Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sedley, Charles
SEDLEY, Sir CHARLES (1639?–1701), wit and dramatic author, was born about 1639 at Aylesford in Kent. He was the youngest and posthumous son of Sir John Sedley (or Sidley, as the name was properly spelt), baronet, of Southfleet in Kent, whither this ancient family had moved its seat from the neighbourhood of Romney Marsh. Sir John Sedley's wife Elizabeth was the daughter and heiress of the learned Sir Henry Savile (1549–1622) [q. v.] ‘An Epitaph on the Lady Sedley’ was written by Edmund Waller (Poems, ed. Drury, p. 243). Their son Charles succeeded to the title and estates after his elder brothers William and Henry had both died unmarried (Collins). Sedley entered Wadham College, Oxford, as a fellow commoner on 22 March 1655–6, but took no degrees. After the Restoration he entered parliament as one of the members (barons) for New Romney. The earliest of many notices concerning him in Pepys's ‘Diary’ refers to a shameful drunken frolic in which he, Lord Buckhurst (afterwards Earl of Dorset), and Sir Thomas Ogle engaged at the Cock Tavern in Bow Street, and for his share in the orgie he was fined 500l. in the court of king's bench. Chief-justice Foster is said to have observed on this occasion that it was for Sedley ‘and such wicked wretches as he was that God's anger and judgments hung over us, calling him sirrah many times’ (Pepys, s.d. 1 July 1663; cf. Johnson's Lives of the Poets, s.v. Dorset). Five years later Sedley and his boon-companion Buckhurst were guilty of a similar escapade, and when they were threatened with legal proceedings, the king was reported to have interfered on their behalf, besides getting drunk in their company (Pepys, 23 Oct. 1668). On 16 Nov. 1667 Pepys speaks of Lord Vaughan as ‘one of the lewdest fellows of the age, worse than Sir Charles Sedley;’ on 1 Feb. 1669 he alludes to the brutal assault contrived by him upon the actor Edward Kynaston [q. v.], who had presumed upon his striking personal resemblance to Sedley by appearing in public dressed in imitation of him. On 4 Oct. 1664 and 18 Feb. 1667, however, Pepys listened with much pleasure to Sedley's witty criticisms at the play.
Sedley married, on 23 Feb. 1657, at St. Giles's-in-the-Fields, Catherine, daughter of John Savage, earl Rivers, by whom he had one daughter, Catharine [q. v.], who became the favourite mistress of James, duke of York, and was by him created Countess of Dorchester. According to a well-known anecdote, Sedley is said to have declared himself to be even in civility with King James, who had made his daughter a countess, by helping (through his vote in the Convention parliament) to make the king's daughter a queen. But, supposing the earliest of the prose papers printed as Sedley's, entitled ‘Reflections upon our Late and Present Proceedings in England,’ to be genuine, he at the time of the Revolution favoured delay till the question as to the birth of the Prince of Wales should have been settled, and, only in the event of this proving impossible, supported the succession of the Princess of Orange in her own right and without her consort. This contribution to the pamphlet literature of the crisis furnishes a good example of Sedley's clear and facile prose style. The parliamentary speeches attributed to him bear largely upon the advantages of retrenchment, and in general reflect the opinions of a moderate tory. Notwithstanding the continued interest in public affairs exhibited in these speeches, Sedley is said to have withdrawn from London as much as possible after the death of Charles II. In January 1680 his skull was fractured by the fall of the roof of the tennis-court in the Haymarket, and he narrowly escaped with his life (Hatton Correspondence, Camd. Soc. i. 216). He died on 20 Aug. 1701. A portrait was engraved by Vandergucht (Bromley).
The literary reputation of Sedley among his contemporaries equalled his notoriety in the world of fashion and scandal. King Charles II is said to have told him that ‘Nature had given him a patent to be Apollo's viceroy,’ and to have frequently asserted that ‘his style, either in writing or discourse, would be the standard of the English tongue.’ Flatteries were lavished on him by Rochester, Buckingham, and Shadwell (see Langbaine); and Dryden introduced him, under the anagrammatic designation of Lisideius, as one of the personages of the dialogue published in 1668 as ‘An Essay of Dramatic Poesy.’ Dryden dedicated to Sedley ‘The Assignation’ (1673), where he calls him the Tibullus of his age, and recalls the genial nights spent with him ‘in pleasant and for the most part instructive discourse.’
