Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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Her performances at Drury Lane during the operatic
season and afterwards were not confined to Giovanni.
For her benefit on June 29th she played in the Lord of
the Manor, in July she was seen in Rob Roy, doubtless
making an effective and picturesque Di Vernon, and
in the same month undertook Effie Deans in the
Heart of Midlothian a part which one would imagine
was hardly in her line, but the Post found that she
" imparted infinite pathos to the character and in
the Scotch airs which fell to her lot sang most deli-
ciously." No doubt the singing of the ballads was

her strong point. Other productions were The Kind,
Impostor, a ballad play, the music arranged by C. E.
Horn, the composer of " Cherry Ripe " and " I've
been roaming," two among his many songs not yet
forgotten. Drury Lane appears to have been kept
open all through 1821, the great feature being the
revival of the pageant of the Coronation, in which
Elliston as George IV was the central personage and
which ran for eighty-eight nights.

The Coronation was undoubtedly the outstanding
feature of 1821. The actual Coronation does not
need a place in these pages except in one aspect
the scene which took place in Westminster Hall. As
a sidelight on the manners of the times in which
Madame Vestris moved and lived, a newspaper de-
scription of this scene deserves quoting. " As soon,"
we read, " as his Majesty retired ... a rush was made
by hundreds of ladies and gentlemen and persons of
greater dignity to plunder the royal table on which,
O dire omen, the Throne was overturned ! When
this tumult had subsided, the hungry spectators,
who had swarmed down from the galleries into the
area of the Hall, began to occupy the tables which
the guests had left, and the remainder of the dinner
and dessert quickly disappeared. After an attack
by the chorister boys upon the table ornaments,
the instinct became universal. Ladies were seen in
every part beseeching the gentlemen to assist their
fair endeavours to procure some memorial of the
Coronation spoils. ... At the Barons' table a gor-
geous dame took possession of a golden statue of
Britannia and her lion too stupendous for her to carry,
but doating on her magnificent acquisition, she waited
in patience for assistance to help her home with it."
The odd thing about this is that no one was surprised
and still less shocked at what to-day we should call
ill-breeding and rowdyism.

In consequence of the great success of Giovanni in
London, Elliston conceived the idea of a sequel


to be called Giovanni in Ireland. The Irish version
was announced for December nth, but postponed
until December 22nd. The house was packed,
but, like most sequels, it proved a disappoint-
ment. An extract from the notice in the Morning
Post will suffice to indicate its character. " Saturday
last," it recorded, " proved the great, the important
day, big with the fate of Giovanni in Ireland. From
the * stunning whispers ' which had been abroad for
some time this was looked forward to as a most por-
tentous birth, . . . and although speaking of this
production singly as a drama disappointment may have
been experienced, still as a vehicle of the most delect-
able Irish melodies . . . and presenting as it does a
series of the most beautiful scenery, we consider it
on the whole as a piece entitled to public patronage
and respect."

This reads remarkably like damning with faint
praise. The audience went further and showed signs
of a desire to damn it without any praise at all. A
tumult after the fashion playgoers revelled in when
they desired to show their disapproval arose, and
" when the curtain fell, Mr. Russell came forward to
announce the second performance, it was impossible
to hear what he said for the uproar." The farce
began, but the actors were assailed with cries of " Off,
off ! " Mr. Russell again presented himself. A new
storm interrupted him, but he succeeded in saying
that " if accidents inseparable from a first perform-
ance had- given offence, the most strenuous efforts
would be made to guard against their recurrence,
and he trusted it would afford greater satisfaction
on its next performance."

The malcontents permitted themselves to be pacified
and on the whole showed great moderation and
attempted nothing like the violence which was exhi-
bited in the same theatre some two years before,
when at a first-night performance indignation rose
almost to rioting-point. No explanation or apology


then sufficed. Stephen Kemble, whose rule at Drury
Lane was a series of disasters, dared not face the tumult,
and the audience, in default of entertainment on the
stage, proceeded to amuse themselves in other ways
and refused to leave the theatre. The attendants,
to show that everything was over, let down the canvas
in front of the boxes, upon which the stuff was seized
and torn into shreds. A lady from one of the boxes
spouted Shakespeare to pass away the time, and it
looked as if the pittites intended to spend the night
in the theatre, when the happy idea was hit upon of
pouring buckets of water upon them from the gallery,
and this had the desired effect !

