A Traitor’s Kiss
A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1751-1816 is Fintan O’Toole’s attempt to reclaim Sheridan as an Irish author and patriot much in the manner of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book on Edmund Burke, The Great Melody (1992). Like Burke, another eighteenth century Anglo-Irish writer turned politician, Sheridan suffered similar contradictions, torn between climbing the British social ladder and remaining loyal to his Irish roots. Although born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1751, Sheridan left his island home in 1759, never to return. According to O’Toole, he would all of his life attempt to prove more than anything that he qualified as a British gentleman, replete with the prerequisite fine education, fashion, and manners (but without high family connections or independent fortune). He made sure his wife and father left the stage; performers were at this time considered only a small step above servants. At one point, the Prince of Wales and future George IV, whom Sheridan counted among his close friends, described the playwright as “the most extraordinary creature alive.” Yet, as O’Toole maintains, and herein lies the contradictory rub, Sheridan would continually identify himself as a Celtic or Irish gentleman, to the detriment of his social and political standing. Lord Byron, another personal friend, jokingly referred to “Old Sherry” as “an Irishman and clever fellow.” O’Toole’s book is a long overdue Irish biography of Sheridan, and it explains brilliantly the extremely complex struggle for Irish independence in this period.
Sheridan, whose major plays were all written by the time he was twenty-eight, is primarily remembered for three brilliant comedies of manners: The Rivals (1775), The School for Scandal (1777), and The Critic (1779), which are reminiscent, in a tidied-up sort of way, of the previous century’s Restoration comedies. All three comedies draw on autobiographical occurrences—feuds with fathers, elopements with beautiful women, infighting with sibling rivals, romances with illicit lovers, duels with antagonistic interlopers, and political intrigue, to name a few. This biography, however, is concerned primarily with Sheridan’s political career and later life. Although the author refers to the plays periodically, he uses them—particularly The School for Scandal—in a metaphorical sense, to provide insight into Sheridan’s oftentimes complex, confusing personality. Sheridan actually epitomizes both the play’s major characters—the brothers Charles and Joseph Surface—as sides of the same coin: the party-going spendthrift with the heart of gold and the fair-haired hypocrite.
Sheridan began life as the younger son of novelist Frances Sheridan, author of the immensely popular eighteenth century novel Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761) and popular actor and orator Thomas Sheridan, who had the privilege of claiming Jonathan Swift as his godfather. What remains puzzling is the parents’ delight in their older son, Charles, and their seemingly absolute indifference to their younger son, Richard. Sheridan spent only four years with his parents between the ages of three and eighteen; the rest was spent abandoned in British boarding schools, physically and emotionally neglected, while his parents lived with their other children in London. At fourteen, he joined his family at Bath, England, where his father opened a school for the practice of elocution. While there, Richard acted as a minor teacher. Although the elder Sheridan’s efforts resulted in failure, young Richard made friends and began to flourish as a writer.
The next segment of Sheridan’s life reads like an eighteenth century novel— O’Toole’s writing is particularly effective here—and it is plain to see where Sheridan garnered much of the colorful material for his plays. In his late teens, he eloped to the Continent with the glamorous young singer Eliza Linley, one of the most beautiful women in England. Young Sheridan fought two duels with an older rival for her. Linley, held in virtual bondage by a tyrant father who used his talented daughter as a meal ticket, retired from the stage upon marrying Sheridan. Her fame, however, and the much publicized real- life theatrics, positioned the rising young dramatist in the London spotlight.
Unfortunately, their magical love story soon tarnished, and Sheridan’s personal life deviated from high drama to soap opera. Actually, Sheridan’s love life continued colorful throughout his life, scattered with illicit interludes, mysterious pornographic letters, break-ups and reconciliations. He neglected Eliza horrendously, flaunting his extramarital affairs with duchesses and governesses alike. His recklessness prompted Eliza to take up with the Irish patriot Edward Fitzgerald, who fathered her...
(The entire section is 1988 words.)