Mary Russell Mitford

Mary Russell Mitford, in Introduction to Mitford, Dramatic Works (1854) 1:v-xxxiv.

Ever since Pope's famous couplet, the solemn protestations of authors that they print at the "request of friends," has been held to be a false and cowardly pretence, and scorned and derided accordingly. Now and then, however, that most improbable assertion happens to be true — n the present instance it undoubtedly is so. For the publication of these volumes, the excellent friend to whom they are inscribed is solely accountable: a heavy weight of responsibility which he will redeem, some day or other, by giving to the world lyrics of his own writing that nobody will wish shorter.

How he chanced upon these plays of mine, I hardly know. I think he picked them up in the library of a great country-house where he was visiting. They had fallen into such utter oblivion, that I also might have forgotten them, but for an occasional dream, too vague to be called a hope, that in the brief moment of kindly indulgence, which follows the death of any one who has contributed, however slightly, to the public amusement, some friend might gather them together in the same spirit that prompts the stringing verses into an epitaph. To edite these tragedies myself, seems a kind of anachronism, not unlike engraving the inscription upon my own tombstone. I can only pray that my poor plays may be as mercifully dealt with as if they were indeed published by my executor, and the hand that wrote them were laid in peaceful rest, where the sun glances through the great elm-trees in the beautiful church-yard of Swallowfield.

And here I might well close my preliminary observations, were it not that all dramatists who have printed plays, from John Dryden to Victor Hugo, have delighted to take their ease in the permitted egotism of a rambling preface; and I have no mind to forfeit so pleasant a privilege, although my egotism may probably prove of a different sort. The Prefaces of the great Laureate indeed would be difficult to imitate, inasmuch as they contain some of the finest prose in the language. They consist, for the most part, of noble and generous criticism, strangely mingled with theories dear to the Merry Monarch, with vindications of the practice of interfusing licentious farce amidst regal tragedy, and preference of the rhymes of Corneille to the blank verse of Shakespeare. That Dryden could have written Tragedy, is proved by the two striking scenes of quarrel and of reconciliation in "Don Sebastian" and "All for Love." The cause of his failure may be found in these theories. But theory, right or wrong, especially as applied to the work in hand, forms the ground-work of most dramatic Prefaces, largely blended with skilful specimens of the noble art of self-justification, with vehement attacks upon critics, and perpetual grumblings against managers and actors, and all that was done and all that was not done for the pieces that follow.

Now, although there be some dignity in having been ill-used — a dignity akin to that which made honest Dogberry proud of being "a man who had had losses," and I am not absolutely prepared to relinquish my claim to such a distinction — I yet hold it to be one which it is a point of discretion and of comfort to forget. The gentlest reader has small sympathy with such grievances; and in that want of sympathy does but follow one of those instincts which it is seldom wise to disobey. No one has a right to gratify a prickly, defiant and sensitive self-love by speaking unkindly of another, especially when the waves of thirty years have rolled between. So instead of reciting long categories of theatrical troubles, I shall endeavour to explain to myself and to others, what has often caused me some astonishment, the causes that drove a shy and retired woman, whose days had passed chiefly in the calm seclusion of a country village into the ambitious and perilous paths of dramatic literature.

Where my passion for plays began, it is difficult to say. Perhaps at the little town of Alresford, when I was somewhat short of four years old, and was taken by my dear father to see one of the greatest tragedies of the world set forth in a barn. Even now I have a dim recollection of a glimmering row of candles dividing the end which was called the stage from the part which did duty as pit and boxes, of the black face and the spangled turban, of my wondering admiration, and the breathless interest of the rustic audience.

