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

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LEE, HARRIET (1757–1851), novelist and dramatist, was born in London in 1757. After the death of her father, John Lee [q. v.] the actor, in 1781, she aided her sister Sophia [see Lee, Sophia] in keeping a private school at Belvidere House, Bath. In 1786 she published 'The Errors of Innocence,' a novel in five volumes, written in epistolary form. A comedy, 'The New Peerage, or our Eyes may deceive us,' was performed at Drury Lane on 10 Nov. 1787, and, although acted nine times, was not successful enough to encourage her to continue writing for the stage. Genest calls it 'on the whole a poor play' (Hist. of Stage, vi. 471-2). It was published with a dedication to Thomas King the actor, who had taken the chief part. The younger Bannister, Suett, and Miss Farren were also in the cast. Richard Cumberland wrote the prologue. 'Clara Lennox,' a novel in two volumes, was published in 1797 and translated into French in the following year. The first two volumes of Miss Lee's chief work, 'The Canterbury Tales,' in which she was assisted by her sister Sophia, appeared in 1797-8, and a second edition appeared in 1799. The remaining three volumes came out in 1805. In 1798 she published a play in three acts, 'The Mysterious Marriage, or the Heirship of Rosalva.' It was never acted.

Before 1798 William Godwin [q. v.] made Miss Lee's acquaintance during a ten days' sojourn at Bath, and was so greatly struck with her conversation—he made elaborate analyses of it—that he determined to offer her marriage. From April to August 1798 they carried on a curious correspondence. But Godwin's egotism displeased Harriet, and she frankly rebuked his vanity. Godwin again visited Bath at the end of 1798 and paid her formal addresses, but Miss Lee, who seems to have had a regard for her eccentric lover, finally decided that his religious opinions made a happy union impossible. Her last letter, 7 Aug. 1798, expressed a hope that friendly intercourse might be maintained; and Godwin sent letters to her at a later date criticising some of her literary productions. Among other of her friends were Jane and Anna Maria Porter, the novelists, who lived at Bristol, and Thomas (afterwards Sir Thomas) Lawrence [q. v.] It is said that Sophia and Harriet Lee were the first to predict the future eminence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who presented to them portraits by himself of Mrs. Siddons, John Kemble, and General Paoli. Samuel Rogers mentions meeting Harriet Lee in 1792 (Clayden, Early Life of Samuel Rogers, p. 241). She lived to the great age of ninety-four, and was remarkable to the last for her lively conversational talents, clear judgment, powerful memory, and benevolent and kindly disposition. She died at Clifton, 1 Aug. 1861.

'The Canterbury Tales' (1797-1805), Miss Lee's best-known work, consists of twelve stories, related by travellers thrown together by untoward accident. The small contribution of her sister Sophia is distinctly inferior to that of Harriet, who understood the art of story-telling. The book fell into the hands of Byron when he was a boy. 'When I was young (about fourteen, I think),' he writes in the preface to Werner, regarding one of the tales, 'Kruitzner,' 'I first read this tale, which made a deep impression upon me, and may, indeed, be said to contain the germ of much that I have since written. In 1821 Lord Byron dramatised 'Kruitzner,' and published it in 1822 under the title of 'Werner, or the Inheritance.' In the preface he fully acknowledges his indebtedness to Harriet Lee's story, stating that he adopted its characters, place, and even its language. Miss Lee had also dramatised her story at an earlier date, under the title of 'The Three Strangers.' and on the publication of Byron's dramatic version she sent her play to Covent Garden Theatre (November 1822); but although the piece was accepted, the performance was postponed by her own wish till 10 Dec. 1825, when it was acted four times. The cast included Warde, C. Kemble, and Mrs. Chatterley. Genest describes it (ix. 846) as 'far from bad.' It was published in 1826.

[Bristol Journal. 9 Aug. 1851; Biographia Dramatica; Ann. Beg. 1851, p. 315; Gent. Mag. September 1851, p. 326; Kegan Paul's William Godwin, i. 298-316; Moore's Life of Byron, p. 536; D. E. Williams's Sir Thomas Lawrence, i. 15.]

E. L.