University of Rochester Library Bulletin: On Reading an Old Letter

Volume VI · Winter 1951 · Number 2
On Reading an Old Letter

During the lifetime of Mrs. Albert Eastwood the Library was enriched by her gifts of valuable books and letters. One of these letters, written in 1808, refers to aggression in Spain. Although this letter appears to deal with a literary problem, the rewriting of an epilogue for a play, information about the background develops interest for the common reader, as the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson called us, living amidst present aggression threatening the peace of the world.

Let us first read the letter and then see how it comes alive 142 years later:

"4 Beaumont Street 
Devonshire Place 
Monday September the 19th 1808

My dear Friend 
Will excuse my writing to her in few words and in a hurry. - I have time only to inform you that my Play of the Mysterious Bride is to be brought forward for the first time this season on Tuesday week. - Now for my request: will you have the condescension and kindness to write another Epilogue for the purpose of catching the popular topic of the Spanish Patriot; or, at least, compose a few lines which might be added to the original Epilogue; the concluding line was:

'Our monarch scorns not to monopolise.'

A speedy answer will be most acceptable - Of its necessity you must be aware - Ever your admirer 
and friend

Lumley St. George Skeffington"

Who were the playwright, the epilogist, and the Spanish Patriot?

Skeffington was the scion of a famous and affluent family, a beau among the ladies and a dilettante among the playwrights. He epito­mized elegance and affected idleness. His plays, though acted, were not printed. Yet they were fashionable. He knew the right persons about town and belonged to the Carlton House circle. But the young Lord Byron satirized Skeffington in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, likening him to Mother Goose.

Such was the playwright who on September 19, 1808, asked Mrs. Piozzi to revise her epilogue for The Mysterious Bride. Mrs. Piozzi was then sixty-seven years old, in the twenty-fourth year of married bliss with her second husband. "Bliss," I daresay is the right word, for at the age of twenty-two within a year of the death of her father, she had married Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer, to whom she had borne twelve children! Yet she was an enigmatic person. Two years after her marriage to Henry Thrale, she met Dr. Samuel Johnson; and a few years later the lexicographer, author, and literary dictator of London moved into the Thrale menage.

Mrs. Thrale, who at the age of forty-three became Mrs. Piozzi, had the gift of friendship but also shrewd appraisal of character. Her Diary, begun shortly after her acquaintance with Dr. Johnson, contains many curious and illuminating anecdotes, rivalling even the lore accumulated by the greatest of biographers, James Boswell. He described her as a "lively lady." Fanny Burney, the novelist, referred to her as "ever dear, ever kind, and most sweet Mrs. Thrale." Yet it is as "Dr. Johnson's Mrs. Thrale" that she is known to posterity. And so it is we turn to her Diary, known as Thraliana, for light on interpreting Skeffington's letter. (Thraliana, edited by Katharine C. Balderston, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942, 2 vols.; see Vol. II, pp. 1092-4; p. 1099.)

Three months before this letter, the lively old lady was pleased to be remembered; she writes in her Diary for June 1, 1808:

"Meanwhile Mr. Skeffington writes to me for an Epilogue to his Mysterious Bride. Strange that I'm not forgotten at this Distance from Wits and Beaux & all that makes an Epilogue piquant. I sent him this just by return of Post for Elliston to speak in Character of a Lottery Office Keeper with Handbills &c"

An appended note adds:

"My Letters from the Ladies say that both Play & Epilogue were much applauded: They seem to wonder, -- and in Truth so do I"

The play was acted at Drury Lane Theatre on June 1, 1808; hence in editing Thraliana, Professor Katharine C. Balderston has evidently supplied the date, June 1, 1808, to associate the entry in the Diary with the known date of premiere. But the quotation of the Epilogue, which follows the entry in the diary may be, as it ostensibly appears, the original epilogue written prior to June 1, 1808; it may, however, contain in the bracketed lines the additions which Mrs. Piozzi was asked by Skeffington to supply in his letter of September 19, 1808. These lines take on new significance if we know that in May of 1808 Joseph Bonaparte became King of Spain; then lost his crown when the revolutionists took charge of the state in August. As Professor Balderston further notes: "The rising of Spain, in late May and June, led to England's alliance with her, and the beginning of the Peninsular campaign."

Here are the bracketed lines in the Epilogue:

"After the strange mysterious Marriage (line 2) 
Oh it will do: I read it in Your Eyes, (line 11 ff) 
Come; as the Criticks droop - our Stock will rise
Hazard and Good Luck joyn their Companies."

The last three lines of the Epilogue are also bracketed and thus may represent revision of the original:

"Your privilege is Sacred in his Eyes, 
Yet in this best, This dear Domestic Prize, 
Our Monarch may perhaps monopolize."

The change of the last line from "scorns not to monopolise," as Skeffington quotes it in the letter, to "may perhaps monopolizemay merely be a matter of the playwright's inaccuracy; on the other hand, one may conjecture that the text of the Epilogue as it appears now contains the amended text, the revision, "a few lines which might be added to the original Epilogue."

The revealing point is made by Mrs. Piozzi herself in marginalia, following the Epilogue:

"Oh what Nonsense to be writing Epilogues!! I think the World's Drama will soon be over, and his Epilogue may then be Written. Spain resists Bounaparte's Aggression in desperate Earnest; now let us see if he can conquer a Great Nation against its will: let us see. for my own Part I say No. The other People called him in, & -- then -- wonder'd what a Hero he was for coming -- but No Country is enslaved that wishes to be free."

A few pages later, among the last entries in her Diary, Mrs. Piozzi writes:

"I am sick of these silly Rejoicings because the Spaniards rose en Masse, & drove out Bonaparte's Brother: -- Napoleon will go himself now, and conquer the Country in earnest -"

As a matter of fact Napoleon restored Joseph Bonaparte to the throne later in the year; his rule lasted until 1813.

Of such, then, are Mrs. Piozzi's thoughts on aggression. But what did she think of Skeffington? She tells us in her Diary , following the Epilogue:

"Skeffington is a Character as We say -- a Man wearing Rouge, and making it his point to appear the very Prince of Petits Maitres in Society; a Studious Person meanwhile with good Sense and good Literature, When You take him out of the Ton Routine, in which he professes to delight. I wonder how he will end, most probably by marrying a Dairy Maid when Threescore, and retiring into the Country to try for Heirs to the Estate."

Well, there they stand in outline, two human beings in a world threatened by aggression 142 years ago.