Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Frances Sheridan and Mothers of the Novel

Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan, Novelist and Playwright 

Frances Chamberlaine was born in Dublin some time during the year 1724--the date of her birth is unknown, and, unfortunately, her role as a novelist has been little known. I am posting about her today, 30 October, because it is the birthdate of her famous son, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, born on this day in 1751.

The daughter of the Rev. Dr. Philip Chamberlaine, an Anglican minister, and his wife, Anastasia Whyte, Frances was the youngest of five children. Her mother "dying soon after her birth," Frances had many obstacles to overcome in order to become a writer.

Not least of these obstacles, as her granddaughter noted, were the "disadvantages of education" Frances experienced--disadvantages that would have "crushed" a "less ardent mind."

Although Philip Chamberlaine was "an admired preacher," one who was "strict in the performance of all his duties," he wasn't in favor of educating his two daughters. He was "only with difficulty prevailed on to allow his daughter to read." As for teaching her to write? The good reverend doctor judged writing to be "perfectly superfluous in the education of a daughter."

Teaching a girl to write could only lead to disaster--to love letters and to the "exchange" of "confidential effusions" with other young women. Horrors!

Like many other aspiring women about whom I have posted in this blog (Moderata Fonte comes immediately to mind), Frances's three older brothers helped to educate her. Her oldest brother, Walter, not only taught her to write, he taught her Latin, for example. Her brother Richard taught her botany, which seems to have been of some medicinal use as she was said to have helped to treat the sick in her father's parish. 

By the age of fifteen, Frances had written a two-volume romance, Eugenia and Adelaide, somehow finagling the paper on which to write from the family's housekeeper (or, at least, this is the account that her granddaughter provides). This romance was published only after Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan's death; her daughter, Alice, successfully adapted it as a comic opera for the stage.

Her granddaughter relates that the young Frances also wrote a sermon that was so admired by those who heard or read it that she wrote a second--though her granddaughter says she has not been able to find a copy of them. These sermons "were long in the possession of the family," her granddaughter wrote, "and were reckoned to display considerable ability."

Frances seems to have written nothing else until she produced two pieces in defense of the actor Thomas Sheridan--a fracas had broken out at the Smock Alley Theatre (Dublin), which he managed. Frances defended his behavior in verse, "The Owls: A Fable," and in a pamphlet. The two were married in 1747.

Over the next few years, she gave birth to three children: Charles Francis (b. 1750), an author and politician; Richard Brinsley (b. 1751), the famed playwright; and Alicia (b. 1753), later Alicia LeFanu, also a writer. (Frances Sheridan's daughter, Alicia Sheridan LeFanu, is frequently confused with her daughter, the younger Alicia LeFanu, who authored Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Frances Sheridan, which you can access in full by clicking here.) 

After Francis Sheridan moved to London with her husband in 1754, she became acquainted with many writers, including Samuel Richardson, famed author of Pamela and Clarissa--who read one of her unpublished works and encouraged her to continue to write.

In 1756 she sent him a manuscript of what has become her most well-known work, Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph. (In this novel, Frances pays tribute to her brother and his role in her education; the young Sidney Bidulph is taught by her older brother, Sir George.) The novel, written in the form of a journal, was published anonymously in 1761, dedicated to Richardson. In the mean time, in addition to writing, Frances Sheridan also gave birth to a fourth child, a daughter named Elizabeth, during this period.

She turned to drama, and two of her plays were produced at the Drury Lane Theatre--The Discovery, in 1763 (her husband played a leading role), and The Dupe, produced late in the same year. Both plays were published, the first in 1763, the second in 1764.

The Sheridans moved again, this time to Blois, France, in 1764. There Frances added a second part to her Sidney Bidulph and completed another comedy, A Journey to Bath.  She also completed an "oriental tale," The History of Nourjahad, which was published in 1767, the year after her death. (It was later dramatized by the novelist and playwright Sophia Lee, in 1788)

Frances Sheridan died in Blois on 26 September 1766. She was only forty-two years old. 

Frances Sheridan's works are now readily available: Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph and Oriental Tales are each produced in an accessible World's Classics edition. The early Eugenia and Adelaide is available in print through Eighteenth Century Classics Online (I know that says "online"--and it is online if you have access to the database, but you can also purchase a paper copy through Amazon.)

You can read a brief biography from the Dictionary of National Biography by clicking here (this is not the most recent online DNB entry, which requires subscription access, but an earlier, freely available version). Alicia LeFanu's biography is available through the Internet Archive.

One of the things I love about this mother-of-the-novel is the way Frances Sheridan is the "mother" of women writers--her daughter, Alicia Sheridan LeFanu, her granddaughter, Alicia LeFanu, and her great granddaughter, a woman we've met before, Lady Caroline Norton.