When the literary remains of Sedley are examined, they are found very imperfectly to warrant their contemporary reputation. His prose writings consist, besides the pieces already mentioned, of a commonplace ‘Essay on Entertainments,’ and a prose version of Cicero's oration ‘pro M. Marcello.’ The burlesque ‘Speech and Last Will and Testament’ of the Earl of Pembroke may be his, but it has also been attributed to Butler. Sedley's non-dramatic verse comprises little that is noticeable, and is not to be regarded as equal in merit even to his friend Dorset's. He has, however, occasionally very felicitous turns of diction, the effect of which is enhanced by the unstudied simplicity of his manner. Among his amorous lyrics, while various tributes to Aurelia or Aminta are forgotten, the pretty song ‘Phillis is my only Joy’ (to which he wrote the companion ‘Song à la mode’) survives chiefly because of its setting as a madrigal. Another lyric of merit is ‘Love still has something of the Sea.’ In his non-dramatic productions Sedley, although a licentious, is not as a rule an obscene writer. He has also left a series of translations and adaptations, including versions in heroic couplets of Virgil's ‘Fourth Georgic’ and ‘Eclogues,’ and an adaptation, under the sub-title of ‘Court Characters,’ of a series of epigrams from Martial.
The plays of Sir Charles Sedley consist of two tragedies and three comedies. ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ (1677, reprinted 1702, under the title of ‘Beauty the Conqueror, or the Death of Marc Antony’) was extolled by Shadwell (dedication of A True Widow) as ‘the only tragedy, except two of Johnson's and one of Shakespeare's, wherein Romans are made to speak and do like Romans.’ It would be more appropriately compared with Dryden's ‘All for Love’ (1678), but is too frigid and uninteresting a composition, especially in its earlier portions, to sustain the comparison. It is in heroic couplets, largely interspersed with triplets, to which Sedley was particularly addicted. ‘The Tyrant King of Crete,’ which seems never to have been acted, is merely an adaptation of Henry Killigrew's ‘The Conspiracy’ (printed 1638), or, more probably, of its revised edition, ‘Pallantus and Eudora,’ printed 1653 (see Genest, x. 150). This romantic drama is in blank verse, which the printer terribly confused.
The comedy of ‘The Mulberry-garden’ (1668), partly founded on Molière's ‘École des Maris,’ is an example, composed partly in easy prose, partly in rhymed couplets, of what may be called the ‘rambling’ comedy of the age. This worthless piece is supposed to play just about the time of Monck's declaration in favour of the Restoration. ‘Bellamira, or the Mistress’ (1687), founded on the ‘Eunuchus’ of Terence, is the single one of Sedley's plays which may both for better and for worse be said to come near to his reputation; it is both the grossest and, from a literary point of view, the best executed of his plays. The character of the heroine was said to be intended as an exposure of the Duchess of Cleveland (cf. Genest, i. 455). The author, in his prologue, need hardly have asked:
Is it not strange to see, in such an age,
The pulpit get the better of the stage?
Sedley also adapted a French original which has not been identified under the title of ‘The Grumbler.’ This piece appears to have remained unacted till 1754, when it was brought out as a farce at Drury Lane, and this or the original was again adapted by Goldsmith in 1773 for Quick's benefit (Genest, iv. 391–2, v. 373; Biographia Dramatica, ii. 274).
Sedley's poems, together with those of Dorset, were collected in ‘A New Miscellany,’ 1701, and in a ‘Collection of Poems’ of the same date. They were published separately, together with his speeches, in 1707, London, 8vo; subsequent editions, 1722 and 1776.[The Works of the Hon. Sir Charles Sedley, Bart., in Prose and Verse, with Memoirs of the Author's Life, written by an Eminent Hand, 2 vols. 1776 (the Memoirs are nugatory; vol. ii. contains the preface prefixed by Captain Ayloffe, who claims affinity with Sedley, to the Miscellaneous Works, with the Death of Marc Antony, 1702); Collins's Baronetage of England, 1720, i. 327–9; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 344; Pepys's Diary; Langbaine's English Dramatic Poets, 1691, pp. 485–8; Genest's English Stage.]