A TRAITOR'S KISS:
The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan
By Fintan O'Toole
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
519 pages, $30
Fintan O'Toole, an Irish Times columnist and New York Daily News drama critic this past year, has written a bravura biography of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). Sheridan, best-known for his two Regency plays, "The School for Scandal" and "The Rivals," has until now been relegated to the role of Anglo-Irish rakehell unsure of his loyalties.
Biographer O'Toole and his cohort columnists Kevin Meyers and Maeve Binchey have shone as a three-star galaxy for Dublin's readers a number of years now. They do not, however, hold a penny candle to their famous predecessor Flann O'Brien, a k a Myles na Gopaleen, whose seriocomic capacities appeared in the Irish Times from 1939 until he died in 1966.
But in this new work O'Toole has made a good run at extending his considerable talents. Richard Brinsley Sheridan comes alive because O'Toole puts "some flesh on the pale ghost, making it clear that Sheridan . . . was a vivid and vital presence in the culture of his time, both as a writer and as a politician. . . . In fact, Sheridan defined himself -- as an Irishman, as an enemy of oppression, as a child of the Enlightenment, as a consummate conspirator and, in the midst of all these things, as a man of the theater."
From a distance this order of classification seems a contradiction. Sheridan lived most of his life in England, was a Member of Parliament (where he used his refined sense of theater to assault British imperialism), friend for a time of Edmund Burke and implacable foe of William Pitt. But he retained a "passionately imagined Ireland" in his mind, not unlike such later literary expatriates as Joyce and Beckett.
Sheridan's literary output was prompted by early, sad experiences. He was the grandson of Dr. Thomas Sheridan, whose godfather was Jonathan Swift. His father, Thomas, wasn't much of one, a Gradgrind schoolmaster at best. Moreover, the elder Sheridan was Drury Lane theater manager and an English language authority, rivaling Samuel Johnson in ordering the King's English. Sheridan's loving but distant mother, Frances Chamberlaine, was a novelist in her own right. She died when he was 14. Sheridan was on his own, left at Harrow by his father and the rest of the family traveling the Continent to escape debt. He grew up a lonely child, "much given to crying when alone," without funds, "free to conceive of himself . . . the obverse side of neglect."
His circumstance was described by a friend, Lord Holland, this way: "He could have done anything he would, but would have done nothing if he could." One of his teachers, Samuel Parr, said, "His industry was just sufficient to protect him from disgrace." These descriptions ring a sympathetic chord in most ears, sounding like somebody we've known, perhaps ourselves.
So how did Sheridan become the memorable character he became, successful playwright, controller of the London stage, gentleman, and Whig activist against the American war? One can give only a partial answer. He was schooled by his father and lessons were supplemented in mathematics and Latin by Lewis Ker, "an Irish gentleman." He dined with Mr. and Mrs. Domenick Angelo at their home, where he could try out his soon-to-be-famous wit. He was influenced by the radical hero John Wilkes. Sheridan read Sidney's "Arcadia" and More's "Utopia," aped Philip Francis' "Junius Letters" that heaped contempt upon the government of Lord Grafton. And moreover, Sheridan "could, after all, ride and fence, he could talk like a gentleman, he dressed beautifully in well-cut and tasteful clothes, he was supremely clubbable, he could be a convincing lover of aristocratic ladies. But because of his identification with Ireland, he could not and would not surrender his whole self to the world in which he now moved. Even while he worked his way into the heart of the elite, a part of him would always belong on the outside."
For all this, there remains something puzzling about Sheridan's genius. Certainly, part of his practical creative ability lay in his capacity to take his real-life misfortune and turn it to shillings. His two duels with Thomas Mathews (whose name is misspelled in the index) to win the hand of Eliza Linley became grist for his play "The Rivals." Still, the creative, miraculous calculus of his literary ability can only be observed, not completely explained.
Sheridan's Irish sentiments were made most clear in a mid-1770s political tract called "Essays on Absentees." Writing just before Maria Edgeworth's novel on the same subject, "Castle Rackrent," Sheridan put things ironically as far as English landlords in Ireland were concerned:
Can we expect any great exertion of pathetic eloquence to proceed from the (agent) to palliate any deficiency of the tenants? . . . When he sees the widow's tear, and hears the orphan's sigh everyone will act with a sudden uniform rectitude."
Don't bet on it. And this was Sheridan's point. English landlords in Ireland could have cared less. "Sheridan was making his identification with Ireland central to his emerging public persona. It had become the link between his theater and his politics, and was, crucially, the area of psychological reserve that would prevent him from being absorbed into the elite." And by taking this stand, ultimately he arranged his own financial funeral, a debtor unto death and more, a calculating traitor to those in London because of his French Revolution and United Irishmen affinities. About this, O'Toole writes:
In the first place, to be a traitor in the climate of reaction which determined the political weather after 1792, it was not necessary to favor the violent overthrow of the state. It was necessary merely to favor democratic change, which Sheridan most emphatically did.
Of course, Sheridan did more than this. He tried to "juggle treason and loyalty, hoping that the speed of the hand would continue to deceive the eye." At his death, Sheridan's disgrace clouded the enduring value of his literary output and appeals for freedom and democracy. But not for long.
Fast-forward to the early 1830s: A 15-year-old black boy in Baltimore, Frederick Douglass, after persuading some white boys to help him learn to read, devoured Sheridan's writing. Years later Douglass wrote of Sheridan's strong influence upon him in his biography:
I met with one of Sheridan's mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind and died away for want of utterance. . . . What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery and a powerful vindication of human rights.