Notable Irishwomen/Elizabeth Farren
(Countess of Derby),
ACCORDING to a theory of Charles Kingsley, the finest type of race is produced by the mixture of the Celt with the Saxon. Along with the brilliance, the dash, the living glow of the Celt, we have the steadiness, the perseverance, and the dogged determination of the Anglo-Saxon. However this may be, it is certain that some of the most remarkable women are the daughters of Irish fathers and English mothers, We have Maria Edgeworth, Felicia Hemans, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Lady Morgan, and, to this number, may be added the name of Elizabeth Farren, an actress of whom Ireland may well be proud. There is a good portrait of Miss Farren in the Dublin National Portrait Gallery, but the likeness by which she is best known is the famous full-length painting of her by Sir Thomas Lawrence. We see her tall, slight, willowy figure, gracefully draped in white, her large lustrous blue eyes, her fair curly hair, and the winning, appealing expression that seems to ask for sympathy and support. Essentially feminine as she was, Elizabeth Farren had strength of will and discretion, so that she kept her reputation untarnished, and in a most corrupt age, though she might be accused of meanness, ingratitude, and parsimony, scandal had nothing to say against her moral character. On her marriage with the twelfth Earl of Derby, she was received at Court by the virtuous Queen Charlotte, and was even allowed to join in the wedding procession of the Princess Royal with the Duke of Wurtemburg. What a transition from her early years, when it was said she used to beat the drum as the strolling company made their entrance into a provincial town!
The father of Elizabeth—or as she is often called, Eliza Farren—was a surgeon-apothecary by profession, a native of Cork, who married the daughter of a Liverpool brewer, or, some say, publican, named Wright. It was at Cork that Eliza Farren was born in 1759. George Farren grew tired of medicine, and took to the stage, for which he had a marked ability. He joined a company of strolling players, and with his wife and family—a family that, by degrees, mounted up to the number of seven, he travelled about in England from town to town. The lot of strolling players in those days was certainly not a happy one, and unfortunately George Farren was too fond of imbibing strong potations. It was said that once, while he was on the stage, he was so drunk that when he had to say the words, "Thus I tear this letter!" his hand was too unsteady to suit the action to the word; he could only throw the letter from him, and say, "Thus I throw this letter from me." He soon got tired of being ordered about, and took the management of a company into his own hands. A pretty story is told, that on Christmas Eve, 1769, the Farren Company made their entrance into Salisbury, with drums beating, and all the other accompaniments. The Mayor of the town, much annoyed at the obstruction that was created, summoned the manager to appear before him and to produce his licence. The licence not being forthcoming, Mr. Farren was promptly conveyed to Salisbury Jail. But now comes in the cream of the story. Little Lizzie, who was, no doubt, a pretty and interesting child, wanted to give her father a Christmas breakfast, and though the snow was thick on the ground, she carried a bowl of bread and milk to the prison. But here a new difficulty presented itself. She was not tall enough to reach the window and to pass in the bowl, but a boy, a few years older than herself, had seen her pass his father's shop, and had followed her to the prison. He came to the rescue, lifted her up to the window, and she fulfilled her kindly errand.
This boy afterwards became Chief Justice Burroughs, and years afterwards, when the poor, shabby little girl had blossomed into a Countess, they met again on the Windsor Road, and again help was given, and received, as we shall hear.
George Farren died, a comparatively young man, and his widow and children had to support themselves as best they could. Two of his daughters, Eliza and Peggy (afterwards Mrs. Knight), took small juvenile parts, Eliza having been a sort of infant phenomenon almost from her babyhood.
At the age of fourteen she was acting with her mother and sister at Wakefield, in Yorkshire, under T. W. Wilkinson, and when only fifteen she made her first appearance at Liverpool, as Rosetta in "Love in a Village." She was now under Mr. Younger, a kind, benevolent man, as well as an excellent manager. He took the greatest interest in the young actress, and treated her as his own child. He strongly advised her to go to London, and gave her an introduction to Colman, who at that time controlled the destinies of the Haymarket Theatre, and who was all powerful in the theatrical world, being a dramatic author as well as a capable and experienced manager.
On the 9th June, 1777, Eliza Farren appeared at the Haymarket in the character of Kate Hardcastle, in Goldsmith's comedy, "She Stoops to Conquer." She was favourably but not enthusiastically received. Her progress in public favour did not come all in a bound, as it did with her countrywoman, Mrs. Jordan. On the contrary, years elapsed before the actress of eighteen, who had made her début at the Haymarket, was acknowledged to be a star.
