1877 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Ryves

E. Owens Blackburne (Elizabeth Casey), "Eliza Ryves" Illustrious Irishwomen (1877) 2:225-31.



Beyond the mere fact that she was an Irishwoman who had come to London hoping to earn a living by writing., we know nothing more of the private life of Eliza Ryves. D'Israeli says she was descended from an Irish family of distinction, and as there was, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, a Jerome Ryves, D.D., Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, it is not improbable but that she was a member of this family.

In her earlier days she had possessed consider able property, but was deprived of it through the chicanery of the law. Being thus left destitute, she looked to her pen as a source of existence.

Her first literary effort was a comic opera, called The Prude, which she wrote in 1777. Failing in her endeavours to have it acted, she published it amongst a collection of her poems. The dialogue of this piece is chaste, animated, and original; and it is very likely that the high tone which pervades it was the cause of its failure in an age when a certain amount of coarseness was necessary to make a comic piece take the taste of the audience. The Prude of the piece is a pretended one, being none other than an intriguing old woman, aunt to the heroine of the drama. She is represented as concerting with a friar, Dominick Doubleface, to force her niece into a nunnery, and to trick her brother out of his property. These schemes are frustrated by means of a nobleman in disguise, a lover of the lady, who in the end is united to her. The period of the action of this performance is in the reign of Queen Mary. The incidents are rapid, and the treatment original.

Notwithstanding this failure, Miss Ryves again essayed dramatic literature. She tried comedy this time, and produced The Debt of Honour, which was never printed. She sent it to a manager — probably Harris of Covent Garden — who, after keeping it for some years, returned it. He did his best, however, to make reparation for the delay, for, hearing the authoress was in pecuniary distress, he forwarded to her, along with her manuscript, a bank-note for one hundred pounds.

Finding dramatic writing did not pay her, Miss Ryves turned her attention to what was then called "elegant literature." She wrote verses for the few periodicals of the day. They were written in the Chloe and Strephon style then fashionable; but when the authoress found she was only repaid by a return copy of verses in the next number, she abandoned this unfruitful field. Her verses are much above the average of the Della Cruscan school, and, like everything else she has written, seem more like the productions of a man than those of a woman. Out of many we select the following:—

ODE TO SENSIBILITY.
The sordid wretch who ne'er has known,
To feel for miseries not his own
Whose lazy pulse serenely beats,
While injured worth her wrongs repeats;
Dead to each sense of joy or pain,
A useless link in Nature's chain,
May boast the calm which I disdain.

Give me a generous soul that glows
With others' transports, others' woes,
Whose noble nature scorns to bend,
Though Fate her iron scourge extend;
But bravely bears the galling yoke,
And smiles superior to the stroke,
With spirit free and mind unbroke.

Yet, by compassion touched, not fear,
Sheds the soft sympathising tear,
In tribute to Affliction's claim
Or envied Merit's wounded fame.
Let Stoics scoff, I'd rather be
Thus curst with Sensibility,
Than share their boasted Apathy.

Miss Ryves's perseverance was enormous. When the drama and poetry failed to procure her even the commonest necessaries of life, she was advised to try translations from modern authors. Although an excellent classical scholar, she was quite unacquainted with any modern continental language. To remedy this defect she took an obscure lodging at Islington, and lived there in complete solitude until she had produced an excellent version of Rousseau's Social Compact, Raynal's Letter to the National Assembly, and finally translated De la Croix's Review of the Constitutions of the Principal States of Europe. To these translations she appended erudite and valuable notes. From a pecuniary point of view these efforts were not successful, and she returned to London broken in health and bitterly disappointed.

"Yet," says D'Israeli the elder, "even at a moment so unfavourable, her ardent spirit engaged in a translation of Froissart. At the British Museum I have seen her conning over the magnificent and voluminous MS. of the old chronicler, and by its side Lord Berners' version, printed in the reign of Henry VIII. It was evident that his lordship was employed as a spy upon Froissart, to inform her of what was going forward in the French camp; and she soon perceived, for her taste was delicate, that it required an ancient lord and knight, with all his antiquity of phrase, to break a lance with the still more ancient chivalric Frenchman. The familiar elegance of modern style failed to preserve the picturesque touches and the naive graces of the chronicler, who wrote as the mailed knight combated — roughly or gracefully, as suited the tilt or the field. She vailed to Lord Berners; while she felt it was here necessary to understand old French, and then to write in old English."

Again were her labours almost profitless. She now turned her thoughts to novel writing, and The Hermit of Snowdon was published in about 1794. It possessed much merit; it is full of indescribable pathos, and in it the authoress is supposed to have reproduced her own unfortunate and unsuccessful literary career. In common with everything written by Miss Ryves, it bears the impress of having emanated from the mind of a refined and educated gentlewoman.

She was a woman of vast reading and extraordinary attainments. When Dodsley, the founder of the Annual Register, gave up the management of it, Miss Ryves was engaged to conduct the historical and political department. This she did creditably for some years, and was very badly paid for her work. Some conception of the dignity and magnitude of the situation may be formed, when we record that Edmund Burke did not disdain to fill the same post.

So little profitable were all these varied labours, that Miss Ryves could not, at length, make her "daily bread." Her contemporaries say of her, that she was modest and unassuming; and a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine for July, 1797, bears the following testimony to her amiable character:—

"A woman more benevolent than this God never created. When her affairs were in a most 'poetical posture' (as indeed they often were, for she managed them but inconsiderately), and she lodged in an obscure part of the City, she would spend her last shillings, herself unprovided with a dinner, in the purchase of a joint of meat for a starving family that occupied the room above her."

Eliza Ryves was a woman of learning and genius, and an unsuccessful authoress. Her literary work compares favourably with the masculine writing of the day; yet, because she was a sensitive, unpractical woman, her labours were either stolen or paid for with such a pittance, that it did not suffice to keep body and soul together. She died of absolute want, in a miserable lodging in Store Street, London, on April 29th, 1797.

Such was Eliza Ryves. Not beautiful nor interesting in her person, but with an almost masculine grasp of mind, yet susceptible of all the delicacy of feminine softness, and a virtuous woman amidst all her despair. Genius allied with success has hitherto been our theme. Because of her misfortunes it did not seem just that the name of Eliza Ryves should be omitted from this roll of talented Irishwomen; therefore, we have endeavoured to glean these brief details of her career, which serves further to endorse the assertion that the world will not believe in genius unless it be allied with success.