Born: Princess Anna Comnena, historian, 1083, Constantinople; John Neill, mathematician and natural philosopher, 1671, Edinburgh.
Died: Henry I of England, 1135, Rouen; Pope Leo X., 1521; Sir James Ware, antiquary, 1666, Dublin; Susanne Centlivre, dramatist, 1723, London; Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, 1825, Taganrog; Dr. George Birbeck, promoter of scientific education, 1841, London; Ebenezer Elliott, poet ('the anti-cornlaw rhymer'), 1849, Barnsley.
Feast Day: St. Eligius or Eloy, bishop of Noyon, confessor, 659.
Literary success presupposes talent and industry, but dramatic success not only talent and industry, but patience and tact in dealing with the world. An author, when he has acquired the confidence of the publishers, may live quietly at home and transact his business from his desk; but a dramatist, when he has finished his work as a man of letters, often finds himself at the beginning of his troubles. He has to adapt his piece to the style and caprice of the actors, to submit to the excision of what he considers the finest efforts of his wit and fancy, and to the insertion of what he thinks clap-trap or commonplace. Hence, whatever may be thought of the theatre, the writer of a dozen or two of successful plays cannot but be regarded with a certain reverence, as one who has passed through an ordeal of which only a character of equal sweetness and energy is capable.
Of the private life and character of Mrs. Centlivre, not much is known; but, in an age when female authorship was far from being so common as in our own, she wrote some score of plays, two or three of which hold their place on the stage to the present day. With few advantages of education, she managed to acquire a respectable stock of learning, to write with sprightliness and ease, and to find herself a welcome guest wherever literature was had in honour.
The date and place of her birth are both uncertain. Her father, Mr. Freeman, had an estate at Holbeach, Lincolnshire, was a zealous dissenter and republican, and, after the Restoration, sought refuge from persecution in Ireland. There, about 1680, it is supposed his daughter Susannah was born. Whilst she was yet a girl, he died, leaving her quite destitute. There is a romantic story, that Susannah set out for London alone, either to find some friends, or earn a livelihood; and that, when near Cambridge, she was seen by a young gentleman, who was so charmed by her loveliness, that he persuaded her to dress as a boy, and live with him as a fellow-student at the university. There seems no doubt that, at sixteen, she was married to a nephew of Sir Stephen Fox, and that, within a year, she was a widow. Soon after, Colonel Carrol made her his wife; but ere two years were out, he was killed in a duel, and thus, before she was twenty, the beauty was twice widowed.
Very fond of the theatre, she thought she would try her hand at a tragedy, and was fortunate enough to have it performed at Drury Lane in 1700, under the title of The Perjured Husband. Thus encouraged, she persevered, but abandoned tragedy for comedy, finding it the line in which she could excel. At the same time she procured an engagement as an actress, but, like Mrs. Inchbald at a later date, she discovered that her pen was a more effective instrument than her voice and face. Nevertheless, it was on the stage that she gained her third husband. She was at Windsor in 1706, performing as Alexander the Great in Lee's Rival Queens, when she won the heart of Joseph Centlivre, Yeoman of the Mouth, or, in other words, chief cook to Queen Anne. They were married, and lived happily together until her death, in 1723, at his house in Spring Gardens, Charing Cross. She was buried in St. Martin's in the Fields.
Mrs. Centlivre was lively if not witty, and, for her good-humour, was loved wherever she was known. The language of her plays has little in it to attract the reader, but her plots are well constructed, the scenes full of action, and her characters natural and well marked. By these qualities they sometimes succeeded in spite of the prognostics of the players. In rehearsal, The Busy Body was decried; but it ran for thirteen nights, then thought an extraordinary success, whilst Congreve's Way of the World, sparkling with wit and smartness, was a failure. Mrs. Centlivre shares in the sin of her time, in the occasional licentiousness of her dialogue. During the rehearsal of her Bold Stroke for a Wife, a comedy which, as well as the Busy Body, still appears occasionally on modern play-bills, Wilks, the actor, declared that not only would it be dee'd, but that she would be dee'd for writing it. Her Wonder, or a Woman keeps a Secret, if not her best, is the most popular of her productions. In it, as Don Felix, Garrick took his farewell in 1776. As became the daughter of a suffering dissenter, Mrs. Centlivre was an ardent Whig and advocate of the Hanoverian succession, and not unfrequently introduced her politics into her plays. Pope gave her a line in the Dunciad:
At last Centlivre found her voice to fail
for writing a ballad against his Homer before she had read it.
