Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lee, Sophia

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LEE, SOPHIA (1760–1824), novelist and dramatist, a sister of Harriet Lee [q. v.], and daughter of John Lee [q. v.] the actor, was born in London in 1750. Her mother died early, and Sophia supplied her place to the younger members or the family. In the midst of domestic duties she wrote a threeopera entitled ‘The Chapter of Accidents,’ based on Diderot's ‘Père de Famille.’ Harris, the manager of Covent Garden, to whom she sent it, kept it a long time, and at length suggested she should reduce it to an after-piece, cutting out the serious portions. She rejected his advice and sent the play to the elder Colman of the Haymarket Theatre, who recommended her to expand the play into a five-act comedy. This was done; the play was produced on 5 Aug. 1780, and received with great applause (Oxberry's edit. of The Chapter of Accidents). Palmer, Edwin, and Miss Farren acted in it, and although its structure is slight, it enjoyed an uninterrupted success through many seasons. It was published in 1780, reached a second edition next year, and was translated into French and German. Thomas Moore speaks of it in his ‘Journal’ as a ‘clever comedy.’ It was produced for the first of many times at Drury Lane on 8 May 1781 and at Covent Garden on 23 April 1782. In 1781 the father died, but Sophia had prudently devoted the profits of ‘The Chapter of Accidents’ to founding a school for young ladies at Belvidere House, Bath, where she made a home for her sisters. The school became a success, and occupied nearly all Miss Lee's time. She published, however, in 1785 a novel in three volumes called ‘The Recess, or a Tale of other Times,’ which was well received, and is one of the earliest English historical romances. The book was dedicated to Sir John Elliot the physician, who had early discovered Sophia's literary talent, and it won the approval of Tickell, of Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan, and of Miss Ward (afterwards Mrs. Radcliffe), then a resident at Bath. Lemare translated it into French, and Miss Lee received from her publisher, Cadell, fifty pounds in addition to the amount already agreed upon for the copyright. She published in 1787 a very long and dull ballad in 156 stanzas, dealing with border warfare, and entitled ‘A Hermit's Tale, recorded by his own Hand and found in his Cell.’ On 20 April 1796, ‘Almeyda, Queen of Grenada,’ a tragedy in blank verse, written by Miss Lee, was produced at Drury Lane. Mrs. Siddons, to whom the published play was dedicated, took the title-rôle. John Philip and Charles Kemble were also in the cast. Miss Lee acknowledged her indebtedness for the catastrophe to Shirley's ‘Cardinal’ (cf. Genest, i. 341, vii. 238). The drama was unsuccessful and ran only four nights (Oxberry). To the first volume of ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ published in 1797 by her sister Harriet, Sophia contributed the introduction, and to the later volumes of the work, two tales, filling about a volume and a half, called ‘The Young Lady's Tale, or the Two Emilys,’ and ‘The Clergyman's Tale.’ Sophia's work is far inferior to Harriet's. Her circle of acquaintance in Bath was numerous and agreeable, and included General Paoli. Having made an easy competence, she gave up her school in 1803, and in the next year published in six volumes of epistles ‘The Life of a Lover,’ really her earliest attempt at writing. It is supposed to contain much personal history. Madame de Salaberry translated it into French, but it did not enjoy the success of her other productions. A comedy, ‘The Assignation,’ produced at Drury Lane on 28 Jan. 1807, with Elliston in the chief part, was a failure (Genest, viii. 35). The audience disapproved of some unfortunate personal applications wholly unforeseen by the author. It was not acted again. On leaving Bath Miss Lee resided for some time in Monmouthshire, near Tintern Abbey, and later purchased a house at Clifton, which became her permanent home. She died on 13 March 1824, and was buried in Clifton Church. She was a woman of great conversational powers and an excellent instructress, inspiring her pupils with liking and respect.

[Annual Biog. and Obit, for 1825, vol. ix.; Annual Reg. 1824, p. 216; Boaden's Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, i. 209-13.]

E. L.