Elliston's strong point was that he never knew when
he was beaten, and announcing that this first per-
formance was simply a " public rehearsal," put the
extravaganza on again. It was shortened and im-
proved and was received with a little grumbling, but
" Madame Vestris soon succeeded in arresting general
attention and sang the house into perfectly good hu-
mour." However, the piece ran only for five nights.
Elliston then conceived the notion of producing
the piece in Dublin. The King contemplated visit-
ing the sister-isle, and, mindful of his brilliant pro-
duction of the Coronation, Elliston hoped that the
presence of George IV would add to the attraction
of the venture. The " gallimauphry " underwent a
thorough revision, presumably to suit an Irish audience,
and as during his visit the King took part in the
installation of the Knights of St. Patrick, Elliston
determined to embody in Giovanni a representation
of this imposing ceremony ; but the piece proved an
utter failure.



The King's Theatre green-room. Lord Fife and his mania for
ballet dancers. His passion for Mile Noblet. Court regulations
altered to suit her. Maria Mercandotti and Ball Hughes. The
" bucks " of the day and their fads. Fashionable gallantries. Madame
Vestris and Mr. Montagu Gore. Their correspondence. Harris
the useful " go-between." Gore's offer of 300 per annum rejected.
The affair broken off.

IN the twenties and thirties the " fashionables " went
mad over ballet dancers. Prima donnas had their
following, but in a lesser degree. It was to ogle the
premiere danseuse and her subordinate sisters and to
seek an opportunity to flirt with them that the young
bloods nightly haunted Fops' Alley. Ebers was a
shrewd man and he saw his way to a good thing when
he added a green-room to the attractions of the
King's Theatre. He says complacently : " This room
was certainly an advantage to the dancers, who could
now practise in it immediately before their entrance
on the stage," and no doubt to the delight of the
habitues who possessed a golden key by which directly
or indirectly they gained admission to the sanctum.
Paris was the great forcing house of stage dancing,
and the " stars " were tempted to London not only
by the high salaries offered, but by dreams of sumptuous
dinners, costly dresses, and sparkling diamonds
dreams which were generally realised.

Lord Fife was the great patron and protector of
dancers. He passed his time in thinking how to lavish
money upon them. In 1821 and 1822 Mademoiselle
Noblet was the bright particular star of his adoration.


Ebers tells us " that the incense offered to Noblet's
vanity must have been overwhelming. . . . She was
run after, worshipped, everybody thought and spoke
of her." The Earl provided a carriage for her during
her stay in London, and every Sunday gave a dinner to
her and other figurantes at the Pulteney Hotel. Accord-
ing to Captain Gronow, Lord Fife had known Made-
moiselle Noblet in Paris, " where he made himself
conspicuous in the foyer by his unremitting attentions.
He never quitted her for an instant. He would carry
her shawl, hold her fan, run after her with scent-bottle
in his hand, admire the diamond necklace someone
else had given her, or gaze in ecstasy on her pirouettes.
On his return to London the old roue would amuse
George IV with a minute description of the lady's
legs and her skill in using them. . . . He from first
to last spent nearly ^80,000 on this fair daughter of

His lordship was not the lady's only admirer. The
heads of other men of fashion were turned by her
perfect form and the sparkling vivacity of her black
eyes. Her charms put money into the theatre treasury,
thanks to Ebers's foresight in providing a green-room.
Whenever a rehearsal was announced, Ebers was be-
sieged by applications for admission, and a charge
was made for the liberty of being present, as to a regular
representation. Ladies were as eager as the men to
see her. Noblet's wishes were always gratified, even
to the extent of getting the court regulations on one
occasion altered to suit her convenience. She had
fixed her benefit on a certain day, but a prohibition
for some reason was issued from the Lord Chamber-
lain's Office. The King's Theatre was at that time
licensed not under a patent but by the Lord Chamber-
lain, and renewed annually. The Lord Chamberlain
was the Marquis of Hertford, whose reputation for
susceptibility to female charms, despite his age, was
well known. Mademoiselle therefore did not despair.
She first applied to Lord Ailesbury, the chairman of


the Theatre Committee, who wrote to the Marquis.
The latter's reply began thus :


" I have this moment (eleven o'clock) received
your letter, which I have sent to the Chamberlain's
Office, . . . and as Mademoiselle Noblet is a very
pretty woman, as I am told, I hope she will call there
to assist in the solicitude which interests her so much."