THE YOUNG ROSCIUS
Precocity of genius, or of ability, has always a certain attraction for the world; partly on account of a kindly feeling towards the young, but principally owing to a love of the marvellous, which leads most of us to run after that which is new and wonderful. If the encouragement thus afforded to precocious boys and girls had the effect of strengthening the powers thus early developed, this would be a great point in its favour; but such is certainly not the case. The youthful prodigy generally becomes, if he or she lives, a very prosaic adult. This was illustrated in the instance of The Young Roscius, a boy-actor who made the public almost crazy in the early part of the present century.
William Henry West Betty, the boy in question, was born near Shrewsbury in 1791. Almost from a child he evinced a taste for dramatic recitations, which was encouraged by a strong and retentive memory. Having been taken to see Mrs. Siddons act, he was so powerfully affected, that he told his father 'he should certainly die if he was not made a player.' He gradually got himself introduced to managers and actors; and at eleven years of age, he learned by heart the parts of Rollo, Young Norval, Osman, and others high in popular favour in those days. On the 16th of August 1803, when under twelve years of age, he made his first public appearance at Belfast in the character of Osman; and went through the ordeal without mistake or embarrassment. Soon afterwards he undertook the characters of Young Norval and Romeo. His fame having rapidly spread through Ireland, he soon received an offer from the manager of the Dublin theatre. His success there was prodigious, and the manager endeavoured, but in vain, to secure his services for three years. Addresses were presented to the Young Roscius, as he was now called; and pamphlets were written in advocacy of plans for insuring the happiness and completing the education of one who was to be the bright star of the age. He next played nine nights at the small theatre at Cork, whose receipts, averaging only ten pounds on ordinary nights, amounted to a hundred on each evening of Master Betty's performance.
In May 1804, the manager of the Glasgow theatre invited the youthful genius to Scotland. When, a little after, Betty went to the sister-city of Edinburgh, one newspaper announced that he 'set the town of Edinburgh in a flame;' and, at a loss apparently how to account for so brilliant a phenomenon, put forth a theory that the boy's 'pleasing movements of perfect and refined nature, had been incorporated with his frame previous to his birth Mr. Home went to see the character of Young Norval in his own play of Douglas enacted by the prodigy, and is said to have declared: ' This is the first time I ever saw the part played according to my ideas of the character. He is a wonderful being!'
The manager of the Birmingham playhouse then sent an invitation, and was rewarded with a succession of thirteen closely-packed audiences. Here the Rosciomania, as Lord Byron afterwards called it, appears to have broken out very violently; it affected not only the inhabitants of that town, but all the iron and coal workers of the district between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. In an article in one of the early volumes of the Penny Magazine, descriptive of the South Staffordshire district and its people, it is said:
One man, more curious or more idle than his fellows, determined to leave his work, and see the prodigy with his own eyes. Having so resolved, he proceeded, although in the middle of the week, to put on a clean shirt and a clean face, and would even have anticipated the Saturday's shaving, but he was preserved from such extravagance by the motive which prevented Mrs. Gilpin from allowing the chaise to draw up to her door on the eventful morning of the journey:
lest all Should say that she was proud.
But, notwithstanding this moderation, he did not pass unobserved. The unwonted hue of the shirt and face were portents not to be disregarded, and he had no sooner taken the road to Birmingham, than he was met by an astonished brother, whose. amazement, when at last it found vent in words, produced the following dialogue: '0i say, sirree, where be'est thee gwain?' 'Oi 'm agwain to Brummajum.' 'What be'est thee agwain there for?' '0i'm agwain to see the Young Rocus.' 'What?' 'Oi tell thee oi'rn agwain to see the Young Rocus.' 'Is it aloive?' 'The 'Young Rocus,' who was certainly 'aloive' to a very practical end, then went to Sheffield, and next to Liverpool.
