Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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Her dad lives in the city, I oft see him there.

My fancy still wanders on, Smithson it ponders on,
Glover, too, maunders on, ruddy and rife ;
Tree's tone enriches me, Vestris bewitches me,
Common then twitches me whispering " wife."

Tunstall has tones enough, Egerton bones enough,
Mrs. Bunn moans enough, how my heart flows ;
Waylett is bliss-able, Hollande admissable,
Mrs. Horn kiss-able, somebody knows.

Davenport's dumpy oh ! Harlowe is stumpy oh !
Miss Pearce is mumpy oh ! Yet I admire ;
Miss Chester's killing me (miugre dame is drilling me),
Baker's wife thrilling me through with desire.

Some of the allusions in this rigmarole are terribly
puzzling and incoherent, but the greatest puzzle is
that the rhymester should have omitted to mention
Mrs. Humby, Mrs. Orger, and Mrs. Gibbs, compared
with whom some of the ladies he glorifies are not to
be named in the same breath. And there was little
Miss Goward, afterwards one of the stars of the comedy
stage and better known as Mrs. Keeley. Mrs. Humby
(the subject of an audacious couplet unquotable in
these pages) indeed, the Morning Chronicle preferred
to Vestris. But towards the latter the Chronicle
was inclined at times to be spiteful.

Sailing smoothly as Madame was over the sea of
public admiration, she was drifting perilously near
the shoals of scandal. Stories of her gallantries were
being circulated, and a writer in Oxberry's Theatrical
Biographies was moved to read her a lecture on her
peccadilloes, admonishing her more, however, in
sorrow than in anger. He begins thus : " We now
indeed approach the painful part of our duty. We
wish to avoid speaking harshly of the frailties of the
weaker sex and we would rather draw the curtain


over their errors than expose them ; but extreme cases
call for extraordinary reprehension and silence becomes
criminal where vice is notorious. ... It must be
evident that to obtain correct information on such
subjects ... is impossible. It is a subject on which
courts of law cannot obtain accurate evidence, and
the tales of the day are generally drawn from the
disclosures or inventions of domestics who distort
truth to give a value to their communication."

Warming to his subject, the censor proceeds in
the following caustic fashion : " Madame Vestris has
done more to degrade her profession by suffering
the impression that she could be bought than the
talents of fifty such actresses could remedy. . . . Had
the lady of whom it is our unpleasing task thus to
speak erred from the feelings of nature, had she even
emulated Catherine in the number of her lovers, as
long as passion had been her only incentive, we
should have closed our pages to her errors and cast
a sigh but no reproach over her frailties. . . . Madame
Vestris has had the misfortune to be more flattered
than perhaps any woman now in existence. Madame
Vestris had an early penchant for jewellery and finery
that has grown with her growth and strengthened
with her strength. . . ."

After a few more generalities of this sort details of
Madame's enormities are entered into, but oddly
enough with a view apparently of showing the lady
in a favourable light. We are told that " Amongst
the many charges against this fascinating woman that
of receiving a Mr. C. is the most notorious. We
happen to know the particulars of that affair well, and
if ever a gentleman was determined to be ruined and
did take a delight in it, Mr. C. was the man. What
shall be said for the folly of a being who undertook
to spend a month in Paris, and yet on the first night
of his arrival, hearing the name of his goddess men-
tioned at a soiree, exclaimed, ' Ah, I must return to
my dear little angel ! * and actually set off instantly


back to London ? . . . The conduct of Madame Vestris
to that individual was neither selfish nor mercenary ;
on the contrary, in one instance it was meritorious
and generous."

Continuing in his extenuating vein, the writer says :
" With a Captain A., who had lavished a fortune in
excesses, our heroine shared a prison ; she did not
desert her Leander in poverty, and these traits of
character should be placed against the whelming
weight of her errors. We have not yet heard of any
instance of Madame Vestris intruding herself into
the domestic circle and deluding a husband from the
arms of his wife."