Mademoiselle's charms were irresistible, and she
gained her point. The anonymous author of the
Vestris Memoirs had, of course, something venomous
to say concerning the lady, remarking with an air
of hypocritical propriety, " Madame Noblet was a
virtuous woman [how did he know ?] till she breathed
the air of this Paphian temple [the King's Theatre
green-room], and then even an old cracked fife could
set her dancing the Highland Fling." The punning
allusion to his amorous lordship will not be overlooked.

Lord Fife did not confine his attentions to the
fascinating Noblet. A charming little Spanish girl
who came out as a dancer when she was but fifteen
and at once had the world of Paris at her feet captured
the susceptible nobleman, and was induced by him
to come to the King's Theatre, where she was en-
gaged for the season at a salary of 800. Maria
Mercandotti produced the most tremendous sensa-
tion. The most experienced habitue of Fops' Alley
could remember nothing like it. She was hotly pur-
sued by the dandies, and Ebers was pestered to death
by the frequenters of the green-room for introductions ;
but he had the astuteness to refer the eager suitors
to Lord Fife.

At the very zenith of Mercandotti's glory Ebers
one day received the following note :


" Ma sant6 tant extrSmement derangee j'ai

consult 6 mon mcdecin, qui m'a conscillc d'aller a la


campagne pour passer quelque temps ; je m'empresse
de vous en prevenir afin que vous puissiez donner mon
role a une autre personne. J'ai 1'honneur d'etre,


Consternation reigned among the beaux when Ebers
made his apologies (one may well believe that he did
so with his tongue in his cheek ; no one was better
acquainted with the pretty ways of -premieres danseuses)
for the young lady's non-appearance, but in a very
few days the truth oozed out. Maria had run away
with Ball Hughes, one of the most popular gallants
of the day ! Hughes carried her off to Banff, where
they took advantage of the free-and-easy marriage law
of Scotland. Ajeu d' esprit which the affair evoked is
not unworthy of quotation :

** Sir, being a-miss et ma sante derangee

Mon medecin declares qu'il j a quelque chose a changer.
I suppose he means a la campagne je yais,
So dispose of my role a quelque autre, I pray,
But Mama ne veut pas que je sois paresseuse,
Bids me go to a Ball and I cannot ref-Hughei !

The admired Mercandotti figures in a coloured
cartoon of the period, one of many sprightly carica-
tures of the most-talked-of woman of the day, Mrs.
Coutts, once the favourite actress Harriot Mellon,
who married Coutts the banker and became the richest
widow in Great Britain and eventually the Duchess
of St. Albans. The caricature is entitled " A Visit
to Court," and represents the Lord Chamberlain
asking Mrs. Coutts and Mademoiselle Mercandotti
for their cards. Mercandotti holds a card in one hand
and a ball in the other and apparently is about to
execute a pirouette on her right big toe.

Disraeli, writing from Spain, in a letter to his
mother dated August 1830, thus refers to the charms
of the all-conquering dancer : " At seventeen a Spanish


beauty is poetical, tall, lithe, and clear, though sallow.
But you have seen Mercandotti. As she advances,
if she does not lose her shape, she resembles Juno
rather than Venus. Majestic she ever is ; and if her
feet are less twinkling than in her first career, look
on her hand and you'll forgive them all." 1

" Ball " Hughes was a typical dandy. His name was
originally Ball, but as his uncle, Admiral Hughes, left
him a fortune which brought him in .40,000, he
added " Hughes " to " Ball " and in consequence
was nicknamed " The Golden Ball." He was good-
looking, he dressed well a most important qualifica-
tion in the days of the dandies and he gambled in-
cessantly. Betting became second nature with him,
and the object of the bet did not much matter. It
is said that he and Lord Harrington once played at
battledore and shuttlecock from evening till daylight
with heavy wagers on each game. Lord William
Lennox says of him : " Ball Hughes was a most
delightful companion, good-natured, unaffected, and
full of fun ; I do not remember ever seeing him out
of temper. One trifling annoyance he had, and that
was that a gentleman known as Pea-green Hayne from
the verdant colour of his coat and called ' The Silver
Ball," was set up as a rival to the original ' Golden
Ball.' Of Hayne I know little. He was conspicuous
for having a black servant and a prize-fighter up in
the rumble of his travelling carriage." Pea-green
Hayne afterwards became notorious for his association
with Maria Foote and the story of his folly will find
its place in these pages later on.