My dear father! how, to the very last, he loved to take his pets to the play! More than fifty years must have passed since that evening in the barn, when, happening to dine at Reading, attended by the beautiful little brown spaniel, who followed him everywhere, he, and of course Flush, accompanied his host to the theatre, to see the charming actress and charming woman, Mrs. Orger. They sate in the place of honour close to the stage. Flush, with his paws on the front of the box, his large earnest eyes fixed on the actors, and his long silky ears brought forward on either side of his face, as is the custom of those intelligent dogs on great occasions, looked and listened all through the piece with a sedate fixity of attention, which greatly endangered the gravity of the persons on the stage. Mrs. Orger told me the next day that she had never in her life had so much difficulty in keeping her countenance. It is to be presumed that the little girl of four years old would have pretty much the same appreciation of "Othello" that the beautiful spaniel had of Sally Maggs, only with Flush the impression was solitary, and wore away; with me, repeated as often as opportunity offered, it deepened.

Sixty years ago, in the early times of the great war, the drama filled a very different place amongst the amusements of a country town from that which it holds now. Concerts were rare, lectures unknown, and the theatre patronised by the leading families, and conducted in the good town of Reading (to which we had removed) with undeviating propriety, formed the principal recreation of the place. The new comedies of those old times, the comedies of Holcroft and Morton, of Colman and Sheridan, followed by the farces of Foote and O'Keefe, and the musical entertainments of Dibdin, formed the staple of the house. I wonder whether anybody remembers, now-a-days, the pleasant extravagances of O'Keefe, who, soar to what comical absurdity he would, was sure to carry his audience with him; or the ease, the neatness, the racy humour of Foote's dialogue, equal, in point and finish, to the finest scenes of Congreve! or his translations of Moliere, almost as good as the originals themselves! Foote was one of those men whose great gifts as an actor and a mimic have injured his reputation as an author. The world is incredulous of versatility, and does not readily admit that anybody can excel in two ways. Because he acted his own parts with so much talent, the parts have died with him. They are well worth revising and reviving; above all, they are worth studying. Well! I did not look at them, I suppose, quite so critically then; but such were the performances which, varied by an occasional visit from a star, prepared my mind for the glories of the metropolitan boards.

It was during the five years from ten years old to fifteen, which I passed at a London school, that my passion for the acted drama received its full development. At this school (well known afterwards as the residence of poor Miss Landon), there chanced to be an old pupil of the establishment who, having lived, as the phrase goes, in several families of distinction, was at that time disengaged, and in search of a situation as governess. This lady was not only herself a poetess (I have two volumes of verse of her writing,) but she had a knack of making poetesses of her pupils. She had already educated Lady Caroline Ponsonby (the Lady Caroline Lamb, of Glenalvon celebrity), and was afterwards destined to give her first instruction to poor L. E. L., and her last to Mrs. Fanny Kemble. She was, however, a clever woman, and my father eagerly engaged her to act by me as a sort of private tutor — a governess out of school-hours.

At the time when I was placed under her care, her whole heart was in the drama, especially as personified by John Kemble; and I am persuaded that she thought she could in no way so well perform her duty, as in taking me to Drury Lane whenever his name was in the bills.

It was a time of great actors. Jack Bannister and Jack Johnstone (they would not have known their own names if called John), Fawcctt and Emery, Lewis and Munden, Mrs. Davenport, Miss Pope, and Mrs. Jordan, most exquisite of all, made comedy a bright and living art, an art as full as life itself of laughter and of tears; whilst the glorious family of Kemble satisfied alike the eye and the intellect, the fancy and the heart.

John Kemble was, however, certainly Miss Rowden's chief attraction to Drury Lane Theatre. She believed him — and of coarse her pupil shared in her faith — the greatest actor that ever had been, or that ever could be; greater than Garrick, greater than Kean. I am more catholic now; but I still hold all my admiration, except its exclusiveness.

If Foote's reputation have been injured, as I think it has, by his own double talent as an actor and a mimic, so the fame of John Kemble — that perishable actor's fame — has suffered not a little by the contact with his great sister. Besides her uncontested and incontestable power, Mrs. Siddons had one advantage not always allowed for — she was a woman. The actress must always be dearer than the actor; goes closer to the heart, draws tenderer tears. Then she came earlier, and took the first possession; and she lasted longer, charming all London by her reading, whilst he lay in a foreign grave. Add that the tragedy in which they were best remembered was one in which the heroine must always predominate, for Lady Macbeth is the moving spirit of the play. But take characters of more equality — Katharine and Wolsey, Hermione and Leontes, Coriolanus and Volumnia, Hamlet and the Queen — and surely John Kemble may hold his own. How often have I seen them in those plays! What would I give to see again those plays so acted!

