1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Davies

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:382-83, 2:41-43, 46-48.



Mr. Davies, or, as he was generally styled, Tom Davies, had left the stage before I frequented the theatre, no doubt, induced by the cruel humour with which Churchill describes him in his admirable "Rosciad;" but he had a benefit-night allowed him by Garrick for old acquaintance sake, when he came forward to perform the part of Fainall, in the comedy of "The Way of the World." I happened to be present. He was an old, formal-looking man, and totally different from such a person as we might expect to find in a gay, dissipated husband. Before the curtain was drawn up, he came forward, and addressed the audience in the following terms. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am conscious of my inability to do justice to the character that I have undertaken, but I hope you will accept of my best endeavours to please." There were many friends of honest Tom in the house, and this address, as well as his performance of the part, was received with kind applause. Poor Davies did not attend to the good old maxim "hoc age;" for if he had confined himself to his business as a bookseller, and had not indulged his literary ambition, he would probably have lived in comfortable circumstances, though he might not have raised a fortune. What I saw of his acting certainly appeared to justify the criticism of Churchill, though not its sportive severity. Churchill says

Behind came mighty Davies — on my life,
That Davies has a very pretty wife.

Without animadverting upon the impropriety of dragging an inoffensive female before the public, it may fairly be concluded, that Davies being an avowed politician, whose principles were different from those of Churchill, was the cause of the poet's hostility towards him. I once saw the "pretty wife." She was quietly sitting in the shop, while her husband was pursuing his literary avocations, in the back-room. She was in the autumn of life, neatly dressed, modest in her aspect, with a kind of meek dejection in her features, which evidently bore the remains of beauty. It is lamentable to relate what I have been informed was the final destiny of this harmless couple. He died in poverty, and was buried at the expense of his friends; and his amiable widow, as I heard, was reduced to the deplorable asylum of the parish workhouse....

MR. THOMAS DAVIES. This gentleman was many years on the stage, but left it partly because he never was able to obtain much theatrical reputation, though chiefly because he was a victim to the severity of Churchill in his "Rosciad."

I once had an opportunity of seeing Davies act, long after he had left the stage, when a benefit was given to him at Drury Lane Theatre; but whether during the management of Garrick, I do not recollect, though I believe it was granted by him. The play was "The Way of the World," and Davies was announced in the part of Fainall. There was a dull gravity in his acting, and his voice had a rumbling tone. It was, therefore, evident, that Churchill was hardly too severe in his criticism, but, as Davies was a scholar, a man of taste, and bore an honest character, the churlish poet ought to have passed over him entirely, or have been less severe. What part Davies had taken in politics, or what "plots" he had been concerned in, it is not now impossible to know; but as Davies was a staunch Whig, his political principles could not have been different from those of the satirist. Long after the death of Churchill, Davies published his Life of Garrick, and at a later period gave three volumes of Dramatic Miscellanies to the world. In the latter work he, as often as occasion admitted, certainly manifested his political principles, but by no means inconsistent with rational loyalty.

His Life of Garrick is very creditable to his critical knowledge, and he generally appreciates the powers of the great actor with candour and judgment, though, at times, he certainly, by preferring others to him in some parts, seems to pay court to theatrical merits extant at the time when his work was published. The same courtesy appears also in his Dramatic Miscellanies, but in general the work evinces the taste of a critic, and the learning of a scholar. It is evident that he must have been a very diffusive reader, and he successfully applies what he has read to the subject before him. He sometimes, however, speaks as confidently of the merits of actors who existed before his time, as if he had actually witnessed their performances, though it is evident that he could only judge from written records, or personal information. The anecdotes which he introduces are amusing and appropriate, but sometimes his interpretation of difficult passages is too conjectural, and his emendatory criticism by no means satisfactory. Yet he differs modestly from the opinions of higher authorities, and is never confident in maintaining his own. He speaks with respect of Mr. G. Steevens as a commentator, but seems to have had a very indifferent opinion of his moral character....

To return to Mr. Davies. I became acquainted with him soon after the death of Dr. Johnson; and having seen what I had written in a public journal in honour of the memory of the doctor, he treated me with more attention than I could reasonably have expected, considering the difference of our ages, for he was then very much advanced in life. There is one passage in the second volume of his Miscellanies, which I wish he had omitted, as it is illiberal in itself, and inconsistent with his general estimation of the character of Mr. Garrick.

It seems that Mr. Colman had suggested to Mr. Garrick the propriety of reviving some of those dramatic works, in which Burbage, Taylor, and Betterton, had distinguished themselves. "And here," said Mr. Davies, "I doubt somebody might hint, it were to he wished that Mr. Colman had not employed the names of those celebrated old comedians, as a powerful charm to prevail on Garrick to grant his request, who never wished to hear the name of any actor but one." Mr. Davies has here unwarily inserted a compliment to Mr. Garrick, rather than a sarcasm on him; for it implies that Mr. Garrick had not much confidence in the superiority of his powers, since he feared to be brought in comparison with those who had lived upwards of a hundred years before him, and two of them nearly twice that number.

In another part of his work, he observes that Garrick had no portraits but of himself in his house. They were, perhaps, presents from the several artists. Garrick never professed to be a collector of pictures, or a connoisseur in painting, though he had many valuable works of art, most of which were probably presented to him as tributes to his extraordinary talents. Mr. Davies, in his account of Congreve, has fallen into a mistake, where he says that Henrietta Duchess of Marlborough was so attached to him, that, after his death , she had a statue of him which was placed on her table at dinner, and that she addressed it as if alive. According to the information of Dr. Monsey, who was family physician to the Earl of Godolphin, the lady in question wa's the daughter of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, who was married to the Earl of Godolphin.

Mr. Davies afforded a proof of the difficulty of combining two professions with success. His literary talents and learning would probably have raised him into independence as an author, or have procured the patronage of some distinguished person; or if he had contented himself with being merely a bookseller and publisher of the works of others, he might have acquired a large fortune, like many others in that business; but, carrying on both employments, he became embarrassed, and I believe died in a state of insolvency. His "very pretty wife," as Churchill calls her, I saw when I called on her husband. She was plain but neat in her attire, and in face and person exhibited the remains of beauty that justified the poet's panegyric. She had a meek, dejected look, probably resulting from the situation of her husband, and the recollections of better days. She had been an actress of respectable but not distinguished talents, and maintained an unimpeachable character through life. I regret to add, that after all her moral and professional merits, I have heard she ended her days in a workhouse some years after the death of her husband.

It is impossible for me to state this melancholy fact without deeply lamenting the vicissitudes of fortune. Here we behold an amiable and accomplished woman, who would have been an example and an ornament to her sex in any condition of life, fall a victim to adversity, not arising from any want of prudence, and sink unknown into the grave; on the other hand we see a female profligate enjoy all the luxuries of life, and at her death honoured with a splendid funeral, and a pompous monument, bearing an inscription celebrating qualities moral and intellectual wholly without foundation. Both of these events have happened within my knowledge, and probably within that of innumerable others.