One of the fads of the moment was the craze of
giving nicknames to prominent men of fashion.
Besides " The Golden Ball," there was " The Silent
Hare," " Kangaroo Cooke," " Red Herrings," other-
wise Lord Yarmouth, so called partly because he had
red hair and whiskers and had Yarmouth in his title,
" Monk " Lewis (the author of The Monk, a novel
1 Lift of Disraeli, W. F. Monypennjr.


which did him more harm than good because of its
alleged immoral tendency, and of The Castle Spectre, a
play immensely popular and entitled to be called the
first of the melodramas), " King Allen " (Lord Allen,
the greatest dandy in town), " Handsome Jack "
(Jack Phillipson), " Poodle Byng," " Pea-green Hayne,"
and a host of others.

The aim of every buck was to be talked about, and
the possessor of any marked peculiarity bestowed upon
him by nature was envied, and those who were thus
denied set their wits to work to invent some eccen-
tricity. Hayne' s negro servant and his prize-fighter
were the outcome of this craze. These fads had to
conform to certain rules laid down by the " fashion-
ables." Mr. T. H. Duncombe says of his father,
Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, that " he was expected
to do as young men of family and fortune were re-
ported to him as having invariably done. . . . He
must be seen at Tattersall's as well as at Almack's ;
be more frequent in attendance in the green-room
of the theatre than at a levee in the palace ; show as
much readiness to enter into a pigeon match at Batter-
sea Red House as into a flirtation in May Fair ; dis-
tinguish himself in the hunting-field as much as at
the dinner-table ; and make as effective an appearance
in the Park as in the Senate ; in short, he must be
everything not by turns but all at once, sportsman,
exquisite, gourmand, rake, senator, and at least a
dozen other varieties of the man of fashion." Mr.
Duncombe omits gambling and the prize-ring ; with
these amusements added, one may admit the truth
of Pierce Egan's Life in London, which, it may be
noted, appeared in 1822 and instantly caught on,
leading to the production of the popular drama Tom
and Jerry, which was played in almost every theatre
in the United Kingdom.

So far as gallantry was concerned there was not
much to choose between the men and women of the
West-end world. The influence of the flagrant pro-


fligacy of the Regency was continued into the Mon-
archy. Public opinion was so hardened to the spectacle
of immorality in high places that the amatory follies
of the rich formed the staple topic of conversation.
Mr. Cyrus Redding remarks, " Whatever charges
Lord Brougham may bring against the aristocracy, . . .
they have still a respect, at least some of the female
part of it, for what is due to morality and religion,
If it be not exhibited beyond external conduct."

This is not saying very much in the defence of
the ladies, and what with the scandals disclosed by
the trial of Queen Caroline and with Lady Conyngham
established as first favourite of the King and living
with him at " The Cottage " near Windsor, it was
not to be expected that dancers and actresses would
pose before their betters as examples of decorum.
In an age of reckless extravagance when pleasure
must be had no matter what it cost, Madame Vestris,
who had not been accustomed to deny herself any-
thing, plunged into luxuries the money for which
did not come from her purse. There is little to
reproach her with in this. As already pointed out,
it was the fashion. Young men who came into the
possession of fortunes got rid of their money as fast
as they could, and when all is said and done, more
gold found its way into Crockford's coffers than was
spent on ladies of the stage.

It may be safely assumed that in the green-rooms
of the King's Theatre and Drury Lane the fascinating
Vestris was greatly admired and sought after by the
bucks. Whether she cared for any one of them beyond
the rest cannot be positively asserted, but that in 1821
and 1822 she was closely associated with a Mr. Montagu
Gore, a young man of good family and means, certain
scraps of correspondence which came to light in the
catalogue of a country auctioneer, who sold a bundle
of letters from which he made brief extracts, fully
show. Mr. Gore may have made her acquaintance
in the green-room, but the inference to be drawn from


some of Madame's letters is that he was not one of
the favoured few who had the entree. Most probably
he was a devotee of Drury Lane, and from the pit
had succumbed to the charms of the shapely " Don."
Had he been one of the green-room circle the goddess
would not have had occasion to utilise the services of
Mr. Harris. Otherwise the two would have been
constantly meeting and would most likely have made
up their differences by word of mouth.

