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Madame Vestris and her times online

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sonation ; the Inquisitor, however, pronounced it a
" disaster," and asserted that " money was lost every
night she repeated it," and, sinking to a low depth of


pessimism, remarked that " if the public will go farther
than at present they seem prepared to do, the total
abandonment of this singer and her flimsy prettiness
will in every point of view do credit to their taste and
feelings." Greatly to the censor's disgust, the public
did go farther, and in a fashion which annoyed the
prudish magazine and those who thought with it.

The records of the English stage contain no exact
parallel to the furore which Giovanni in London and
Vestris as the rakish Don created. The elements
of attraction were totally different from those of The
Beggar's Opera. When Gay's masterpiece was pro-
duced, the wit and satire of the play, the delightful
old ballads, and the sweet voice and modest demeanour
of Lavinia Fenton drew the town. Giovanni in
London had no wit ; such humour as it had appertained
to coarseness ; and the music for the most part was
taken from the contemporary songs popular at the
moment and very inferior to the old English ballads.
The sole fascination was provided by Madame Vestris
in a " breeches " part !

Female physical beauty strongly appealed to the
public of that day, not, it is to be feared, from appre-
ciation of it in an artistic sense. No Greek statue
could have been more harmonious in its proportions
than the graceful actress upon whom hundreds of
eyes gazed entranced, but it is certain that the posses-
sors of those eyes had no thought of Greek statues.
Their senses were pleased and this was all that mattered.
It was then the fashion for the devotees of feminine
beauty to burst into verse over the divinity who hap-
pened for the moment to be the toast of the town.
The charms of Vestris in Giovanni in London called
forth the following poetic effusion in her praise,
couched with the freedom characteristic of the times :

" What a breast what an eye ! What a foot, leg, and thigh !

What wonderful things she has shown us ;
Round hips, swelling sides, masculine strides
Proclaim her an English Adonis !


" In Macheath how she leers, and unprincipled appears,

And tips off the bumpers so jolly ;
And then, oh ! so blest, on two bosoms to rest,
And change from a Lucy to Polly.

" Her very air and style could corrupt with a smile

Let a virgin resist if she can ;
Her ambrosial kisses seem heavenly blisses
What a pity she is not a man.

" Then in Don Giovanni, she puts life into many,
And delights with her glass and her catches ;
Her best friend, at will, she can gracefully kill,
And the wife of his bosom debauches.

" The profligate youth she depicts with such truth,

All admire the villain and liar,

In bed-chamber scenes, when you see through the screens,
No rake in the town can come nigh her.

" Her example so gay, leads the youth all astray,

And the old lick their lips as they grin ;
And think, ' if she would,' why, mayhap, they still could !
Have the pleasure and the power to sin.

" How alluring is beauty when ankle and shoe-tie

Peep out like a bird from the nest ;

They're like heralds of delight, and morn, noon, and night,
Fond fancy can point out the rest.

" There be breeches, on they go, give me the ' fur-below '

Which appears with such grace upon many ;
But Vestris to please, must her lovely limbs squeeze
Into the pantaloons of Don Giovanni."

As these verses appeared in the Inquisitor, which
was not disposed to be friendly towards Madame
Vestris, it may be they were intended to be spiteful.
The public, however, did not regard them in this
light and were inclined to look upon them as compli-
mentary. What Madame thought cannot be con-
jectured. She was a veritable sphinx in her silence
respecting herself and her doings. No woman appears


to have been better able to hold her tongue and keep
her own secrets. Another versified effort was this :

" To Fcstris Turned Don

" When first in petticoats you trod the stage,

Our sex with love you fired your own with rage ;
In trousers next so well you play'd the cheat,
The ' pretty fellow,' and the rake complete ;
Each sex were then with different passions moved,
The men grew envious, and the women loved ! "

