Opie, is now in the National Portrait Gallery. There are engravings of Holcroft in the ‘European Magazine’ (vol. xxii. opp. p. 403), the ‘Register of the Times’ (vol. ii. opp. p. 4), the ‘Monthly Mirror’ (vol. viii. opp. p. 323), and in the first volume of his ‘Memoirs,’ 1816.

The ‘Memoirs written by himself and continued down to the time of his death, from his Diary, Notes, and other Papers,’ were edited by his friend William Hazlitt. Though completed in 1810, they were not published until 1816, London, 12mo, 3 vols. They were reprinted in a slightly abridged form in 1852 as part of Longman's ‘Travellers' Library,’ London, 8vo. The account of his life down to his fifteenth year (pp. 7–65), and his diary from 22 June 1798 to 12 March 1799 (pp. 190–256) were written by Holcroft himself, while the remaining portion of the ‘Memoirs’ were compiled by Hazlitt. Some of Holcroft's correspondence is appended to the ‘Memoirs’ (pp. 269–315). Thomas Moore regarded the ‘Memoirs’ as ‘amongst the most interesting specimens of autobiography we have’ (Moore, Memoirs, ii. 167). Many of Holcroft's letters to Godwin are printed in Mr. Paul's ‘William Godwin.’ Two or three of his dramatic pieces were set to music by his friend Shield, who also composed the music for several songs which Holcroft wrote for Vauxhall, some of which became very popular.

Holcroft was a most prolific writer, and appears to have contributed to the ‘Westminster Magazine,’ the ‘Wit's Magazine,’ the ‘Town and Country Magazine,’ and to the early numbers of the ‘English Review.’ According to Hazlitt, Holcroft also wrote for the ‘Monthly Review,’ but from an entry in the diary this would seem not to have been the case (Memoirs, pp. 184, 199). Owing to the violent political prejudices against him, some of Holcroft's plays were printed without his name. He published the following works in addition to numerous translations from the French of Madame de Genlis, M. Savary, and other writers besides those mentioned: 1. ‘Elegies: I. On the Death of Samuel Foote, Esq.; II. On Age,’ London, 1777, 4to. 2. ‘A Plain … Narrative of the late Riots in London, … Westminster, and … Southwark, … with an Account of the Commitment of Lord G. Gordon to the Tower, &c. … By William Vincent of Gray's Inn,’ London, 1780, 8vo; the second edition, corrected, with an appendix, London, 1780, 8vo. 3. ‘Alwyn, or the Gentleman Comedian’ [a novel], anon., London, 1780, 12mo. 4. ‘Duplicity,’ a comedy [in five acts and in prose], &c., London, 1781, 8vo, third edition, London, 1782, 8vo; another edition, Dublin, 1782, 12mo. This comedy was cut down to three acts, and revived at Covent Garden Theatre as ‘The Mask'd Friend,’ 6 May 1796. 5. ‘Human Happiness, or The Sceptic,’ a poem in six cantos, London, 1783, 4to. 6. ‘The Family Picture, or Domestic Dialogues on Amiable … Subjects,’ London, 1783, 12mo, 2 vols. 7. ‘The Noble Peasant,’ a comic opera in three acts [in prose, with songs], London, 1784, 8vo. 8. ‘Tales of the Castle, or Stories of Instruction and Delight. Being Les Veillées du Château, written in French by Madame la Comtesse de Genlis. … Translated into English,’ &c., London, 1785, 12mo, 5 vols.; another edition, Dublin, 1785, 12mo, 4 vols.; third edition, London, 1787, 12mo, 5 vols.; eighth edition, London, 1806, 12mo, 5 vols.; another edition, forming part of Walker's ‘British Classics,’ London, 1817, 12mo. 9. ‘The Follies of a Day, or the Marriage of Figaro, a Comedy [in five acts and in prose] … from the French of M. de Beaumarchais,’ London, 1785, 8vo; a new edition, London, 1785, 8vo; in three acts [with