In a footnote the author says : " The tales of Mr. C.
Kemble and our heroine we treat as an absurd and
infamous fabrication." " She has robbed no mistress
of her lover, and indeed she seems rather to commit
the sins that fall in her way than to seek occasion for
the commission of them." Then : " We have heard
instances of generosity and kindliness of heart in our
heroine that would do honour to any woman. Her
manners are without any tincture of affectation ; to
the poorer members of the theatre she is affable and
kind. She is in a provincial theatre most conciliating
and obliging, and in whatever theatre she appears
her conduct is never such as to give the slightest offence
either to the delicacy or feelings of the other ladies
of the establishment."

The conclusion the self-appointed moralist arrives
at is that all the lady's faults are due to her alluring
personality. " We never believed in the fascinating
powers of the serpent," he declares, " till we saw our
heroine ; and we mean this neither as a compliment
nor a censure. Without beauty she allures in spite
of defects she attracts you. Madame Vestris has
no one really fine feature ; and when in an undress
has no claim even to the negative promise of being
pretty. Yet, even so, such is the witchery that hangs
around her that he who converses with her for five


minutes and does not feel passion rising in his frame
is something more or less than man. . . ."

If Madame read this diatribe, as no doubt she did,
she would be quite justified in exclaiming, " 'Twas
all very well to dissemble your love, but why did you
kick me downstairs ? " The question frequently
asked was why did not the lady contradict, or make
some protest against, the innuendoes and the scandalous
stones which found their way into print ? Madame
Vestris was wiser than her critics. What was the
use of contradicting one false report when there were
so many others which were true and which she could
not contradict ? Whether this was so or not, the
fact remains that while she was exceedingly sensitive
to criticisms which affected her professional reputa-
tion, she was quite indifferent to those which assailed
her personal character.

Another point of interest is that the Age, notorious
for its scurrility, which made its appearance in 1825
and attacked all and sundry, was at all events in
its early years kindly disposed towards Vestris. Its
chief target of attack was Mrs. Coutts, who as Harriot
Mellon married Thomas Coutts, the banker, under
somewhat equivocal circumstances. Mr. Coutts died
in 1822 and left his relict the richest widow in the
United Kingdom. She aimed at social distinction
through her wealth and her lavish and ostentatious
hospitality, and Molloy Westmacott, who subsequently
became editor of the Age, pretended that the lady's
vulgar ambition justified the paper's coarse assaults.
There is, however, reason to believe that his real
motive was something quite different. Mrs. Coutts
could have silenced him for a time but she never
stooped to do so.

Madame Vestris stood in a different position.
There was nothing to gain by attacking her rather
the reverse. Indeed, the Age went out of its way to
shower its praises, and when the Morning Chronicle
during August 1826, in its favouritism towards Mrs.


Humby, indulged in some remarks concerning Vestris
more personal than polite, the Age rose in her defence.
Said the Chronicle : " She [Vestris] is now approach-
ing that age when, according to some, the second crop
of beauty becomes ripe for the reaper, when a certain
degree of plumpness makes up for the earlier graces.
She never struck us as being so buxom and en bon 'point
as last night, when her dress being necessarily tight
showed the exact proportions of her figure. She was
encored in ' Pray, Goody/ but Sinclair used invariably
to be called upon to sing it three times. Madame
Vestris sings to be sure sufficiently well for the part,
but her claim to it depends much more upon her legs
than upon her voice. Altogether the piece was ill
got up, as the manager was aware most likely that
a pair of very nice silk stockings for Madame Vestris
was the most important part of the property to be em-

In reply the Age lifted its bludgeon in a style that
would have done credit to the " Eatanswill Gazette."
" Oh, old Chronny," it lashed out, " you certainly
are the greatest blockhead that ever took up the trade
of critic. The flourish about Madame Vestris's age
when Mrs. Humby is about two years older comes
in very funnily, but it is nevertheless of a piece with
the whole affair."

Vestris's work in 1826 was of a most varied character.
She appeared as Fatima in Oberon, in Bishop's ballad
opera zbt Slave, Nell in The Devil to Pay, Captain
Macheath " positively the last time of her ever per-
forming that character," said the advertisement
songs at Vauxhall Gardens in the summer (the Gardens
took a new lease of life in 1826 with ballet, fireworks,
military and Scotch bands, suppers, and arrack punch,
but that life did not last long), Lydia Languish in the
Rivals, Giovanni in London, in The Epaulette with, as
already mentioned, seven other ladies all in " breeches "
parts, and in many other characters. Her versatility
and her activity moved the Age to publish in its issue


of October 23rd skits not, however, intended to be

" The Haymarket," it wrote, " having lost the only
member which constituted its value and realised that
its treasury is going on with its old tricks again, and
in consequence of the appointment of Madame Vestris
to the situation of stage manager, we find amongst
the next week's announcements :