Frivolous as Giovanni in London reads, it really
contains little or nothing approaching indecorum.
It is packed with lively verse wedded to popular tunes,
from the charming air from Midas, " Pray, Goody "
to " Here's a Health to all Good Lasses." At the
same time, while the words of some of the songs as
they stand are fairly harmless, yet with the assistance
of a nod and a wink and the art of the comedian one
can easily understand that they could be made some-
what suggestive. But no equivocal lines are to be found
in the songs of the fascinating Don. The Theatrical
Inquisitor, in continuation of its ill-temper towards
Vestris, was constrained to be virtuously indignant.
" This extravaganza," it wrote, " as it is properly
termed, has been transplanted from the Olympic
Pavilion, a soil in which its dulness and obscenity were
of indigenous growth. We are unwilling to tax Mr.
Elliston with the very worst motive by which he
could have been actuated, but Giovanni in London
appears to have been introduced at Drury Lane
Theatre for the sole purpose of making money by the
sacrifice of every feeling which ought to be devoted
to the respectability of that establishment."

Describing the plot, the Inquisitor says : " The
Don is involved in a variety of adventures which the
dramatist hasnot troubled himself to explainer connect,
and though the auspices under which this farrago was
originally produced might warrant the utmost frivo-
lity, something of a better cast was due to the natural


stage upon which it has been represented. We shall
overlook the extreme indecency which runs through
every vein of this stupid composition and confine
our censure to the want of probability by which it
is pervaded. Giovanni obtains access to a fashionable
party without an invitation ; seduces a married lady
in ten minutes after he has first accosted her ; is
brought to trial in Westminster Hall and defended
by a female ; gets out of the King's Bench by the
insolvent act just after he gets into it ; and is finally
married to a foolish young woman who knows nothing
about him but the enormous vices by which his
character to the very last is degraded. . . . We pity
Madame Vestris from every consideration by which
her performance of Don Giovanni has been attended.
The disgusting woman who undertook this libertinic
character at its outset, prepared us very fully for the
only result that can ever be drawn, in the nicest
hands, from its loathsome repetition ; and we, there-
fore, feel bound to treat it as a part which no female
should assume till she has discarded every delicate
scruple by which her mind or her person can be dis-
tinguished," and much more to the same effect.

The " disgusting woman " who so outraged the
Inquisitor's susceptibilities was a " Mrs. Gould (late
Miss Burrell)," as Elliston's advertisement of the
piece when it came out at the Olympic Pavilion puts
it. How Mrs. Gould came to achieve notoriety is
of no consequence. It may suffice to say that the
lady was of such masculine habits that she was known
as " Joe Gould" throughout the country. Giovanni
in London, when produced at the Olympic, attracted
no attention and was unnoticed by the newspapers.
But there was a reason for this. It had only been
performed once when Queen Charlotte died ; the
theatres were closed for a few days and no more was
heard of the " Don." Elliston's grandiose announce-
ment of the piece may, however, be quoted as a good
specimen of his style of advertising : " To conclude


with the Broad Comic Extravaganza Entertainment
in two Acts, comprising a grand moral, satirical, magi-
cal, comical, operatical, melodramatical, pantomimical,
critical, infernal, terrestrial, celestial, Gallymaufrical-
ollapod, ridacle, Burletta, spectacle, y'clept Giovanni
in London."

Another of Elliston's notices is also worth reproduc-
ing, showing that a practice in vogue before Garrick's
time had not died out. It runs thus : " The Box-
keeper most respectfully solicits the nobility and gentry
who send servants to keep Places to give particular
directions that they may be at the theatre at six
o'clock precisely. According to the etiquette of other
theatres, the seats taken will be preserved until the
end of the first Act." The practice has been revived
at the present day but in a mutilated form. The
substitute cannot get beyond a place in the queue.

The result of the Inquisitor's attack was what
might be expected. It drew the town to Drury Lane.
The house was packed nightly and the fame of Madame
was established. The " second house " alone, when
the admission price was halved, brought in 100
every evening. It may be that Madame Vestris was
as much surprised as gratified by her success, for it
is said that she was very reluctant to assume a
" breeches " part, whether because the Don was
associated with the notorious lady at the Olympic or
because of the daring costume is not recorded.
Most probably it was for the first reason, as she had
already made a hit as Macheath, besides wearing a
masculine dress as Artaxerxes. As Arne's opera was
a " serious " one, doubtless the dress was prim and
proper. So far as Giovanni in London was concerned,
it received no advantage from the brief notices in the
daily papers. But in those days space was limited
the Times had but four comparatively small pages and
two of these were filled with advertisements and
a play succeeded nor not according to the amount of
talk it created. Audiences, if they disapproved,


preferred to do their own " damning " on the first
night, without waiting for the critics. There were
no half measures. If the play was a poor one or did
not take, the patrons of the theatre who were a class
by themselves stayed away and something else was
tried. But when regular playgoers were pleased,
the unanimity in front of the stage as well as on the
the stage was wonderful. Before a week was out
the only topic in gossiping circles, whether of the
" fashionables " or of the " mob," was Madame Vestris,
as the daring, the seductive Don.