Another and a very different test of John Kemble's histrionic skill was the life and body which he put into the thin shadowy sketches of Kotzebue, then in his height of fashion. Mr. Canning, by the capital parodies of the "Anti-Jacobin," demolished the sentimental comedy of the German school, a little unmercifully perhaps, for with much that was false and absurd, and the bald gibberish of the translator, for which the author is not answerable, the situations were not only effective, but true. As Mr. Thackeray has somewhere observed, the human heart was there, and John Kemble contrived to show its innermost throbbings. In Penruddock (for "The Wheel of Fortune" is of German origin, although written by an Englishman), in Rolla, in the Abbe de l'Epee, three creations essentially various in form and in matter, nobody that has seen him can forget his grace, his pathos, or the manner in which he lent a poetry of feeling to the homeliest prose. In the old French philanthropist particularly, a part which is nothing, the smallness of the means, the absence of all apparent effort, produced that perfection of art which looks like simple nature. Such were my first impressions of London acting.

After my return home, came days of eager and solitary poring over the mighty treasures of the printed drama, that finest form of poetry which never can be lost. At school, I had been made acquainted, like other school-girls, with Racine. Little did Madame de Maintenon, proud queen of the left hand, think, when the gentle poet died of a courtly frown, that she and St. Cyr would be best remembered by Athalie! I had won, too, for myself the knowledge of bolder tragedies — of Cinna, of Horace, of the Cid, of Merope, of Mahomet, of Zaire, and of the greatest Frenchman of his great age, the peerless Moliere. Of Shakespeare I say nothing. I had grown up — it is the privilege of English people to grow up — in the worship of Shakespeare, and many of his favourite scenes I literally knew by heart. But whilst still almost a child, whilst thinking no evil, and therefore perhaps finding none, the Elizabethan poets, so nearly his contemporaries, had fallen in my way — poets second only to their great leader in tenderness, in sublimity, in all but purity.

Charles Lamb has given specimens of the early English Dramatists, containing as fine poetry as our language can show out of Shakespeare; and he and Hazlitt have rendered noble justice to Webster, to Marlowe, to Dekker, to Ford, to all who were previously little known; whilst Massinger, so admirable for character and construction, and Beaumont and Fletcher, so affluent, so eloquent, so royally grand in certain scenes, so touchingly pathetic in others, have, as it seems to me, something less than their due measure of praise. "Every child loves the violet of his own finding best." It is true that these great poets had their full meed of applause whilst still alive to enjoy it, and that so late as Dryden's day he had said that the English language attained its perfection in their verse; but in my time they had gone completely out of fashion; and I think that I was unconsciously swayed by the axiom which I have quoted, and a little overrated the twin dramatists, because I fancied them under-rated by these eminent critics. It is certain that I, luxuriated in their abundance, their profusion, the quantity of story and of incident which sometimes overlays their plots, but always keeps alive curiosity and interest; above all, in those whole scenes, sometimes whole acts, never whole plays, which might almost pass for Shakespeare. Fletcher was my second favourite amongst the old dramatists; but in plays, as in actors, I was catholic, and had love for them all.

Every third year, another noble form of tragedy, one with which women are seldom brought in contact, fell in my way. It happened that our family, although no longer living in a country town, kept up a close intimacy with that of the learned and excellent Master of Reading School, Dr. Valpy; who, having himself no small love for the stage, had wisely substituted the representation of one of the stern Greek Plays for the speeches and recitations formerly delivered before the Heads of certain Colleges of Oxford at their Triennial Visitations. Many of the old pupils will remember the effect of these performances, complete in scenery, dresses, and decorations, and remarkable for the effect produced, not only on the actors, but on an audience, of which a considerable portion was new alike to the language and the subject. It is no offence to impute such ignorance to the Mayor and Aldermen of that day, who, in their furred gowns, formed part of the official visitors, or to the mammas and sisters of the Performers, who might plead the privilege of sex for their want of leaning.

