페이지 이미지


score of genius, while there are

such names as Milton and Newton on record, were to be blind to the example which these and other great men have left, of the grandest intellectual powers combined with the most virtuous lives. But, for the bias given early to the mind by education and circumstances, even the least charitable may be inclined to make large allowances. We have seen how idly the young days of Sheridan were wasted—how soon he was left (in the words of the prophet) ‘to dwell carelessly, and with what an undisciplined temperament he was thrown upon the world, to meet at every step that

never-failing spring of temptation, which, like the fatal fountain in

[blocks in formation]

might have infused some spirit of .

order into his life. But the stage —his glory and his ruin—opened upon him; and the property of which it made him master was exactly of that treacherous kind,

[blocks in formation]

others, and thus combined all that a person of his carelessness and ambition had most to dread. An uncertain income, which, by eluding calculation, gives an excuse for improvidence, and, still more fatal, a facility of raising money, by which the lesson, that the pressure of distress brings with it, is evaded till it comes too late to be of use—such was the dangerous power put into his hands, in his six-and-twentieth year, and amidst the intoxication of as deep and quick draughts of fame as ever young author quaffed. Scarcely had the zest of this excitement begun to wear off, when he was suddenly transported into another sphere, where successes still more flattering to his vanity awaited him. Without any increase of means, he became the companion and friend of the first nobles and princes, and paid the usual tax of such unequal

[blocks in formation]

ing and uncertain as his means, and encouraged the same delusive calculations on both. He seemed, at every new turn of affairs, to be on the point of redeeming himself; and the confidence of others in his resources was no less fatal to him than his own, as it but increased the facilities of ruin that surround

ed him. “Such a career as this — so shaped towards wrong, so inevitably devious—it is impossible to regard otherwise than with the most charitable allowances. It was one long paroxysm of excitement ment—no pause for thought—no inducements to prudence—the attractions all drawing the wrong way, and a voice, like that which Bossuet describes, crying inexorably from behind him, “On, on 1’ Instead of wondering at the wreck that followed all this, our only surprise should be, that so much remained uninjured through the trial,—that his natural good feelings should have struggled to the last with his habits, and his sense of all that was right in conduct so long survived his ability to practise it. “Numerous, however, as were the causes that occurred to disorganise his moral character, in his pecuniary embarrassment lay the source of those blemishes that discredited him most in the eyes of the world. He might have indulged his vanity and his passions, like others, with but little loss of reputation, if the consequence of these indulgences had not been obtruded upon observation in the forbidding form of debts and distresses. So much did his friend Richardson, who thoroughly knew him, consider his whole character to have been influenced by the straitened circumstances in which he was placed, that he used often to say, “If an enchanter could, by the touch of his wand, endow Sheridan suddenly with fortune, he would instantly transform him into a most honourable and moral man.” As some corroboration of this opinion, I must say that, in the course of the inquiries which my task of biographer imposed upon me, I have found all who were ever engaged in pecuniary dealings with him, not excepting those who suffered most severely by his irregularities, (among which

class I may cite the respected name of Mr. Hammersley) unanimous in expressing their conviction that he always meant fairly and honourably; and that to the inevitable pressure of circumstances alone, any failure that occurred in his engagements was to be imputed. “There cannot, indeed, be a stronger exemplification of the truth, that a want of regularity becomes, itself, a vice, from the manifold evils to which it leads, than the whole history of Mr. Sheridan's pecuniary transactions. So far from never paying his debts, as is often asserted of him, he was, in fact, always paying; — but in such a careless and indiscriminate manner, and with so little justice to himself or others, as often to leave the respectable creditor to suffer for his patience, while the fraudulent dun was paid two or three times over. Never examining accounts, nor referring to receipts, he seemed as if (in imitation of his own Charles, preferring generosity to justice) he wished to make paying as like as possible to giving. Interest, too, with its usual silent accumulation, swelled every debt; and I have found several instances among his accounts where the interest upon a small sum had been suffered to increase till it outgrew the principal;- minima pars ipsa puella sui.’ “Notwithstanding all this, however, his debts were by no means so considerable as has been supposed. In the year 1808, he empowered Sir R. Berkely, Mr. Peter Moore, and Mr. Frederick Homan, by power of attorney, to examine into his pecuniary affairs and take measures for the discharge of all

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

claims upon him. These gentlemen, on examination, found that his bond fide debts were about 10,000l., while his apparent debts amounted to five or six times as much. Whether from conscientiousness or from pride, however, he would not suffer any of the claims to be contested, but said that the 'demands were all fair, and must be paid just as they were stated; though it was well known that many of them had been satisfied more than once. These gentlemen, accordingly, declined to proceed any farther with their Corninission. “On the same false feeling he acted in 1813-14, when the balance due on the sale of his theatrical property was paid him, in a certain number of shares. When applied to by any creditor, he would give him one of these shares, and allowing his claim entirely on his

own showing, leave him to pay

himself out of it, and refund the balance. Thus irregular at all times, even when most wishing to be right, he deprived honesty itself of its merit and advantages; and, where he happened to be just, left it doubtful, (as Locke says of those religious people, who believe right by chance, without examination) ‘whether even the luckiness of the accident excused the irregularity of the proceeding.’ The consequence, however, of this continual paying was, that the number of his creditors gradually diminished, and that, ultimately, the amount of his debts was, taking all circumstances into account, by no means considerable. Two years after his death, it appeared, by a list made up by his solicitor, from claims sent in to him, in consequence of an advertisement in the J 825.