" * Tuesday : Letitia Hardy, Madame Vestris !
Wednesday : Donna Lorenza, Madame Vestris ! !
Thursday : Lady Elizabeth Freelove, Madame

Vestris ! ! !
Saturday : Lady Bell, Madame Vestris ! ! ! ! '

and report says the following Monday she plays Lady
Macbeth. In addition to all this a sad mutilation of
the popular ballet of Les Pages du Due de Vendome
(The Epaulette) was brought out by the Lady Manager-
ess last night the male characters (for the ladies at
this theatre no longer support their characters) were
represented, we see by the bills, by Madame Vestris,
Mistress Wood, and the Madames Ebsworth, Carr,
Webb, and Bailey."

On the announcement that Pizarro was to be
played the Chronicle was in its element, remarking that
" Among the virgins Madame Vestris will of course
appear, and we have no doubt will then be more
perfect in her part than she has been in most things
we have lately seen her enact. After all this and
well knowing what the receipts must be, we hope
Madame Vestris means to pay the salaries."

Vestris' s craving for versatility led her at times to
misjudge her powers. She had not had the requisite
training to permit her to do justice to the bravuras
of Italian opera. Her singing of " Una voce poco fa "
on one occasion was severely criticised. Apparently
she was satisfied with it herself, and when " Cherry
Ripe," which followed, was encored, she showed her
mortification. " She absolutely returned to the front


of the stage," said the Courier, " in a sort of pet and
recommenced the ballad with a ridiculous air of peevish
impatience; . . . the pit only laughed at her airs,
but we should not have been sorry if a more significant
lesson had been taught her." Evidently she was
disappointed because the encore was not given to
" Una voce."

In the early part of 1826 Madame fulfilled an en-
gagement in Dublin with Abbott, who had been a
member of Covent Garden Theatre, in connection
with which engagement there was a good deal of ill-
natured and ill-founded gossip, Vestris being accused
of having behaved shabbily over money matters.
Subsequently the matter was righted, and it turned out
that it was Abbott who was the shabby one in the
transaction. It appeared that " she was to have 500
in advance before starting for Dublin, but this 500
was for two bills of 250 each endorsed by herself,
cash for which was obtained by Mr. Abbott's agency.
On settling with that gentleman in Dublin the ^500
was deducted by him from the sum due to Vestris,
and on her return she was applied to for the payment
of the first bill of ^250 which had been dishonoured
by Mr. Abbott, although he had paid himself back
the money from what was due to the lady."

But there seem to have been people who would
not believe Vestris could be other than mercenary,
and certain scribblers took advantage of this belief
to make scurrilous attacks with an intimation that
more might follow. Only one inference was to be
drawn Madame was to pay for their silence. The
Age, of all papers in the world, rushed to her rescue in
the following : " Madame Vestris takes her benefit
to-morrow at the Haymarket and, from a report we
gathered from the Box-book-keeper, a tribute fully
due to her versatile and great abilities. This must
be a convincing proof to the siren of May Fair that
the rascally attempts of vagabonds for a pecuniary
purpose to misrepresent her life so shamefully as


lately has been done have no effect on public opinion.
We have heard by the way that to conduct her pending
actions against these fellows she has retained our
friend Scarlett " (a well-known barrister of the day).

The next week the Age writes : " Agreeably to our
predictions we find that Madame Vestris had a regular
bumper on Monday last, boxes private and public,
pit gallery and slips ! After this she need be under
no apprehension of scurrilous publications. Among
those who have been her latest persecutors are a petti-
fogging monkey practising the law in Water Lane,
Blackfriars whose name we will furnish her if she
should desire one McGregor Logan, who translated
the English opera theme Der Freischutz, and John
Barnett the soi-disant composer nice boys all three."