In one respect but at a distance the effect of
Giovanni in London on its admirers resembled that
of The Beggar's Opera at its first production. In the
latter case fans, screens, and other articles ornamented
with scenes from the opera, with, of course, the por-
trait of the " all-conquering Polly," were sold in large
quantities. Popular admiration of Madame Vestris
went a step further. She was so much the rage that,
as Mr. T. H. Duncombe has already told us, a modeller
made a capital speculation by selling plaster casts of
what he asserted was *la jambe de Vestris. Inter alia,
the opinion of Thomas Moore may be quoted, though
he did not see the play until 1822. A note in his
" diary" under date of April i8th says : " Dined at
the George and went to Drury Lane. Elliston (whom
I had called upon in the morning, but who was ill
in bed) had a private box prepared for me. Saw
Madame Vestris in Don Juan, and was delighted with

The " run " of a play at this time was as a rule
brief. Regular playgoers were limited in numbers
and constant change was indispensable to attract them.
But Giovanni in London did not pall by repetition nor
" custom stale its infinite variety." It ran night
after night from May 3<Dth to July 8th, when the season



Vestris's success in the provinces. Her alleged escapades and
gallantries. The " Giovanni " fever renewed in London. Drawbacks
to her career as a concert singer. She appears in Italian opera at the
King's Theatre and in ballad opera at Drury Lane. Elliston's pageant
of the Coronation. Extraordinary scene at the real Coronation. Pro-
duction of Giovanni in Ireland, and failure both in London and Dublin.

THE winter season of 1820-21 at Drury Lane did not
begin until October 3Oth, and between this date and
July 8th the blank so far as Madame's movements
are concerned is difficult to fill. With her extravagant
habits, the indulgence of her whims, and her love
for everything that made her attractive, no matter
what it cost, her mode of living could hardly be sup-
ported on what she had saved if such a thing as
saving can be imagined of one who had suddenly
become the idol of the public out of her salary at
Drury Lane. The admirers of pretty and fascinating
dancers did not mind what they spent to gratify the
caprices of their divinities, and it can be safely asserted
that at this period of " resting " Vestris did not want
for money.

If we may believe the Gossip of the Century p , her
old flame Captain Best had not deserted her. The
writer's words are : " After her separation from her
husband, Captain Best persuaded her to let him manage
her affairs and also advised her to leave London and
accept an engagement at Manchester, where she
gave seven nights for 100, making a most favourable
impression. In fact her fame had preceded her
thither, so that before she arrived the house was



taken and applicants were eagerly demanding places
at increased prices. The receipts amounted to ^400
that night a sum never before realised on a single
night in that theatre. The manager was so delighted
with the lady's efforts that he went to her dressing-
room to present her with a bouquet of roses, out of
which dropped a purse containing thirty guineas.

" The delicate generosity of this proceeding so
profoundly touched the clever actress that she sent
him a note laconic and expressive as follows :

" ' DEAR SIR, I will play Cowslip to-night (in
the Agreeable Surprise], and to-morrow will take Don
Giovanni. You are a queer fellow I wish to oblige
you. VESTRIS.' '

Accepting this statement, Madame's visit to Man-
chester was after her success in Giovanni, in London,
but we need not say that stories of this most ubiquitous
lady which cannot be verified and to which no dates
are attached must be received with caution. The
anonymous author of the 1830 Memoirs at all events
had no hesitation in reproducing the words of the
Gossip of the Century, and proceeded to enlarge upon
them in his own peculiar fashion.