[blocks in formation]

found so extensive a reputation for bad pay upon so small an amount of debt. “Let it never, too, be forgotten, in estimating this part of his character, that had he been less consistent and disinterested in his public conduct, he might have commanded the means of being independent and respectable in private. He might have died a rich apostate, instead of closing a life of patriotism in beggary. He might (to use a fine expression of his own) have ‘hid his head in a coronet,' instead of earning for it but the barren wealth of public gratitude. While, therefore, we admire the great sacrifice that he made, let us be tolerant to the errors and imprudences which it entailed upon him; and, recollecting how vain it is to look for any thing unalloyed in this world, rest satisfied with the martyr, without requiring, also, the saint.” From the political portion of this publication we have stedfastly abstained; suffice it to say, that the author shows himself to be a steady adherent to his well-known whig principles. Without quesB tioning tioning these, or, indeed, giving any opinion at all, we think the following extract may amuse our readers:– “Whiggism is a sort of political protestantism, and pays a similar tax for the freedom of its creed, in the multiplicity of opinions which that very freedom engenders — while true toryism, like popery, holding her children together by the one common doctrine of the infallibility of the throne, takes care to repress any schism inconvenient to their general interest, and keeps them, at least for all intents and purposes of placeholding, unanimous." Upon the conduct of the whigs towards the Prince of Wales (our present king) he elsewhere implies a very pungent censure. “That a young prince, fond of pleasure and impatient of restraint, should have thrown himself into the arms of those who were most likely to be indulgent to his errors, is nothing surprising, either in politics or ethics. But that mature and enlightened statesmen, with the lessons of all history before their eyes, should have been equally ready to embrace such a rash alliance, or should count upon it as any more than a temporary instrument of faction, is, to say the least of it, one of those self-delusions of the mise, which show how vainly the voice of the past may speak amid the loud appeals and temptations of the present. The last Prince of Wales, it is true, by whom the popular cause was espoused, had left the lesson imperfect, by dying before he came to the throne. But this deficiency has since been amply made up ; and future whigs, who may be placed in similar circumstances,

will have, at least, one historical warning before their eyes, which ought to be enough to satisfy the most unreflecting and credulous.” At page 540, there is the following jell-d'esprit:“I have (says Mr. M.) already given a humorous dedication of the Rivals, written by Tickell on the margin of a copy of that play in my possession. I shall now add another piece of still more happy humour, with which he has filled, in very neat handwriting, the three or four first pages of the same copy. “‘The Rivals, a comedy—one of the best in the English language —written as long ago as the reign of George the Third. The author's name was Sheridan—he is mentioned by the historians of that age as a man of uncommon abilities, very little improved by cultivation. His confidence in the resources of his own genius and his aversion to any sort of labour were so great, that he could not be prevailed upon to learn either to read or write. He was, for a short time, manager of one of the play-houses, and conceived the extraordinary and almost incredible project of composing a play extempore, which he was to recite in the green-room to the actors, who were immediately to come on the stage and perform it. The players refusing to undertake their parts at so short a notice, and with , so little preparation, he threw up the management with disgust. “‘He was a member of the last parliaments that were summoned in England, and signalized himself on many occasions by his wit and eloquence, though he seldom came to the house till the debate was nearly concluded, and never spoke, unless he was drunk. He lived on a footing of great intimacy with the famous Fox, who is said to have concerted with him the audacious attempt which he made about the year 1783, to seize the whole property of the East India Company, amounting at that time to above 12,000,000l. sterling, and then to declare himself Lord Protector of the realm, by the title of Carlo Khan. This desperate scheme actually received the consent of the lower house of parliament, the majority of whom were

'bribed by Fox, or intimidated by

his and Sheridan's threats and violence; and it is generally believed that the revolution would have taken place, if the lords of the king's bedchamber had not in a body surrounded the throne, and shewn the most determined resolution not to abandon their posts but with their lives. The usurpation being defeated, parliament was dissolved and loaded with infamy. Sheridan was one of the few members of it who were reelected:—the burgesses of Stafford, whom he had kept in a constant state of intoxication for near three weeks, chose him again to represent them, which he was well qualified to do. “‘Fox’s whig party being very much reduced, or rather almost annihilated, he and the rest of the conspirators remained quiet for some time; till, in the year 1788, the French, in conjunction with Tippoo Sultan, having suddenly seized and divided between themselves the whole of the British possessions in India, the East India Company broke, and a national bankruptcy was apprehended. During this confusion, Fox and his partizans assembled in large bodies, and made a violent

attack in parliament on Pitt, the king's first minister:—Sheridan supported and seconded him. Parliament seemed disposed to inquire into the cause of the calamity: the nation was almost in a state of actual rebellion; and it is impossible for us, at the distance of 300 years, to form any judgment what dreadful consequences might have followed, if the king, by the advice of the lords of the bedchamber, had not dissolved the parliament, and taken the administration of affairs into his own hands, and those of a few confidential servants, at the head of whom he was pleased to place one Mr. Atkinson, a merchant, who had acquired a handsome fortune in the Jamaica trade, and passed universally for a man of unblemished integrity. His Majesty having now no farther occasion for Pitt, and being desirous of rewarding him for his past services, and, at the same time, finding an adequate employment for his great talents, caused him to enter into holy orders, and presented him with the deanery of Windsor, where he became an excellent preacher, and published several volumes of sermons, all of which are now lost. “‘To return to Sheridan :-on the abrogation of parliament, he entered into a closer connexion than ever with Fox and a few others of lesser note, forming together as desperate and profligate a gang as ever disgraced a civilized country. They were guilty of every species of enormity, and went so far as even to commit robberies on the highway, with a degree of audacity that could be equalled only by the ingenuity with which they escaped conviction. Sheridan, not satisfied with B 2 eluding,

« 이전계속 »