Miss Farren and her mother lodged in Suffolk Street, near the Haymarket. We are told that when an acquaintance from Liverpool, who belonged to a theatrical company there, called upon them, he was invited to take share of the family dinner, which consisted of a shoulder of mutton and potatoes, served in the brown dish in which they were baked and a plain pot of porter.
The elder Colman gave Mrs. Farren the nickname of "Tin Pocket." One morning, after rehearsal, this notable dame was observed hastening after her daughter as she came out of the theatre and exclaiming repeatedly, "It will be cold; it will be cold!" Colman fancied that he smelt something eatable, and that this something came from Mrs. Farren's pocket. Becoming curious, he insisted on examining it, when he found that she had a pocket lined with tin, which contained some hot boiled beef that she had just bought at a provision shop. This was intended for the dinner of herself and her daughter. She told Colman that she got the pocket made on purpose so as not to waste the gravy which was given with the meat. There was surely nothing disgraceful in this; but after Miss Farren's elevation to the peerage all those little incidents of her early struggles, were dragged to light in order to put her to the blush. But economy in everything, even in a spoonful of gravy, is rather creditable than otherwise; and the Farrens were bound to be careful, for they were in low water, and had nothing to depend upon but their own wits.
A turning point in Miss Farren's career came when she was invited to superintend some private theatricals which were given by the Duke of Richmond at Whitehall. The play represented was "The Heiress," written by General John Burgoyne, brother-in-law to the Earl of Derby. Miss Farren made a great success in the part of the heroine, and was subsequently known as "Miminy Piminy," a name she was called in the play. Prominent among the amateur actors, was the Earl of Derby who took one of the comic parts. He was married to Lady Betty Hamilton, only daughter of Elizabeth Gunning, the famous Irish beauty, by her first marriage with the Duke of Hamilton. The Countess of Derby was very pretty, but very wild and indiscreet in her conduct, and the marriage turned out most unhappily. From the time that Miss Farren appeared on the scene, Lord Derby had eyes and ears for no one else, and spent his time running after the beautiful actress, who on her part treated him with great hauteur.
She made a point of never seeing him except in the presence of a third person, generally her mother, who lived with her. Lady Derby was soon engrossed in a violent flirtation with the Duke of Dorset. Even the good-natured earl got out of patience with her, and divorce proceedings were threatened. They fell through from want of evidence, but a separation, by mutual consent, was arranged. No blame could be attached to Miss Farren who went on zealously with her profession. She had the support and friendship of many aristocratic leaders of society—the Duchess of Leinster, Lady Cecilia Johnson and Lady Dorothea Thomson, all introduced to her by Lord Derby. She was now at the full tide of success and her appearance is thus described:—"Her figure is considerably above the middle height and is of that slight texture which requires the use of full and flowing drapery. Her face, though not strictly beautiful, is animated and prepossessing; her eye, blue and penetrating, is a powerful feature when she chooses to employ it on the public, and either flashes with spirit or melts with softness; her voice is refined and feminine and her smile fascinates the heart, as her form delights the eye." Colman trusted her with the part of Rosina in "The Spanish Barber," and admirers flocked round her in crowds. Among them was Charles James Fox, then the hope of the Whig party and a prominent figure in society. His attentions might have developed into something serious if Miss Farren had not appeared in the part of Nancy Love in Colman's play of "The Suicide." Disguised as Dick Rattler, in what was then called a "breeches part," her grace and symmetry vanished. She was declared to be "all in one straight line from head to foot," and Fox ceased his attentions.
As Lady Townley in "The Provoked Husband," and Lady Fanciful in "A Provoked Wife," she was restored to public favour again and never repeated this unfortunate experiment. She was called "the lovely and accomplished Miss Farren" by George Colman, the younger, who adds that "no person more successfully performed the elegant levities of Lady Townley." Hazlitt speaks enthusiastically of "her fine lady airs and graces, with that elegant turn of the head and motion of her fan and tripping of her tongue." Horace Walpole goes so far as to say "she was the most perfect actress he had ever seen," and Richard Cumberland calls her style exquisite. When Mrs. Abington retired from the stage in 1782, Miss Farren reigned without a rival in depicting fine ladies of fashion. She sometimes took Shakespearean parts—Maria in "Twelfth Night," Portia, Hermione and Juliet—but she was always at her best as the fashionable lady of the period, wielding her fan with dexterity and grace. In August, 1785, she appeared as Mrs. Euston in Mrs. Inchbald's comedy, "I'll tell you what." Mrs. Inchbald is now chiefly known as the author of the novel, " A Simple Story "; but her plays were tolerably successful at a time when a women dramatist was as rare as a white blackbird. We are told that the house was convulsed with bursts of laughter, and at other times dissolved in tears. There were some points of resemblance between Mrs. Euston of the play and Miss Farren in real life. They both had an aristocratic admirer. As time went on, Lord Derby's attentions were redoubled, eighteen long years had no power to change his constancy. He was often seen following Miss Farren from Drury Lane to her house in Green Street, Grosvenor Square, "puffing as he went for want of breath," while she hardly deigned to give him a smile. Her coldness and indifference only increased his warmth. Though past the age of romance he frequently burst into poetry, and some of his tributes to his fair enchantress have been preserved. We have "Lines by Lord Derby to Mr. Humphry on his portrait of Miss Farren," in which he says:—
"Pleas'd I behold the Fair, whose comic art,
Th' unwearied eye of taste and judgment draws,
Who charms with native elegance the heart
And claims the loudest thunder of applause."
