Elizabeth Linley (1754-1792) was the equivalent of a rock star in Georgian England. The daughter of musician Thomas Linley, she had been musically trained since an early age and gave her first public performance at age 12. With a beautiful soprano voice and equally great beauty she became something of a phenom. Nary a man could see her perform and not fall in love with her. Fanny Burney wrote about her in her diaries: “the whole town seems distracted about her. Every other diversion is forsaken. Miss Linley alone engrosses all eyes, ears, hearts.”
She was painted by Gainsborough at least four times and twice by Reynolds, who said his painting of her as St. Cecilia the best he ever painted.
Cognizant of keeping his daughter’s reputation unblemished, her father strictly chaperoned her and kept many of her performances to exclusive musicales. When she was barely seventeen, her father forced her to accept a marriage proposal from the wealthy Walter Long, who was in his sixties. Her father’s aim was twofold: he wished to keep her from performing on stage, and he needed the money marriage to Long would bring to the family. Happiness prevailed when Elizabeth told Long she could never be happy with him, and he nobly agreed to take blame for breaking off the engagement – and paid her father £3,000 for breach of contract. The story was later fictionalized in a play, The Maid of Bath.
It was in the city of Bath she met the man with whom she would elope in 1772, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). His elder brother, Charles, was also in love with Elizabeth. Though bereft of fortune, the Harrow-educated Sheridan considered himself a gentleman. Therefore, he would nevermore allow his wife to perform in public. He had suffered a serious injury in duel against one of Elizabeth’s spurned lovers who falsely slandered her.
The Sheridans started their married life on £1,000 of the £3,000 her father received from Long. But what could Sheridan do to support them? A lively wit and brilliant orator, Sheridan decided he would become a playwright. It was a natural extension of his parents’ occupations. His mother had been a novelist, his father an actor.
After a few stumbles, he was extremely successful. His works included School for Scandal, The Rivals, and The Duenna. Soon he was negotiating to buy David Garrick’s share in the Drury Lane Theatre, along with his father-in-law and another partner. Sheridan’s plays have continued in production for over 200 years. The BBC produced School for Scandal 12 times between 1939 and 1978.
Elizabeth’s health was never robust. She suffered several miscarriages before she gave birth to the couple’s only child, Thomas Sheridan, in 1775.
With her husband’s ever-increasing notoriety, it was a natural extension for him to want to stand for Parliament. He greatly admired the politics of Whig Charles James Fox, and the Sheridans soon became welcome at Devonshire House, Burlington House, and even the Prince of Wales’ Carlton House.
Unfortunately, adultery was rampant in these circles, and Sheridan soon became a philandering husband. His affair with the Duchess of Devonshire’s sister, Lady Duncannon (later Lady Bessborough) resulted in Lord Duncannon’s 1789 decision to divorce his wife and sue Sheridan. The Duke of Devonshire managed to persuade his cousin (Duncannon) not to divorce his wife.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth was deeply hurt. She had tolerated her husband’s infidelities, but his passion toward Lady Duncannon wounded deeply. Fox begged her not to separate from Sheridan at the same time as the Prince of Wales – who had become close friends with Sheridan – was begging his brother, the Duke of Clarence, to quit pestering Elizabeth with his declarations of undying love for her. And Sheridan was discovered in a compromising situation with a governess while begging Elizabeth to take him back!
Despite that she was furious, Elizabeth did allow him to return.
But she got her revenge.
In 1791 she became lovers with Lord Edward Fitzgerald. In the spring of 1792 she gave birth to their daughter. The pregnancy taxed her health, and her tuberculosis returned. Sheridan claimed the baby girl and lovingly nursed Elizabeth during her final days. She died on June 28, 1792. She was 38.
Sheridan and Fitzgerald were both heartbroken. The two men bonded in their grief – and in their caring for the baby girl, but the child did not live to see two. Ironically, both men were smitten by Pamela, who came to England with Madame de Genlis and who both men thought the very image of Elizabeth. She was passing herself off as the illegetimate child of the duc d’Orleans but was really an English orphan named Nancy Sims. Each of the men proposed marriage to her. Sheridan’s proposal by letter never reached her. She accepted Fitzgerald, and they moved to Ireland.
Elizabeth’s son also suffered from lung complaints and was never healthy. He, too, died at age 38.