It very frequently happens that writers who record departed excellence, and who were not personally acquainted with the subject of their biography, are, from the want of proper materials, obliged to adopt traditionary information; which, whether false or true, as it cannot readily be controverted or ascertained, is from necessity received, and characters are thus, too often, committed to posterity in a very vague, unauthorised, and, sometimes, an equivocal manner. But, as in our present memoir, where the biographer was a personal witness of the superior excellence, and uncommon talents, he records, it becomes, not a doubtful, but a pleasant task; and such a narrative, known to be drawn from personal knowledge, and authentic sources, must be generally perused with increased interest and still greater satisfaction.
Miss Linley was the eldest daughter of Mr. Thomas Linley, many years an eminent singing master, and composer of music, at Bath; but becoming (on Mr. Garrick's relinquishing his proprietary) a joint patentee, with Mr. Sheridan and Dr. Ford, of Drury-lane Theatre, he from that time resided in London. The subject of our memoir displayed from her infancy, talents of very uncommon extent, particularly in music; these, under the continual care and cultivation of a parent so highly competent as Mr. Linley was to instruct, could not fail of producing a proficient of more than ordinary excellence. — Such was Miss Linley. — Gifted by nature with a voice strong and flexible, of much sweetness and compass, with a style, tender, graceful, and rapid, she came forth, at an early age, a phenomenon at the Bath Concerts, captivating her bearers by her uncommon and irresistible powers; and subduing, like David and Timotheus, every heart, learned or ignorant, the friend or the foe.
To her natural and acquired attainments, Miss L. added a person and face of uncommon grace and beauty, with affability in her manners and conversation. Notwithstanding the rapturous applause she always received for her musical exertions in public, she bore her "blushing honours thick upon her," without betraying any of that vanity, and vaunting superiority, too common with little minds. A young beautiful female so accomplished, and so applauded by the general voice, could not fail of attracting numerous admirers among the young men at Bath: among these, "though last, not least," was the late Mr. Sheridan, who, for his gallant conduct in an affair of honour with another admirer (a Mr. Matthews, who had made some improper advances to Miss L. and published a paragraph in a public paper which tended to prejudice her character), soon became the favoured lover. Miss Linley did not suffer a long time to elapse before she rewarded Mr. Sheridan for the dangers he had braved in her defence, by accompanying him on a matrimonial excursion to the continent. — The ceremony was again performed on their return to England, April 13, 1773, with the consent of the lady's parents.
Previous, however, to this event, while she was Miss Linley, she became the principal performer in the Oratorios at Drury-lane Theatre; and the science, taste, but above all the enthusiastic feeling which she displayed in the execution of the airs assigned to her, are still remembered by many with delight. The strains which she poured forth were the happiest combinations of nature and art. Her accents were so melodious and captivating, and their passage to the heart so sudden and irresistible, that "list'ning Envy would have dropp'd her snakes, and stern-ey'd Fury's self have melted" at the sounds. The writer of this memoir well remembers, as doubtless there are many others still living, who, if they heard her, must have ever since borne in their recollection the electrical (it may be said) effect her surprising powers had on the audience; it was (as Dr. Burney observed of Farinelli's first appearance at the Italian Opera, in 1734) ecstacy! rapture! enchantment!
This may appear to many who had not the felicity of hearing the divine singer, a little enthusiastic; but when they read the following anecdote, it may, perhaps, dispose them to think otherwise:—
One evening, in the performance of Milton's L'Allegro Il Penseroso, the song of "Sweet Bird," which all musical dilettante know to be a bravura of considerable difficulty to execute, Miss Linley so enraptured the audience by her performance of it, that an encore was universally required.
Miss L. acquiesced, but so improved on the repetition, by varying her graces and cadences, that, unprecedented in the annals of the theatre at that period, and, we believe, ever since, she was required to sing it a third time. This she began to attempt, but being too much exhausted by the two preceding performances — she curtsied — confessed her inability then — but if indulged, she would repeat it at the end of the act. This the audience, of course, readily assented to, and she absolutely sung "Sweet Bird" three times on the same evening.
From the period of her marriage, Mrs. Sheridan never appeared as a public performer. Her situation in the Oratorios was filled by her sister, Miss Mary Linley.
Several lucrative proposals were about this time made to Mrs. Sheridan, to induce her once more to charm the public ear, but they were rejected with disdain by her husband. During their residence in Orchard-street, they were subject to very distressing embarrassments; yet the firmness of Mr. Sheridan, in resisting every proposition of this nature, by which any loss of estimation in the eyes of the world might be incurred, remained invincible, he received a letter from the proprietors of the Pantheon, which was then about to be opened, offering Mrs. Sheridan one thousand pounds for her performance during twelve nights, and one thousand pounds more for a benefit, the profits of which they were to appropriate to their own use. The temptation of so large a sum as two thousand pounds, which might have been gained in a few weeks, was not merely declined, but rejected with indignation, notwithstanding the earnest entreaties of his wife.
We cannot close this memoir without reverting again to the talents of our heroine. Mrs. Sheridan, to her musical abilities, added very considerable poetical ones. It was a well known fact at the time, and has since been acknowledged, that the lyric part of the Duenna was projected, and many of the songs wholly written, by Mrs. Sheridan: also many, if not all, of the airs in Selima and Azor (an opera composed by her father) were of her writing. This extraordinary and highly-gifted female, from what cause it is not for us now to divine (although, perhaps, it might be truly suggested), very early became a martyr to inquietude and declining health; a rural retirement was taken for her at Brompton, where, after lingering a considerable time in a deep consumption, she expired, June 1792, universally regretted and esteemed.
By her marriage with Mr. Sheridan, she had one son, the present Mr. Thomas Sheridan.