For myself, as ignorant of Latin or of Greek as the smuggest alderman or slimmest damsel present, I had my own share in the pageant. In spite of all remonstrance and of all dissuasion, the dear Doctor would insist on my writing the authorised account of the play — the grand official critique which filled I know not how many columns of the "Reading Mercury," and was sent east, west, north, and south, wherever mammas and grandmammas were found, and cherished and hoarded by them as certificates of the genius and learning of their offspring. Of course it was necessary to mention everybody, and to commit all the injustice which belongs to an enforced equality by praising some too little and some too much. The too little was more frequent than the too much; for the boys, as a body, did act marvellously, especially those who filled the female parts; making one understand how the ungentle sex might have rendered the Desdemonas and the Imogens in James's day. So famous, indeed, were the Doctor's boys for their women, that I never could prevail upon him to get up that masterpiece, "Philoctetes," where pity and hatred are moved almost as strongly as in "Lear," not on account of the obvious objection of the physical suffering, but because there was no lady in the play. One circumstance only, a little injured the perfect grouping of the scene. The Visitation occurred in October, not long after the conclusion of the summer holidays; and between cricket and boating, and the impossibility of wearing gloves incident to boys of fifteen, our Helens and Antigones exhibited an assortment of sunburnt fists which might have become a tribe of Red Indians. That did a little spoil the picture. Sophocles, however, is Sophocles nevertheless; and seldom can his power have been more thoroughly felt than in these performances at Reading School.

The good Doctor, full of kindness, and far too learned for pedantry, rewarded my compliance with his wishes in the way I liked best, by helping me to enter into the spirit of the mighty masters who dealt forth these stem Tragedies of Destiny. He put into my hands le Pere Brumoy's "Theatre des Grecs," and other translations in homely French prose, where the form and letter were set forth, untroubled by vexatious attempts at English verse — grand outlines for imagination to colour and fill up. There are better things than the unities to be learnt of those old Athenian Poets, as Alfieri has shown, and would have shown better if he had imitated less.

In the meanwhile, frequent visits to London had made known to me the successive glories of the two great Theatres. I had seen the boyish grace of Master Betty, and all the charm of womanly tenderness in Miss O'Neill, and had watched the fiery impulse and gushing pathos that had electrified the town in Edmund Kean. "The Honeymoon," most gracious and most graceful of modern comedies, had been acted as it never has been acted since by Elliston, and Miss Duncan, and little Collins; and Mr. Knowles had produced two vivid and original tragedies in "Virginius" and "William Tell." Everything tended to encourage a poetical aspirant.

About this time, too, my own prospects, so bright and sunny in early youth, became gradually overclouded. A Chancery suit, the gaining of which cost eight years and eleven thousand pounds, was the climax of our misfortunes. We were now so poor, that it became a duty to earn money if I could, and how I could, and so I determined to write a play.

In my very early girlhood, I had followed my destiny as a pupil of Miss Rowden, by committing the sin of rhyming. No less than three octavo volumes had I perpetrated in two years. They had all the faults incident to a young lady's verses, and one of them had been deservedly castigated by the "Quarterly." Nevertheless, they had had their praisers — as what young ladies' verses have not! — Large impressions had gone rapidly off; one had run into a second edition; they had been republished in America — always so kind to me! — two or three of the shorter pieces had been thought good enough to be stolen; and Mr. Coleridge had prophesied of the larger ones, that he authoress of "Blanche" would write a tragedy. So I took heart of grace, and resolved to try a play.

My first attempt was a blank verse comedy on a pretty story, taken from a French feuilleton — a story so pretty, that it made the first manager, to whom, without any introduction, I ventured to send it, pause to consider; and after his final decision, tempted an amateur composer into requesting me to turn it into an opera; by which means I achieved a double rejection of the same piece. Then, nothing daunted, I tried Tragedy, and produced five acts on the story of "Fiesco," which would doubtless have been rejected also had they ever fallen into the hands of a manager.