Such was the boy who, on December 1, 1804, made his first bow to a London audience. After a desperate competition between the managers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres, the former succeeded in securing the treasure. The flaming accounts from the country newspapers had driven the Londoners to a high pitch of excitement. The pressure at the theatre was unparalleled. As early as one o'clock in the day, persons began to take their stations near the doors; and the inhabit-ants in the neighbouring streets looked out from their upper windows upon the tremendous array of people that assembled by six o'clock. Bow-Street officers were posted in great force within the theatre, and Foot-guards without, to endeavour to maintain order.
At the opening of the door, after many faintings in the crowd, hundreds were in danger of suffocation from the mad endeavours of those behind them to force themselves forward. Although no places were inlet in the boxes, gentle-men paid box-prices to have a chance of jumping over the fronts of the boxes into the pit; and then others who could not find room for a leap of this sort, fought for standing-places with those who had hired the boxes days or weeks before. In short, it was a frightful scene, which long impressed itself on the memories of those who were present.
The play, Browne's Barbarossa, in which the Young Roscius played the part of Selim, was to have been preceded by an address from Mr. Charles Kemble; but as not a word of it could be heard in the tumultuous house, he wisely gave up the attempt. Half the first scene of the play was then gone through; nothing could 'be heard. Kemble came forward again, but again could not be heard; and the first act of the play proceeded in dumb-show. At length, in the second act, Selim appeared, and the perspiring audience gave up their frantic noise for equally frantic admiration. Audiences as full as the theatre could hold, though without such wild paroxysms, afterwards witnessed his performance of Tancred, Romeo, Frederick, Octavian, Hamlet, Osman, Aehmet, Young Norval, and other favourite characters.
An arrangement was made by the patrons and managers of the two Theatres Royal, that this golden talisman should be made available for both; and he played at the two theatres on alternate nights-earning about £1000 a week altogether. Young Betty was 'presented to the king, and noticed by the rest of the royal family and the nobility, as a prodigy. Prose and poetry were put in requisition to celebrate his praise; prints of his person were circulated throughout the kingdom; and even the university of Cambridge was sufficiently hurried away by the tide of the moment, to make the subject of Sir William Browne's prize-medal, Quid nester Roscius eyet? It was even in public contemplation to erect statues to him; and Opie painted a full-length portrait of him, in which the Young Roscius was represented as having drawn inspiration from the tomb of Shakspeare. But the best proof of the sensation he created is the fact, that the amount which twenty-eight nights of his performances at Drury Lane brought into the house was £17,210, an average of nearly £615 per night.' It is supposed that the receipts at Covent Garden were nearly as much, and that thus £30,000 was earned by this boy for the managers in fifty-six performances.
Fortunately for young Betty, his friends took care of his large earnings for him, and made a provision for his future support. He soon retired from the stage, and then became a person of no particular note in the world, displaying no more genius or talent than the average of those about him. When he became a man, he appeared on the stage again, but utterly failed; he would not and could not 'draw.' The Young Roscius and Mr. Betty were two entirely different persons in the public estimation.
MR. HEBER'S LIBRARY: BIBLIOMANIACS
The sale by auction of Mr. Richard Heber's library, the disposal of one department of which commenced on the 1st of December 1834, illustrated in a significant way that exclusive fondness for books which is frequently styled Bibliomania, or book-madness. If the collectors were in the habit of reading the works which they buy, all would be well; or if, when collected, the books were sold or given in a mass to those who would know how to value them, this again would be well; but the real bibliomaniac collects books merely for the pleasure of collecting, and the collection is generally dispersed after a time. Mr. Heber was a man of great learning, whose knowledge really extended over a vast range of literature; and it is a pity that there is no ' Heber's Library' in existence, as a testimony to his taste and knowledge; the library which he formed having shared the usual fate of such ponderous collections.