In associating John Barnett with a blackmailing
conspiracy the Age made itself ridiculous. It is
incredible that the composer of The Mountain Sylph
could be found in such a galley. The paper's asser-
tion that Madame intended instituting proceedings
against her alleged libellers was hardly better founded.
She let them severely alone, both at this time and



Vestris's strenuous life. Takes part in old comedies, Shakespeare,
and the Italian opera. Censured for her garbled version of Susanna
in The Marriage of Figaro. Mutilation of Mozart's // Seraglio. Up-
roar over " I've been roaming." Vestris furious. The uproar
renewed another night. Josephine Bartolozzi's first appearance on
the stage. Poetical effusions concerning Vestris and her admirers.
Vestris attacked by the Times and Morning Chronicle. She is defended
by the Age. Miss Harriet Coveney as Captain Macheath. The
Chronicle severely condemns " breeches parts " and prefers the legs
of Miss Foote and Mrs. Humby to those of Vestris.

THE activity of Vestris in 1826 was continued into
the following year. Never was there such an energetic
woman. What with the " study" of the tremendous
range of characters she attempted, the seductions of
society gaiety, her endless love-affairs, and her endless
want of money, no wonder her nerves frequently gave
way and the announcement had often to be made that
she was ill. Charles Kemble was still running opera
at Covent Garden alternated with the " legitimate "
drama. Vestris played Lady Teazle (at her benefit) for
the first time ; Lydia Languish ; Zerlina (Don Gio-
vanni), " first and only time," ran the announcement ;
she figured in the old stock comedies Know Tour Own
Mind, The Way to Keep Him, The Jealous Wife, and
She Would and she Would Not ; she was Brown in
an English version of Boieldieu's La Dame Blanche
an odd mixture founded upon Guy Mannering and
The Monastery ; and she sang for the last time at
the King's Theatre in her old part in La Gazza Ladra.
In Artaxerxes, though she had nothing to do save look



charming and sing " In Infancy," she was always
triumphant, and she made a hit in Poole's comedy
The Wife's Stratagem. Shakespeare was not forgotten,
she playing Rosalind in As Ton Like It. When
The Marriage of Figaro was produced in May she was
Susanna, and in a performance of the opera later
in the same year she came in for well-merited

It is not a little singular that, undoubted artist
as she was, Eliza Vestris could be guilty of the bad
taste and impropriety of treating the great masters
of music as though their compositions were not worthy
of her notice. Well might one critic write indignantly
of her Susanna : " She was allowed to omit ' Cruel
Perche* and to substitute for one of the opera's most
pleasing airs a little insignificant Spanish song."
From this indifference one can understand why she
could never have risen to be a great Italian opera
singer. She had neither feeling nor veneration for
music other than trivial, ear-catching melodies. The
applause such things drew from an uneducated audience
pandered to her vanity. Mozart she treated with a
levity for which there was not the slightest excuse.
The transpositions and interpolations in // Seraglio
(given in December 1827) and Figaro were enough
to make the composer turn in his grave. In the first-
named, not satisfied with the airs in her own parts,
Vestris appropriated a romanza belonging to another
character. The cast was atrocious. Wrench, an
admirable comedian, should, as Pedrillo, have sung
the Romanza, but Wrench as a singer was unendurable.
Said the Age : " The part is unworthy of his acting
talent and he takes his revenge on the music by mangling
in the most horrid manner everything he touches.
Why Wrench has been put into Pedrillo we cannot
imagine." But is not the answer obvious ? Vestris
wanted the Romanza, which in Wrench's voice and
style would have been a hideous burlesque. Another
actor might have been able to sing and so deprived


Vestris of an additional song. Hence Wrench was

At last the critics rebelled against this profanation,
and over a performance of Figaro on December I4th,
when Vestris played Susanna, and Madame Sala
(the mother of George Augustus, the prince of journal-
ists) the Countess, they lost patience and smote her
unsparingly. Her extraordinary vagaries were thus
described :