alterations by J. P. Kemble], London, 1811, 8vo. 10. ‘The Choleric Fathers,’ a comic opera [in three acts, in prose and verse], London, 1785, 8vo. 11. ‘An Amourous Tale of the Chaste Loves of Peter the Long … and the History of the Lover's Well. Imitated from the original French’ [of L. E. Billardon de Sauvigny], &c.; from the original manuscript of ‘Mr. D. C. L. P.,’ London, 1786, 8vo. 12. ‘Seduction,’ a comedy [in five acts and in prose], London, 1787, 8vo; third edition, London, 1787, 8vo. 13. ‘The Life of Baron Frederic Trenck, containing his Adventures … also Anecdotes, Historical, Political, and Personal. Translated from the German,’ &c. (‘Anecdotes of the Life of Alexander Schell … written as a Supplement to my own History’), London, 1788, 12mo, 3 vols.; another edition, Boston [U.S.] U[nited] S[tates], 1792, 12mo; another edition, London, 1795, 12mo, 3 vols.; third edition, London, 1800, 12mo, 3 vols.; the fourth edition, London, 1817, 8vo, 3 vols.; another edition, London, 1835, 12mo; another edition, forming vols. xxvi. and xxvii. of Cassell's National Library, London, 1886, 16mo. 14. ‘Posthumous Works of Frederic II, King of Prussia’ (translated from the French), London, 1789, 8vo, 13 vols. 15. ‘The School for Arrogance,’ a comedy [in five acts, in prose], &c., London, 1791, 8vo; second edition, London, 1791, 8vo. 16. ‘The Road to Ruin,’ a comedy [in five acts and in prose], &c., London, 1792, 8vo; second edition, London, 1792, 8vo; fourth edition, London, 1792, 8vo; fifth edition, London, 1792, 8vo; sixth edition, London, 1792, 8vo; ninth edition, London, 1792, 8vo. It has been reprinted in a number of dramatic collections, and has been translated into German and Danish. 17. ‘Anna St. Ives,’ a novel, &c., London, 1792, 12mo, 7 vols. 18. ‘Essays on Physiognomy; for the Promotion of the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind. Written in the German Language by J. C. Lavater, and translated into English,’ &c., London, 1793, 8vo, 3 vols. A cheap abridgment in one volume was published in the same year, London, 12mo. 19. ‘Love's Frailties,’ a comedy in five acts [in prose], &c., London, 1794, 8vo. 20. ‘The Adventures of Hugh Trevor,’ &c., London, 1794–7, 12mo, 6 vols.; third edition, London, 1801, 12mo, 4 vols. ‘Traduit de l'anglais par le Cit. Cantwell,’ Paris, 1798, 12mo, 4tom. 21. ‘The Deserted Daughter,’ a comedy, &c. [in five acts and in prose, founded on Cumberland's ‘Fashionable Lover’], anon., London, 1795, 8vo; second edition, London, 1795, 8vo; third edition, London, 1795, 8vo; fourth edition, London, 1795, 8vo; another edition, New York, 1806, 12mo. It has been translated into Danish. ‘The Steward, or Fashion and Feeling, a Comedy in five acts (founded upon the “Deserted Daughter”),’ &c., was published anonymously in 1819, London, 8vo. 22. ‘A Narrative of Facts relating to a Prosecution for High Treason, including the Address to the Jury which the Court refused to hear; with Letters to the Attorney-General … and Vicary Gibbs, Esq., and the Defence the Author had prepared if he had been brought to trial,’ London, 1795, 8vo, 2 parts. 23. ‘A Letter to the Right Hon. W. Windham on the intemperance and dangerous tendency of his public conduct,’ London, 1795, 8vo. 24. ‘The Man of Ten Thousand,’ a comedy [in five acts and in prose], London, 1796, 8vo; third edition, London, 1796, 8vo. 25. ‘Knave or not?’ a comedy in five acts [and in prose], London, 1798, 8vo; second edition, London, 1798, 8vo. 26. ‘The Inquisitor,’ a play in five acts [and in prose, taken from a German play called ‘Diego und Leonor’], &c., anon., London, 1798, 8vo. Another play founded on the same piece was published in the same year by Pye and Andrews, but was never acted. 