According to this imaginative biographer, Captain
Best at Manchester abandoned his protegee, and went
off to London with " Lady Bennet a lady whose
husband has of late become notorious." For a time
Madame Vestris was despondent, but was roused
from her depression of spirits by a present of ^50
from Lord Derby. She reappeared at the theatre,
and a Major Brookes appears upon the scene and was
" her Cicisbeo for several months," until he was shot
in a duel which the biographer is good enough to say
" Madame Vestris had nothing to do with." From
Manchester she went to Liverpool, where she came
forth as Macheath. " She was placarded on every
wall and her likeness stuck in every window of every


print-shop. The town rang with her praises and for
twenty-seven nights Macheath was received with
cheers by a Liverpool audience. . . . Her perform-
ance at the theatre delighted all, and she had a
benefit which produced her ^500."

Then followed a " slight altercation with Lord
Derby," of whom the scribbler remarks : " Lord
Derby was a rum fellow ; he married an actress " (Miss
Farren), " and had all his life been acting. But it
is no matter, I have nothing to do with him and must
push on in my old way " which way may be described
as mendacity and muddle. Of the second a good
sample is his assertion that in Liverpool Vestris was
Cowslip in the Agreeable Surprise as " breeches were
not then in her contemplation." Yet a few weeks
later she appears in Giovanni and " electrified the
town," the writer apparently not being aware that
she had played the Don for two months previous to
her provincial tour and had previously made a hit
in the " breeches " part of Captain Macheath. To
attempt to set the muddles right, or even to under-
stand them would be an impossible task, and one
can only fall back on the author's mendacity and
pronounce the whole business a concoction of false-

Appearing at Drury Lane in November Vestris
revived her popularity. The Giovanni fever ran as
high as ever, continued through the winter months,
and showed little sign of abatement in the following
year. During the spring Madame Vestris divided
honours with Braham : and Artaxerxes, The Lord of
the Manor, The English Fleet, were now and again
interposed with Giovanni. In all these so-called
English operas Madame Vestris had a part. Indeed
had she chosen to devote herself to ballad singing,
she might have excelled in this direction as she did
in others.

But there were considerable obstacles in the way
of a concert career. She had a powerful rival in Kitty


Stephens, and Kitty, at the very time when Vestris
was revelling in her delightful impertinences in Gio-
vanni, was the despair of musical critics, who could
not find " sufficient compliments to shower upon
her." Of Miss Stephens's singing in Rob Roy at
Covent Garden, in which she appeared after a long
time in Ireland, one of the daily papers said : " Her
voice, which is one of the finest nature ever formed,
possesses even more strength, clearness, and purity
than before. Some of the notes have a power truly
electric, and we never witnessed her triumph more
complete." Probably she was not much of an actress,
but her vocal powers sufficed to give her a higher
position among the staider section of the " fashion-
ables " than Vestris could ever have hoped to attain,
even had her voice been comparable to that of Kitty

On other grounds Vestris could not look for advance-
ment purely as a ballad singer. A very considerable
portion of a vocalist's income was derived from concerts
given in private houses of rich people. Mrs. Coutts
(formerly Harriot Mellon and subsequently the Duchess
of St. Albans) and Sir George Warrender, a patron of
musicians, vied with each other in the programmes
they put before their friends. Mr. T. H. Duncombe
quotes a statement that Madame Catalini was once
invited to Stowe and asked to sing. " On quitting,
she charged the Marquis of Buckingham 1,700 for
the pleasure she had afforded his guests." The
story may be a ben trovato, but it is a certainty that
Madame was naturally avaricious and found an admir-
able supporter in her husband, who did his utmost
to spend what she earned. It is on record that she
received as much as two hundred guineas for singing
" God Save the King " and " Rule Britannia." Be
this as it may, the rich paid large sums for artists
to sing at their houses, and Vestris could scarcely
hope for engagements from this source. Her repu-
tation, and Giovanni, were against her. The Lady


Jerseys, the Lady Castlereaghs, the Lady Cowpers,
and other select leaders of the beau monde would
hardly allow her within their doors, though no doubt
she would have received a warm welcome from the
men of the family.