" Madame Vestris was the Susanna, and the bills
announced that she was to sing ' I've been roaming,'
and some other ballad of the same class intended,
we suppose, as some sort of relief to the stupidity of
Mozart. This evil is growing to such an extent that
though the Managers may put a different title to their
operas in the bills, they will soon all contain the same
songs. Upon this occasion, immediately after the
enchanting duet of ' Sul aria ' had been admirably
sung by Madame Sala and Madame Vestris, just in
the midst of the lively dialogue between these two
agreeable personages and the page, the band without
rhyme or reason struck up the symphony of * I've
been roaming.' An instantaneous hiss passed round
the house, and Madame Vestris, taking it to herself,
resented the supposed affront by retiring from the
stage and leaving the performance at a stand. An
uproar ensued, and Cherubino having again fetched
Susanna to her post, she sang ' I've been roaming '
with much more propriety than she could have done
in the first instance not, however, without similar
repeated marks of disapprobation from that foolish
part of the audience who thought they had come to
hear the Marriage of Figaro"

Vestris evidently felt this reproof keenly, and a few
days later she wrote the following letter to the Times :

" It is with extreme reluctance that I address you
on a subject which has given me great pain and uneasi-
ness, and which in gratitude to the public whose
generous applause and approbation I have so long


enjoyed, I cannot pass by without expressing my regret
at having incurred in any degree their displeasure.
Respecting the opposition shown to my introducing
the admired song ' I've been roaming ' into the opera
of Figaro, I have only to state that Miss Stephens,
Miss Paton, Miss Tree, and other ladies have intro-
duced songs of their choice, there being no song by
Mozart in the opera as originally produced on the
English stage, and those composed by Mr. Bishop for
Miss Stephens are quite out of the compass of my
voice, that in justice to the audience whose applause
I shall ever most anxiously labour to obtain, I could
not presume on attempting to sing. Again I have
been permitted to introduce * I've been roaming,'
in the same situation these last two seasons, uniformally
with great success, and I must beg to call your atten-
tion to the circumstance of there being no opposition
shown by admirers of Mozart to * What can a poor
maiden do ? ' a song by the same author. Most
desirous that you, sir, may feel the justice of making
known to the public, by the insertion of this letter, that
1 have only been actuated by a desire to please."

The plea that there were other sinners and that
she was not worse than the rest was not a very con-
vincing defence, but maybe it was the best she could

The matter did not end here. At a repetition
of the opera on January 6th, 1828, when after the
fall of the curtain Wrench came on to announce
the next performance, " his voice was drowned by a
confused clamour from above in which now and then
could be distinguished something like the word
" Vestris." Wrench disappeared and the gods were
silent until the scapegoat came forth to receive the
benefit of a renewal of the storm. Mr. Fawcett
declared that if he could form any idea of what the
" ladies and gentlemen wanted he would certainly
comply with their wishes if in his power." Among
various shouts " I've been roaming " was at length


audible. Mr. Fawcett then observed that " I've been
roaming " neither belonged to the opera nor had it
been promised on the bills. This was a poser and
the gods were confounded ; whereupon Mr. Fawcett
added, l but if it was the wish of the public that
Madame Vestris, who was now undressed (a laugh)
should sing the song, such was his wish also and
such he was persuaded was the wish of the lady who
would appear the moment she could get her clothes
on.' Orator Hunt then rose and exclaimed : ' The
boxes and the pit do not require it ; it is only the
shilling gallery.' This happened to be so obviously
true that the boxes and pit vociferously applauded the
assertion, in the midst of which the lady, chancing
to be at the wing, immediately approached, looking
so handsome and dressed to such advantage, that no
one could have the heart to object. Of course the
fascinating little lady was heard with patience, though
it is scarcely necessary to add that there was no attempt
to encore." It is to be hoped she took the lesson
to heart.

On June 1 7th Madame's sister, Josephine Bartolozzi,
made her first appearance on the stage at Covent
Garden Theatre as Rosina in the Barber of Seville.
It was an ambitious effort, and all that can be said
of it was that it gave promise of better performances
in the future. Her excessive nervousness prevented
her doing herself justice. Without the striking
personality of her sister, she had considerable charm.
We are told that " her figure is perhaps below the
middle size, but is very delicately proportioned. Her
hair is dark, her eyebrows are finely arched, her features
are small, feminine, and pleasing, but unfitted for
the varied language of the soul. Her eye is soft, but
though evincing much gentleness, is never kindled
with the flashing light of our divine little favourite,
the female Giovanni. Her extreme timidity and
agitation on her first appearance in the balcony of
Bartolo's house were as painful to the audience as


to herself. She looked like a beautiful little bird
that is for the first time fastened in its wiry prison and,

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 11 of 24)