Born in 1773, Mr. Heber (who was half-brother to the celebrated bishop of Calcutta, of the same name) inherited property which permitted him to spend immense sums in the purchase of books, and he received an education which enabled him to appreciate the books when purchased. He formed the habit of making excursions from the family-seats in Yorkshire and Shropshire to London, to attend book-sales; and the first collection which he made, consisted of curious old works relating to early English poets and dramatists. When the termination of the war, in 1815, opened the continent to English travellers, Heber visited France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, making large purchases of books in each country. Again, in 1825, he went abroad, purchasing books everywhere; and at the same time he kept an agent employed in buying largely for him at all the book-sales in England. All the hopes once entertained of him as a public man, or a country gentleman, were disappointed; he cared for nothing but books.
Libraries which he possessed in different localities, sale-rooms, and booksellers' shops, were almost the only places which had attractions for him. He kept up a correspondence with all the great dealers in old books throughout the kingdom, and had all their catalogues regularly sent to him. On hearing of a curious book, he was known to have put himself into a mail-coach, and travelled three or four hundred miles to obtain it, fearful to intrust his commission to any one else. One of his biographers says: ' He has been known to seriously say to his friends, on their remarking on his many duplicates, 'Why, you see, sir, no man can do comfortably without three copies of a work. One he must have for a show-copy, and he will probably keep it at his country-house. Another, he will require for his own use and reference; and unless he is inclined to part with this, which is very inconvenient, or risk the injury of his best copy, he must needs have a third at the service of his friends! This was a handsome speech to address to a borrower; but it cannot be denied that Mr. Heber's duplicates were often purchased, through that passion of collectors which demands not only that an article should be possessed, but that it should also be kept from the possession of others. The fact was, that collecting had grown into an uncontrollable habit; and that it was only satisfied in him, as in others, by an almost unlimited indulgence. The desire of possessing duplicates, or (which is the same thing under another name) preventing other collectors obtaining them, was not peculiar to Mr. Heber, but was more remarkable in him, because exhibited on a large scale and with ample means.'
The taste strengthened as he grew older. Not only was his collection of old English literature unprecedented, but he brought together a larger number of fine copies of Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese books than had ever been possessed by a private individual. His house at Hodnet, in Shropshire, was nearly all library. His house in Pimlico (where he died in 1833) was filled with books from top to bottom: every chair, table, and passage containing ' piles of erudition.' A house in York Street, Westminster, was similarly filled. He had immense collections of books, in houses rented merely to contain them, at Oxford, Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent. When he died, curiosity was naturally excited to know what provision he had made in reference to his immense store of books; but when his will was discovered, after a long and almost hopeless search among bills, notes, memoranda, and letters, it was found, to the astonishment of every one on reading it, that the library was not even mentioned! It seemed as if Heber cared nothing what should become of the books, or who should possess them, after his decease; and as he was never married, or influenced greatly by domestic ties, his library was considered by the executors of his will as merely so much 'property,' to be converted into cash by the aid of the auctioneer. What was the number of books possessed by him, or the amount of money paid for them, appears to have been left in much doubt.
Some estimated the library at 150,000 volumes, formed at a cost of £100,000; others reckoned it at 500,000 volumes, at an aggregate value of £250,000. The truth was, his executors did not know in how many foreign towns his collections of books were placed. Thus it could not accurately be ascertained what portion of the whole was sold by auction in London in 1834-6; but the mere catalogue of that portion fills consider-ably more than two thousand printed octavo pages. The sales were conducted by Mr. Evans, Messrs Sotheby, and other book-auctioneers, and occupied two hundred and two days, extending through a period of upwards of two years from April 10th, 1834, to July 9, 1836. One copy of the catalogue has been preserved, with marginal manuscript notes relating to almost every lot; and from this a summary of very curious information is deducible.
It appears that, whatever may have been the number of volumes sold by auction, or otherwise got rid of abroad, those sold at this series of auctions in London were 117,613 in number, grouped into 52,672 lots. As regards the ratio borne by the prices obtained, to those which Mr. Heber had paid for the books in question, the account as rendered shewed that the auctioneer's hammer brought £56,775 for that which had cost £77,150. It would appear, therefore, that the losses accruing to Mr. Heber's estate through his passion for book-collecting, amounted to upwards of £20,000, and this irrespective of the fate, whatever it may have been, of the continental libraries. We can hardly come to any other conclusion, than that Mr. Heber's life was nearly a useless one-performing unnecessary work, which was undone soon after his death.