Still more interesting are the lines addressed by Lord Derby to Miss Farren on her absence from church:—
"While wand' ring angels, as they look'd from high
Observed thine absence with a holy sigh
To them a bright exalted seraph said,
'Blame not the conduct of the absent maid,
Where'er she goes, her steps can never stray,
Religion walks companion of her way;
She goes, with ev'ry virtuous thought imprest,
Heav'n in her face, and heav'n within her breast!'"
In March, 1797, when Miss Farren was approaching her thirty-seventh year, the news came of the death of the Countess of Derby, whose health had been failing for some time. Her end was a sad one. With beauty and charm she died, neglected and forsaken by all her admirers, even her debts, amounting to £5,000, were paid by her own family. There was no doubt about her successor; the coveted position was at once laid at the feet of Miss Farren. In the following month, April 8th, 1797, she made her farewell appearance as Lady Teazle in "The School for Scandal." The theatre was packed to the doors, and Lady Teazle's closing words had a special significance on this occasion:—
"Let me also request. Lady Sneerwell, that you will make my respects to the scandalous college of which you are a member, and inform them that Lady Teazle begs leave to return the diploma they gianted her, as she leaves off practice, and kills characters no longer!"
Moved even to tears, Miss Farren was then led off the stage for the last time. Her marriage with the Earl of Derby took place on the 8th May (just a month after her farewell appearance on the stage), by special licence, at his house in Grosvenor Square, and the happy pair set off for The Oaks. Many were the jokes made by the wits about Darby and Joan, but there is no doubt that in the case of Elizabeth Farren, virtue did meet its due reward, and she and her earl lived happily together. A son and two daughters were born of the marriage, so there was nothing to mar their bliss. Only one daughter, however, lived to grow up.
It says much for Miss Farren that during the two months of Lord Derby's widowhood, his eldest son. Lord Stanley, regularly escorted her to and from the theatre, to show that his feelings towards his future step-mother were of the friendliest kind. On the evening of the wedding, Mrs. Siddons came forward at Drury Lane to deliver some complimentary lines alluding to the loss sustained by the stage from the retirement of "Our Comic Muse." A curious caricature was made of the happy pair as Cupid and Psyche, she, tall and slim, head and shoulders over the earl, who was short, stout, and gouty.
It was said that when the newly-made Countess was presented to Queen Charlotte, she could not altogether forget her theatrical phraseology and remarked "that the most blissful moment of her life was that in which she had the honour of appearing before Her Majesty in a new character." Whether she ever actually used these words, it is impossible to say, for envy, malice, and all uncharitableness were unusually busy at the time of her elevation to the peerage.
It was on her way to Windsor, one winter's night, that her coach broke down, and she had to get out and sit by the roadside. Another coach was following behind, and an elderly gentleman, who was inside, put out his head to see what was the matter. He offered to give the lady a seat until her servants had repaired the damage. She accepted, and, to her amazement, she found out that the stranger, was no other than Chief Justice Burroughs, who, as a boy, had befriended her in the predicament of her childhood, outside Salisbury Jail.
Such a coincidence seems almost too good to be true. But anyway, the story is told, and strange things do happen, as we all know, in everyday life. Lady Derby died at Knowsley Park, on the 28th April, 1829. In her latter years she lost her good looks, and became very fond of snuff taking. Her husband only survived her five years.
As an actress, she was considered too cold. There was a strong strain of practical common-sense about her. She was never carried away by passion or impulse, she never lost her moral equilibrium, though often sorely tempted, as well as cruelly ridiculed by those whom it was her interest to please. She sustained her honours with dignity, and reflected credit on the historic house of Stanley.