But just as, conscious of the feebleness of my attempts, of the smallness of my means, and the greatness of my object, I was about to relinquish the pursuit in despair, I met with a critic so candid, a friend so kind, that, aided by his encouragement, all difficulties seemed to vanish. I speak of the author of "Ion," Mr. Justice Talfourd, then a very young man, although old in literary reputation, and helping me, as he has helped many a struggler since, by the most judicious advice and the heartiest sympathy. "Foscari" was the result of this encouragement — a womanish play, which acts better than it reads. Indeed, being at Oxford, where an excellent company was performing during the long vacation, I heard that it contained no fewer than four fair Camillas who had acted my heroine in different circuits. "Foseari" was quickly followed by "Julian," originally suggested by the first scene of the "Orestes" of Euripides, which happened to be given that year at Reading School.

Both these plays were accepted and produced at Covent Garden, although in an inverse order to that in which they were written; and but that I have promised myself and my readers not to enter into the vexed question of theatrical squabbles, a history of their adventures might be concocted quite as long as themselves. Suffice it to say, that poor "Foscari" had no less than five last scens — I think I underrate the number, and that there were seven! — and that the two plays fought each other on the point of precedence during the best part of the season — which was pretty mach like a duel between one's right hand and one's left.

Great, at the moment, were those anxieties and tribulations, the rather that money arrangements most important to those dearer to me than myself were staked on the issue. But it is good to observe in one's own mind, and good to tell to others who may be exposed to such trials, how inevitably, as according to some happy law of nature the keenest physical pain is known to be soon forgotten, whilst pleasure's light traces are indelible; so in mental vicissitudes, Time carries away the bitter and leaves the sweet. The vexations and the injuries fade into dim distance, and the kindness and the benefit shine vividly out. The warm grasp of Mrs. Charles Kemble's hand, for instance, when I saw her all life and heartiness at her house in Soho Square, my first dramatic experience: — the excellent acting of "Foscari;" Mr. Young, and Mr. Charles Kemble, so quiet and so touching in the concluding scenes; Mr. Warde playing a secondary part so finely, that he led every body into thinking that he ought to play the first; Mr. Serle lending to Cosmo his own fine taste; and Mrs. Sloman, who would have achieved the highest reputation but for the want of the indescribable thing called charm: — then "Julian," on the other hand; how Mr. Macready stood alone under the weight of that tragedy, with how much talent, how much warmth, what untiring and indefatigable zeal! These are the things one thinks of, when sitting calm and old by the light of a country fire; and if other recollections mingle with them, they are rather of the comic and the grotesque kind than of the bitter or the resentful.

To one accustomed to the imposing aspect of a great theatre at night, blazing with light and beauty, no contrast can be greater than to enter the same theatre at noontide, leaving daylight behind you, and stumbling as best you may through dark passages, and amidst the inextricable labyrinth of scenery and lumber of every description; too happy if you be not projected into the orchestra, or swallowed up by a trap-door.

Captain Forbes, one of the proprietors, and a naval man, used to compare the stage with its three tiers of under-ground store-rooms and magazines, and its prodigious height and complexity of top hamper aloft to a first-rate man-of-war. That comparison is rather too flattering. To me — no offence to the Theatre Royal Covent Garden — it always recalled the place where I first made acquaintance with the enchantment of the scene, by reminding me of some prodigious barn. A barn it certainly resembles, vast dusty, dusky and cavernous, with huge beams toppling overhead, holes yawning beneath, rough partitions sticking out on either side, and everywhere a certain vague sense of obscurity and confusion.

When the eye becomes accustomed to the darkness, the contrasts are sufficiently amusing. Solemn tragedians — that is to say, tragedians who seem solemn enough in their stage gear at night — hatted and great-coated, skipping about, chatting and joking, and telling good stories like common mortals; indeed, the only very grave person whom I remarked was Mr. Liston; tragic heroines sauntering languidly through their parts in the closest of bonnets and thickest of shawls; untidy ballet-girls (there was a dance in "Foscari") walking through their quadrille to the sound of a solitary fiddle, striking up as if of its own accord from amidst the tall stools and music-desks of the orchestra, and piercing one hardly knew how through the din that was going on incessantly.

