1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Thomas

Edmond Malone, Note in Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden (1800) 1:1:348-55.



Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas was the daughter of Emmanuel Thomas, of the Inner Temple, Esq., Barrister at Law, who died when she was an infant. Her mother, according to her own account, was a daughter of William Osburne, Esq., of Sittingbourne, in Kent.

In some Memoirs of her Life, written by herself, and published by Curll in the year 1731, are the following curious circumstances. Her father was so affluent, that he kept his chariot! [not long after the Restoration!] The pall at his funeral, in 1677; was supported by "six right honourables;" and one hundred and thirty mourning rings of 20s. each, were given away on that occasion. — When she was an infant, she never could endure to lie in a cradle. — After the death of Lady Henrietta Wentworth, [1686,] the Countess Dowager of Wentworth [unluckily there was no such person, though there might have been a Countess Dowager of Cleaveland, Lady Henrietta's grand-mother, and there was Lady Wentworth, her mother,] having, as she said, lost her child, offered to take Elizabeth Thomas into her house, and to educate and provide for her; to which her mother refused to consent. The Countess, resenting this refusal, would never afterwards see either of them; and "dying in a few years, left 1500 per annum inheritance at Stepney, to her chambermaid."

Philadelpha, Lady Wentworth, Lady of the manor of Stepney, I find, died in April, 1696; ten years after her daughter, (the celebrated Lady Henrietta Wentworth, Baroness of Nettlested, and mistress of the Duke of Monmouth,) for whom she ordered a monument to be erected in the church of Tuddington, in Bedfordshire, of not less than 2,000 value; which, by the neglect of those to whom the Earl of Cleaveland's estate has since devolved, is now hastening fast to decay. Her will, which was made April 2, 1696, and proved, May 4, following, (P. OFF. Bond, qu. 84,) contains no such devise as that above mentioned. She bequeathed about 10,000 in legacies to various noble relations and friends; 200 to her servant, Mrs. Mary Fanningham, and 330 to other servants; and she made her executors, Sir Robert Howard and two other gentlemen, her residuary legatees. By her will she confirmed, and appropriated a fund for the payment of certain legacies bequeathed by her daughter; among which was, an annuity of 100 for her life, "to Mrs Flanningham," who probably had been Lady Henrietta Wentworth's servant, and was the same person to whom she herself bequeathed 200, though, perhaps, by a mistake in the transcript of this will, there is a slight variation in the names. — Here we have the germ of Mrs. Thomases fiction.

Her mother, in 1684, retiring with her daughter, for cheapness, to some place in Surrry, (she does not tell us where,) became acquainted with Dr. Glisson, [an eminent physician,] then (as she informs us) "near a hundred years of age." At his last visit to them, this gentleman having drawn on "a pair of rich Spanish leather gloves, embossed on the backs and tops with gold embroidery, and fringed round with gold plate," he was asked their history; as "he seemed to touch them with particular respect." "I do so," returned he; "for the last time I had the honour of approaching my mistress Queen ELIZABETH, she pulled them from her own royal hands, saying — 'Here Glisson, wear them for my sake:' I have done so with veneration; and never drew them on, but when I had a mind to honour those whom I visit, as I now do you: and since thou lovest the memory of my royal mistress, take them, and preserve them carefully, when, I am gone! — Too true a prediction! he went home, and died in a few days!"

It must be acknowledged that Corinna had a good "sprag" memory; for Dr. Francis Glisson, a celebrated physician and anatomist in the last century, (the person here meant,) died in the year 1677, at which time she was just two years old; but if we allow the speech which she has with great precision given as his, to have come to her by relation from her mother, then we are only to suppose that the Doctor made it seven years after he was dead. "Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind;" for Dr. Glisson, when he died, being in truth just eighty, (and not near one hundred, as she chose to represent him,) must have been born in 1597, and consequently in the last year of Elizabeth's reign, was only five years old. Here then we have an account of a very extraordinary phenomenon, well worthy the attention of our curious collectors of rarities; — a pair of gloves of so accommodating a nature, that in spite of their stiffened high tops, they not only equally suited either sex, but a peculiar power of expansion and contraction exactly fitted a boy of five years old, a Queen of seventy, and an old physician of eighty. As they are probably yet forthcoming, the representatives of this lady cannot do better than present them to the gentleman, who, we were frequently assured some time since, was possessed of a curious whole-length portrait of our great dramatick poet; as by an easy transition he may convert them into SHAKSPEARE'S GLOVES; with neither of which inestimable treasures, though long and fondly expected, have the eyes of the steady BELIEVERS in this kind of trumpery yet been gratified.

In these extraordinary Memoirs we are next presented with the history of a chemical quack, whom the writer calls Dr. Quibus; who, being reduced to poverty, poisoned himself "with so strong a corrosive," that in a few hours his belly burst, and his bowels gushed out." — "Thus (adds Corinna) ended the life of a poor wretch under the most excruciating dolours, who had ruined many without benefit to himself." We shall hereafter find the very same excruciating dolours tormenting our author in his last moments.