27. ‘He's Much to Blame,’ a comedy in five acts [and in prose], anon., London, 1798, 8vo; fourth edition, London, 1798, 8vo. Though attributed to Holcroft in his ‘Memoirs,’ the authorship of it has been ascribed to Fenwick (Genest, vii. 360–1). 28. ‘Herman and Dorothea,’ a poem from the German of Goethe, London, 1801, 8vo. 29. ‘Deaf and Dumb, or the Orphan Protected,’ an historical drama, in five acts [and in prose], taken from the French of M. Bouilly, and adapted to the English stage, anon., London, 1801, 8vo; fifth edition, London, 1802, 8vo. 30. ‘A Tale of Mystery, a Melodrame’ [in two acts and in prose], London, 1802, 8vo; third edition, London, 1813, 8vo. 31. ‘Hear both Sides,’ a comedy [in five acts and in prose], London, 1803, 8vo; third edition, London, 1803, 8vo. 32. ‘Travels from Hamburg, through Westphalia, Holland, and the Netherlands, to Paris,’ London, 1804, 4to, 2 vols. The second volume contains translations of two dramatic proverbs by Carmontel, viz. ‘The Two Friends’ (pp. 58–61) and ‘The Play is Over’ (pp. 63–9). Another edition, abridged by J. Fulton, Glasgow, 1804, 8vo. A summary of these travels appeared in the second volume of ‘A Collection of Modern … Voyages.’ 33. ‘The Lady of the Rock, a Melodrame in two acts’ [and in prose], London, 1805, 8vo; second edition, London, 1805, 8vo. 34. ‘Memoirs of Bryan Perdue,’ a novel, London, 1805, 12mo, 3 vols. 35. ‘The Theatrical Recorder. By Thomas Holcroft,’ London, 1805–6, 8vo, 2 vols. (with supplement). This came out in monthly parts, and contains a number of translations by his daughter, Fanny Holcroft. 36. ‘The Vindictive Man,’ a comedy in five acts [and in prose], &c., London, 1806, 8vo. 37. ‘Tales in Verse: Critical, Satirical, and Humorous,’ London, 1806, 12mo, 2 vols.

Holcroft also appears to have written three afterpieces: ‘The Shepherdess of the Alps,’ produced at Covent Garden Theatre 18 Jan. 1780, ‘The Maid of the Vale,’ and ‘The Old Clothesman,’ produced at Covent Garden for the second time 3 April 1799; two comedies: ‘The German Hotel,’ produced at Covent Garden 11 Nov. 1790, and ‘The Force of Ridicule,’ acted but once, at Drury Lane Theatre 6 Dec. 1796, not printed; a tragedy, ‘Ellen, or the Fatal Cave;’ a musical entertainment, ‘The Escapes, or the Water-Carrier,’ produced at Covent Garden 14 Oct. 1801, with Fawcett and Incledon in the chief parts, not printed; a prelude, ‘The Rival Queens,’ acted at Covent Garden 15 Sept. 1794; and ‘The Indian Exiles,’ from Kotzebue.

[Holcroft's Memoirs, 1852; C. K. Paul's William Godwin, his Friends and Contemporaries, 1876; Letters of Charles Lamb, ed. A. Ainger, 1888; Moore's Memoirs, &c., ed. Lord John Russell, 1853–6; Miss Mitford's Recollections of a Literary Life, 1852, i. 111–40; J. J. Rogers's Opie and his Works, 1878, pp. 110–11; Genest's Account of the English Stage, 1832; Dutton Cook's Nights at the Play, 1883, pp. 218–21, 224–5, 267; Baker's Biog. Dramat., 1812, i. 353–355; Georgian Era, 1834, iii. 385–6; Lysons, Supp. to the first edit. of the Environs of London, 1811, pp. 233–4; Monthly Mirror, viii. 323–6; Register of the Times, ii. 1–5; European Mag. 1782 i. 47–9, 1792 xxii. 403, 1809 lv. 243–244; Gent. Mag. 1809, vol. lxxix. pt. i. p. 286; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. x. 327, 392, 433; Halkett and Laing's Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature, 1882–8; Watt's Bibl. Brit. 1824; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.