Oh, that din! Voices from every part, above below, mound, and in every key, bawling, shouting, screaming; heavy weights rolling here and falling there, bells ringing one could not tell why, and the ubiquitous call-boy everywhere! If one element prevailed amongst these conflicting noises, it was certainly the never-pausing strokes of the carpenter's hammer, which in our case did double duty, the new scenery of the morrow being added to the old scenery of the night. Double, too, were the cares not merely of the official before-mentioned, the call-boy, but of his superiors, the stage-manager and the prompter; for whilst we, the new tragedy, held after our strange scrambling fashion possession of the stage, the comedy or opera of the evening was crowded into the green-room, to the great increase of our confusion and their own; some of their people belonging to us, and some of ours to them, and neither party being ever in the proper place, so that there were perpetual sendings alter their walking gentlemen and our walking ladies, the common property.

The scenery too, that part which was fished up from the subterraneous galleries, was fertile in blunders. I have known a fine view of the Rialto with a bit of Charing Cross for one wing, and a slice of the Forest of Ardennes for the other. Even the new scenes had their perils. Painter and manager would disagree as to the size of the moon, and a good half-hour was wasted one morning in experiments as to the best manner of folding the [muslin] clouds over the face of that bright luminary.

Then the turmoil about costume! A good deal of that squabbling was transacted in some remote part of the upper regions, where tailors and dress-makers held their court; but some of the difficulties descended upon the stage. There was a cloak in "Julian," which having to act as a pall to the fair Annabel, never could be made wide enough; and all the precedents of all the Duke's head-dresses in all the theatres of the world, from that in the "Merchant of Venice" to that in "Venice Preserved," never could persuade me that the tail inverted drum assumed by Mr. Young was the proper bonnet of the Doge. This, however, was my own private grief. Through all their courtesy, I had early made the discovery, that the less an author meddled in such matters the better. One dispute was open and general: it had reference to the proper time of assuming mourning. Donato (we are still talking of "Foscari") died in the third act: the question was, whether his son and daughter should put on black in the fourth — that is, the next morning. Parties were divided: the anti-blacks holding that it is not customary to go into mourning before the funeral. The debate ended, as debates in higher places are apt to end in our good kingdom of England, in a compromise. The lady appeared in the deepest sables that the dressmaker could furnish; her brother retained the radiant suit of satin and embroidery which he had worn from the commencement of the play; a manner of settling the dispute which, like the aforesaid compromises in higher places, had the effect of making both parties seem wrong.

No end to the absurdities and discrepancies of a rehearsal! I contributed my full share to the amount, and began pretty early, so soon indeed as the very first words that I ever uttered behind the scenes. There is a gun in "Julian;" and I, frightened by one when a child, "hate a gun like a hurt wild-duck;" and the only time that I ever went to a review coaxed my father to drive me home before it began. I was only twelve years old then; but I had not much improved by becoming a tragic authoress, for my first address to Mr. Macready was an earnest entreaty that he would not suffer them to fire that gun at rehearsal. They did fire nevertheless; as indeed if the gun had not gone off in the morning, it might have been forgotten at night; but the smiling bow of the great tragedian had spared me the worst part of that sort of fright, the expectation.

Troubled and anxious though they were, those were pleasant days, guns and all; days of hope dashed with so much fear, of fear illumined with its fitful rays of hope. And those rehearsals, where for noise of every sort nobody can hear himself speak, where nobody is ever to be found where he is wanted, and nobody ever seems to know a syllable of his part; those rehearsals must have some good in them notwithstanding. In the midst of the crowd, the din, the jokes, and the confusion, the business must somehow have gone on; for at night the right scenes fall into the right places, the proper actors come at the proper times, speeches are spoken in due order, and, to the no small astonishment of the novice, who had given herself up for lost, the play succeeds.