Yet apart from what Mrs. Grundy might say,
Madame Vestris had every claim to be considered a
lady in manners and speech. The age permitted
considerable freedom, but Madame Vestris never
followed the fashion in this respect. She was the
very antithesis of the Countess Aldborough, who was
not only not ashamed, says Gronow, of the irregulari-
ties of her early life, but whose language was " plain
and unvarnished, and many hardened men of the
world have been known to blush and look aghast
when this free-spoken old lady has attacked them at
her dinner-table with sundry searching questions
respecting their tastes and habits, in the presence
perhaps of their wives and daughters." In addition,
" she did not possess the French art of wrapping up
a joke of doubtful propriety." But what may be
tolerated in a countess is not to be endured in an
actress. There was no fear of Vestris shocking the
proprieties in the Aldborough fashion, but she was
outside the pale of the exclusives and was never
invited to sing at their concerts.

Vestris was truly a delightful creature of infinite
variety, and, as Mr. Chorley subsequently wrote,
she could have made a name for herself in Italian
opera had she chosen. But she was not desirous of
succeeding in any one groove to the exclusion of
others which she might fancy. She was a woman
of strong will, and doubtless felt that she was made
to command and not to serve. Maybe she had
ambitions which she was able to gratify when she
grasped the reins of government at the Olympic
Theatre some ten years later, and, the first woman
to manage a theatre, showed her unsuspected business
capacity. But in 1821 she had to content herself


with Giovanni in London and a strange contrast
Italian opera !

Ebers had taken the King's Theatre and was very
anxious to obtain the best talent available. He had
his eye on Madame Vestris as an attractive and useful
member of his company, but Elliston and his contract
with the lady had to be overcome and, says he (Seven
Tears of the King's Theatre), " a great deal of trouble
was bestowed to obtain permission from Elliston for
her to appear at the King's Theatre on the two weekly
nights of performance. The difficulty was, however,
overcome, and Madame was engaged at twenty-five
pounds a night." What part she took in Rossini's
La Gazza Ladra, with which the operatic season
opened on March loth, neither the advertisements
nor the notices tell us. It was probably Pippo.

The opera to-day is forgotten save the spirited
overture, which might well be played more often
than it is, but it was very popular a century ago. The
plot is based on the simple story of the " Maid of the
Magpie," not altogether unlike the Ingoldsby legend
of " The Jackdaw of Rheims," which for reasons best
known to himself Rossini chose to treat in melodramatic
fashion and invest with a martial spirit. Madame
Camporese was the prima donna, and the production
was received enthusiastically, the Morning Post re-
marking that " the walls of this theatre have not con-
tained so numerous an audience as that on Saturday
night for many years." The Post, whose duty it
was to keep an eye on the " fashionables," congratulates
" our fair countrywomen upon the substitution of
wax lights for gas, which in the principal tiers for
several seasons has been permitted to carry on open
warfare against bright eyes and fair complexions."
This may well have been so ; the gas of those days
was not particularly pure and the burners very primi-
tive, and the illumination must have been strongly
tinged with yellow. At what date gas was introduced
into the King's Theatre does not appear. If in 1818


candles were in use judging from a print in Acker-
man's Microcosm of London the " several seasons "
would seem to be an exaggeration.

Of notices of Madame Vestris only that in the
Times need be quoted. " We have seen Madame
Vestris," it wrote, " when in better voice and spirits,
but there was still much left to admire. No singer
of the age surpasses her in the purity of her intonation
or in passages of simple pathos and sensibility, though
languor and want of exertion sometimes impeded their
full success. The cause may be in part the transition
to a larger theatre, but the Italian stage, where she
was first nationalised, is her true sphere, and the interest
of her reputation with the gratification of the public
will be best consulted by her never again quitting it."
It is interesting to note in coming to this conclusion
the Times anticipating Mr. Chorley that the Italian
opera was the real metier of Vestris. But evidently
she did not think so herself. She was apparently not
disposed to exert her powers. Maybe she did not
have the necessary stimulus, since her part was sub-
ordinate to that taken by Madame Camporese. In
Giovanni in London she was paramount the one
striking figure that everybody went to see. She had
no share in any opera save La Gazza Ladra, and in a
little-known work of Rossini, Ricciardo e Zoraide.
Tancredi and Paer's Agnese, which were also produced,
did not contain a part suitable for her.

Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 5 of 24)