Mrs. Thomases mother died in January, 1718-19; and a Mr. Richard Gwinnet, who had promised to marry her, having died about two years before, and by his will bequeathed to her, as she states, six hundred pounds, she was involved in a lawsuit for this sum. Though she prevailed in this suit, she received, (she says,) at the end of several years, only 213 16s. 0d.; and in 1727, being utterly destitute, she was thrown into the Fleet. Probably, while she was confined there, she sold to Curll, the bookseller, a, parcel of Pope's Letters to Henry Cromwell, Esq., which she had by some means procured from that gentleman, with whom she appears to have been intimately acquainted. Curll, in his Key to the DUNCIAD, 1728 says, that Mr. Cromwell "gave" them to her; but in a note on that poem, in 1729, (Book, ii. l. 66, "Which Curll's Corinna," &c.) Pope thus represents this transaction:

"This name, [Corinna,] it seems, was taken by one Mrs. T[homas,] who procured some private letters of Mr. Pope's while almost a boy, to Mr. Cromwell, and 'sold' them, without the consent of either of those gentlemen, to Curll, who printed them in 12mo. in 1727. He has discovered her to be the publisher, in his Key, p. 11. 'But our poet had no thought of reflecting on her in this passage; on the contrary, he has been informed she is a decent woman, and in misfortunes.' We only take this opportunity," &c. — The words in Italicks were omitted by Pope, in the subsequent editions; probably in consequence of Curll's informing him in an advertisement at the end of her Letters and Memoirs, printed in 1731, (under the title .of PYLADES and CORINNA,) that she was the author of an abusive pamphlet against him, entitled "CODRUS, or the DUNCIAD Dissected, which she published in 1728, under the name of "Mr. Phillips."

For some years after the death of Dryden, she appears to have kept up a friendly intercourse with his family and relations; for she addressed a letter and a paper of verses to his kinswoman, Mrs. Creed, on the death of her daughter Jemima, who, I find from a MS. document now before me, was buried at Tichmarsh in February, 1705-6. — Her scheme, however, of gaining some money by a fictitious account of Dryden's funeral, seems to have been formed on her being confined in the Fleet in 1727 (if not before); and probably it was then put into Curll's hands, though he did not think proper to produce it till three years afterwards, in the Memoirs of Congreve. This may be collected from a slight circumstance. In a poem on our author's death, which she wrote immediately after that event, (for it appeared in the Collection entitled LUCTUS BRITANNICI, published on that occasion, in June, 1700,) are the following lines:

But ah! Britannia, thou complain'st too late;
There's no reversing the decrees of fate.
In vain we sigh, in vain, alas! we mourn,
Th' illustrious poet never will return;—
"All like himself he died; so calm, so free,
As none could equal, but his Emily."

In 1727, she printed the second edition of her Poems, in which this on Dryden is introduced; but having then probably written the narrative which will be found in a following page, in which she represents him as dying in excruciating dolours, she very prudently omitted the last couplet above quoted, with which these "dolours" were completely at variance.

According to her own account, she was put into the Fleet in 1727. Under an Act of Insolvency, a warrant was issued for her release, in June 1729; but in consequence of her extreme indigence, she remained in confinement till near the middle of the next year, as appears from the following original letter, written by her in a very neat hand, which was found in a presentation copy of her volume of Poems, purchased a few years ago by my friend Mr. Bindley. It has no superscription, but was probably addressed to Sir Joseph Jekyll, Master of the Rolls; "Your Honour" being the appropriate address to the person filling that high office. In part of the preceding century noblemen were addressed by that title; but that mode of address, at the time this letter was written, was wholly obsolete. It however might have been directed to the son of a Peer.

"May it please your Honour,

"That the most unfortunate of her sex presumes to lay her little offering at your feet; which, having been accepted by Majesty, [her volume of Poems in 1727 was dedicated to Caroline, Princess of Wales, at this time become Queen,] she flatters her selfe, may afford your Honour, at a leisure hour, some entertainment also.

"She begs leave to lay her unhappy case before your Honour's charitable consideration, having bin deprived of a competent fortune by an unjust executor, [George Gwinnet, the elder,] who carried her through Civil and Common Law, Chancery, and the House of Lords; till length of time consumed the profits of the suit, and she was landed in a prison; where, for several years, she has suffered more than thought can conceive, or words express. And tho' she received liberty by the gracious Act in July session, has languished here ever since under extream sickness and want, being so destitute of all necessaries, that she is not able to go through the streets, much less can she hope to get into any business, for the support of life, without a few modest fig-leaves to cover her; which having no means to raise, nor friend or relation living, she is compelled to claim an author's right, — of presenting her book; a method she little thought to have used, and is ashamed to own now: but who, oh! who, can blame a drowning wretch, for laying hold of any branch?

"There are but two volumes left of the whole impression, which she has bought at shop price, (as in the title-page,) and is her whole stock to begin the world. She implores your Honour's acceptance of one, and favourable answer by the bearer, towards enabling a poor bird, let out of a cage, to pick up its daily, food; which charity will sure find an eternal reward; and that it may, shall be the constant prayer of

Your Honour's
Most obedient, and
Devoted Servant,
E. THOMAS.
Fleet Prison,
April 16th, 1730.

"That your Honour may not think your compassion abused by an idle creature, accustomed to this practice, I have sent by the bearer some vouchers, being attested copies of the originals, laid before Sir Robert Walpole. Mr. Jodrell, late Clerk of the Parliament, knew my parents, before I was born, and my selfe ever since; and with his son the Counsellor, still living, had the bounty to act for me during the whole ten years' suit, without accepting one fee."

This unfortunate woman, after her release from imprisonment, took a lodging in Fleet-street, where she died a few months afterwards, February 3, 1730-31, and was buried in St. Bride's church-yard, at the expence of Margaret, Lady Delawar, to whom some occasional verses in her volume of poems are addressed.