Not that I had nerve enough to attend the first representation of my tragedies. I sate still and trembling in some quiet apartment near, twice I think in a small room belonging to that good-natured person Mr. George Robins; and thither some friend flew to set my heart at ease. Generally the messenger of good tidings was poor Haydon, whose quick and ardent spirit lent him wings on such an occasion, and who had full sympathy with my love for a large canvas, however indifferently filled.

Before leaving "Foscari," it is well to say that two innovations began with my tragedies. The Epilogue by some accident arrived so late, that the lady by whom it was to be spoken complained that she had not time to study it. She probably made the most of the delay. No fair comedian can be supposed to find much pleasure in being dragged to the theatre for so ungrateful a purposes every tragedy night; so Mr. Fawcett, the stage-manager, a man, as his acting always evinced, of excellent judgment, proposed its omission. It was, he said, simply an added danger, could do no good in failure, and stopped the applause in success. So we discarded the Epilogue altogether; and afterwards, when bringing out "Rienzi," we also dropped the Prologue: in both cases, I believe, for the first time.

It was during the run of "Julian," that seeing much of my dear friend Miss Porden (afterwards married to Sir John Franklin), and talking with her of subjects for a fresh effort, one or the other, I hardly know which hit upon "Rienzi;" a personage at that time so little familiar to the public, that a great Law Dignitary asked gravely, after seeing the play, whether such a man had ever existed? and another eminent person, gathering from my Preface that the story might be found in Gibbon, produced the first volume of "The Decline and Fall," actually the FIRST, which he told me he was about to take into the country, in order to compare my delineation with the actual man.

Miss Porden had herself written an heroic poem, called "Coeur de Lion," which, if anybody nowa-days could read an epic two volumes long, would be found remarkable as a promise; so she was far from being startled at my boldness, and took a vivid interest in my attempt. A year or two after, when in London, negotiating about this very play, I saw her again as Mrs. Franklin. Her husband was in Lincolnshire, taking leave of his relations before setting forth on one of his adventurous voyages; and, in the midst of her warm and undiminished sympathy with my anxieties, she talked of that husband whose projects of polar discovery had filled her imagination, showed me his bust and their little girl, and a flag which she was working for him as her own Berengaria had done for Richard. It was poetry in action — epic poetry — and I too sympathised with the devoted wife. But I saw, what at that time her own sister had not suspected, that she was dying. This warm-hearted and large-minded woman was of a frame and temperament the most delicate and fragile. The agitation of parting was too much for her; and before Captain Franklin's expedition was out of the Channel, she was dead.

When "Rienzi," after a more than common portion of adventures and misadventures, did come out with a success rare in a woman's life, I missed the eager congratulations which I should have received from her who had taken so large a part in its previous history — missed her, the rather, perhaps, because no part of my success was more delightful than the pleasure which it excited amongst the most eminent of my female contemporaries. Maria Edgeworth, Joanna Baillie, Feicia Hemans (and to two of them I was at that time unknown), vied in the cordiality of their praises. In Mrs. Hemans, this warmth was peculiarly generous, for "Julian" and "The Vespers of Palermo" had been placed, by circumstances, in such a position as might have made us rivals if we had not determined to be friends. Kindness met me on every hand, from eminent men, from eminent women, still I missed her whose cheering prognostics had so often spurred me on, and whose latest interest in literature had been excited by this very play.

And dramatic success, after all, is not so delicious, so glorious, so complete a gratification as, in our secret longings, we all expect to find. It is not satisfactory. It does not fill the heart. It is an intoxication, followed like other intoxications, by a dismal reaction. The enchanting hope is gone, and is ill-replaced by a temporary triumph — very temporary! Within four-and-twenty hours, I doubted if triumph there were, and more than doubted if it were deserved. It is ill success that leads to self-assertion. Never in my life was I so conscious of my dramatic short-comings as on that day of imputed exultation and vainglory.