For there were differences, but from what cause
the extracts do not disclose. The lady's passion for
poor Montagu (if she had had a passion, which may
be doubted) may have cooled, or she may have favoured
some other admirer, or she may have been bothered by
monetary troubles for which the young gallant's means
did not suffice. Whatever it was, she sought the assist-
ance of Harris, who wrote letters which she copied and
sent to Gore. It may be that at the delicate and dis-
agreeable stage in which the " affair " had arrived she
could not bring herself to deal with it in a business-
like spirit. She might have dreaded losing her temper
or was afraid of saying too much or too little.

One thing is clear, she was on terms of comradeship
with Harris and sent him Gore's letters to be answered,
and we have her writing him in this playful fashion :
" Madame Troothy presents her compliments to
Charlie Tidlams and requests he will come and fetch
her to take a little drive as she has a little headache "

" Pray write answer to the enclosed." " C is

arrived, therefore I cannot have the pleasure of dining
with you to-day." " Pray let me know what you
have said to the Maypole." If by the " Maypole "
the unhappy Montagu is meant highly probable
one can fancy him tall and thin and melancholy with
disappointed love.

Harris's letters sent via Madame seem to have
had due effect. Mr. Gore writes : " I pledge myself
to settle on Madame Vestris the sum of 300 per
annum for her life. December 3rd, 1821." Appa-


rently this was meant as a kind of atonement for some
offence he had committed, for in the same letter
occurs this entreaty : " My dearest love, it will
require no great exertion of strength to see the man
who longs to ask your forgiveness."

But the divinity was not to be moved. Either
her heart was not touched or the sum offered was
too insignificant for her to consider. On the whole,
it may be taken for granted that she was not prepared
to give up her freedom of action for 300 per annum,
if such a condition were hinted at. And indeed, in
comparison with the huge sums which were being
flung at the feet of the Noblets and Mercandottis
it was a trifle. Vestris, at all events, remained silent,
upon which the swain stood upon his dignity and
delivered himself thus : " Mr. Montagu Gore presents
his compliments to Madame Vestris, and having
received no answer to his last note, begs to say that
he considers the connection as finally and irrecoverably
broke off. . . . She must have been aware that he
expected to have met with a return for his kindness."

The lady seems to have relented so far as her silence
was concerned. Further correspondence followed,
and then it looked as if the secret was out. It is the
eternal triangle two men and one woman. " I
have explained," writes Elizabetta (or Charles Harris
for her), " that I was in possession of a settlement
which nothing could take from me, but the very act
I had in contemplation would bind me in honour
to return that which I could not in honour retain."

Mr. Harris is slightly involved here ; anyhow, it is
pretty clear why the ^300 per annum did not appeal
to Madame ; at the same time one wonders whether
the conclusion of the letter was Harris pure and
unadulterated or was amended by the lady. The
extract is fragmentary and has a flavour of the senti-
mental mood of the period. It starts with a burst
of versified emotion : " No, Monti, no, I'll ne'er
forsake the man, Who gives me all I want and all he


can." Then follow a few more rhyming lines and it
proceeds : " Were I to make one more and you recede,
I am ruined." " If my actions or my manner is to
be governed by any particular rule unconnected with
my own feelings, I must say millions could not tempt
me to make such a sacrifice." On the whole, this
effusion reads more like Harris than Vestris.

Here this interesting sidelight on Madame's private
life ends. As it reads, there does not seem much
romance in it. But how could there be in a love-
affair conducted by a deputy ? Who was the man
whom the lady would ne'er forsake and what was the
amount of his settlement which satisfied all her wants ?
But the answer to the last question would settle no-
thing. Vestris might be satisfied for a brief space,
but soon would be wanting more. The demands of
the world she lived in had to be met.

If Disraeli's opinion of Montagu Gore was correct
and so shrewd a judge of character did not often make
a mistake the gentleman could not boast of qualities
likely to attract a woman who never allied herself

Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 6 of 24)