Then came "Charles the First" and his calamities, of a very different sort from any of the former, since managers and actors were equally eager to bring out the play. The hindrance lay in Mr. George Colman, the licenser, who saw a danger to the State in permitting the trial of an English Monarch to be represented on the stage, especially a Monarch whose martyrdom was still observed in our churches. It was in vain that I urged that my play was ultra loyal; that having taken the very best moment of Charles's life and the very worst of Cromwell's; and having, moreover, succumbed to the temptation of producing, as far as in me lay, a strong dramatic contrast between the characters, I had, in point of fact, done considerable injustice to the greatest man of his age. Mr. Colman was inexorable; and the tragedy, forbidden at the two great houses, was afterwards produced at a minor theatre with no ill effect to the reigning dynasty. I have retained the original Preface, as giving a curious view of a state of things now happily passed away. Let me add that as consolations are to be found for most evils, if we will but look for them, so pleasanter associations present themselves even here in the kindness of the Duke of Devonshire, of Mr. Serle, and very recently of Mr. Jerrold.

"Charles the First" had his calamities and "Inez de Castro" her's, having been twice in rehearsal in different seasons, and twice, for different causes, withdrawn.

"Sadak and Kalasrade" was written to gratify a young musician, and "Gaston de Blondeville" because I thought, and still think, that the story, taken from Mrs. Ratcliffe's posthumous romance, would be very effective as mere spectacle — a play to look at — upon the stage.

I should not wish to say exactly the same of "Otto of Wittelsbach," of which the name and a few of the events may be found in an old German Play. It is just possible that hereafter some actor, powerful in mind and body, may think my drama worth trying. If so, I have to request that Ulric, (in whom there is, I fear, too strong a recollection of Fletcher's Hengo) may be played by a boy. The young actors of Reading School proved that Greek women may be fitly represented by English lads; but I have never yet seen any actress who satisfied me in boys' parts. They always exhibit a painful consciousness, never more unpleasantly visible than when disguised under the mask of levity, not to say effrontery. Even Mrs. Charles Kemble, whose pantomime in "Aladdin" and in "Deaf and Dumb," was so perfect, seemed always (I speak it in her honour) a woman in boy's clothes.

So much for the Tragedies. There would have been many more such, but that the pressing necessity of earning money, and the uncertainties and delays of the drama at moments when delay or disappointment weighed upon me like a sin, made it a duty to turn away from the lofty steep of Tragic Poetry to the every-day path of Village Stories.

The Dramatic Scenes may almost be said to hold the middle road between these tracks so widely different. On their first appearance, they kept good company. Two or three of the earliest were inserted in the "London Magazine" at the same time with the "Essays of Elia," and the "Confessions of an Opium-eater;" the rest were written for various annuals in the palmy days of those pretty books; — by which I mean the days of Thomas Hood and of Winthrop Praed, of Mrs. Hemans and of L. E. L., when engravings were mingled with prose and verse, and neither verse nor prose was written to illustrate the pictures.

In some of these scenes, the descriptions introduced are taken from real places, and are as like to those places as my poor gift of word-painting could make them; and in all, I may say, or nearly all, I have, I cannot tell why, put more of my own peculiar thoughts and fancies than in any other of my writings, which may be, perhaps, the reason why those who have happened to like them have liked them better than they deserve.

Before closing this Preface, I wish to caution the reader against attributing to me, personally, any participation in the sentiments respecting the Jews, expressed by the characters in "Gaston de Blondeville;" they are as purely dramatic as the belief in witchcraft, and intended, like that, to display the barbarism of a most barbarous age. Pierce, the jester, one of the few rational personages of the drama, says of them: — "For these poor Jews they are but as fear and misery have made them." And there I might, perhaps, safely have left the question; but that, besides my general hatred of persecution and intolerance, and all prejudices against caste and creed; I happen to have myself the happiness of knowing some individuals of that gifted Hebrew people, and if I were to write according to my knowledge, might very probably be accused of cherishing prejudices the contrary way; since I have rarely met any persons so eminent for high qualities, moral and intellectual, especially for the rare quality called charity.

This Introduction was written nearly a twelvemonth ago, when although suffering from great infirmity, I was still lifted down stairs, and sometimes drawn through our green lanes. Brief and imperfect as these few pages are, I could not now even have attempted the task, for which I once again request the indulgence I have so often experienced.


JULY, 1854.