From play boy to big Whig

RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN: A Life by Linda Kelly, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 25
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Sheridan lived at the crossroads of the high Georgian and the Romantic periods, and gave his time unequally to literature and politics. Inevitably, this made him seem a paradoxical figure - one who infuriated his contemporaries almost as much as he entertained them. Yet his contradictions show us something fixed in his personality, as well as something fragmented. He craved applause, but had a rootedly adversarial temper. As a playwright he mocked human folly. As a member of parliament he harried the government during a long period of Tory domination, and never weakened his support for Reform.

Linda Kelly is not especially interested in connecting the various parts of his career. She lets his plays sink from sight once they have made his name (he was still only 28 when this happened), and switches back and forth between his later interests, rather than exploring their common properties. This means that we lose a sense of abiding purpose, but gain an appropriate impression of richness - even of confusion. Sheridan had great charm, considerable nobility, and remarkable talent - and was also immensely vain, convulsive and careless of the things that mattered to him most. Thanks to Kelly's appreciative energy, we can see that this mixture describes the life of his times, as well as the times of his life.

The story begins in Ireland, and in a sense never leaves it. The enterprise and indigence of Sheridan's father, who virtually invented modern Irish theatre, set a pattern which his son repeated over and over again. More than that, it focused a sympathy with outsiders, and with Catholic outsiders in particular, which became the wellspring of his genius as a writer and the engine of his activities in Parliament. Once the family moved to England, Sheridan's early experience at Harrow confirmed everything he already knew. He later described himself to the diarist Thomas Creevey as "a low spirited boy, much given to crying when he was alone; and he attributed this very much to being neglected by his father, to his being left without money, and to not being taken home at the regular holidays".

It wasn't long before this neglect transmuted into a strong need for praise, but the labyrinthine and glamorous means by which he secured it were startling. In the early 1770s, when Sheridan's father had installed his brood in Bath, they became entangled with the Linleys, a family of phenomenal musical talents. The elder daughter Elizabeth, who later sat for two portraits by Reynolds, was beautiful, sweet-voiced and golden- natured - and lasciviously pursued by a dastardly Captain Mathews. The young Sheridan sprang to her rescue, spirited her off to France promising that his intentions were purely platonic, then changed his tune and swore undying love. Two duels later, and after a storm of parental disapproval, they married.

Although Sheridan knew that he could have lived comfortably off the proceeds of his wife's singing, he chose to observe the rules of polite society, and forbade her to perform. It was the first time - and by no means the last - that his private behaviour seemed at odds with his public sympathies, especially in so far as his treatment of women was concerned. On the other hand, it seems that Elizabeth was happy with her new life, even if it meant beginning a round of child-bearing which eventually brought her to an early grave.

Sheridan, now given a clear run at the stage himself, soon and brilliantly solved their financial problems. At the same time, he created a brittle but valuable social probity. His three great plays, The Rivals (1775), The School for Scandal (1777) and The Critic (1779), his comic opera The Duena (1775), and his taking over the artistic and business management of the Drury Lane theatre from Garrick - all these things made him the darling of the literary salons. From there it was a short step to a different kind of power-base: the drawing room of Devonshire House, where Whig politicians were quick to welcome an ally of such charisma and conviction.

Because his plays are still loved, because he is buried in Poet's Corner, and because even the most sparkling political speeches become an acquired taste after 200 years, Sheridan's theatrical reputation burns more brightly than memories of his life in Parliament. For the man himself, the early successes mattered less than the mature battlings - and Kelly lets us see why, generally by design, sometimes inadvertently. As a literary critic she is plain to the point of being dull ("there is a warmth and optimism in [School for Scandal] which brings it naturally to its happy ending"). As a political reporter she is assiduous and happily relaxed. From the day Sheridan aligns himself with Fox and is appointed Secretary to the Treasury, in 1783, until losing his seat as the Member for Stafford shortly before his death in 1816, she guides us expertly through the complexities of domestic policy, and shrewdly relates them to the threats posed by the French Revolution and the long war in Europe.

Our sense of Sheridan's dislocation becomes gradually sharper. For all his devotion to urgent contemporary issues: opposing the Seditious Meetings Bill and the Treasonable Practices Bill, decrying Warren Hastings - he always seems to have one foot in an earlier epoch. This is not just because we cannot easily forget his life as a playwright. It has more to do with the feeling that, even while speaking for new kinds of self-consciousness and self-awareness in civic life, he depended on old ideas of structure and the self in private. He was so chronically unfaithful to his wife that he even managed to drive her - and she was astonishingly long-suffering - into the arms of another.

Perhaps one could say the same thing about Sheridan's behaviour at Drury Lane. Luck and judgement led him to put on plays - such as the Monk-ish Castle Spectre - which repeatedly pulled the theatre back from bankruptcy. His magnetism and ambition attracted some of the greatest acting talents of the day, including Mrs Siddons and Kemble. Yet the finances of the place were chaotic, quarrels among the players were endemic, and many good minutes were wasted keeping creditors happy. It would be wrong to think of these things as examples of simply average theatre-muddle. They reflect the fact that as Sheridan worked to change the world around him - the world of taste, as well as the world of power - so he exaggerated his own lack of belonging.

After Elizabeth's early death, Sheridan soon married again, and began recreating the same pattern: he and his second wife were initially happy, then he betrayed her once too often, then she looked for solace elsewhere, then they reunited in affectionate anguish. As we follow the sad switch- back ride, watching Sheridan losing friends and causes, watching his theatre burn down, watching his debts go through the roof and his claret arrive in ever-larger "pailsful", we feel a good deal of sympathy but not much surprise. The liberal future he imagined, in which his sense of exclusion might finally have dissolved, remained elusive - driven off by political failures at home and Napoleonic armies overseas. In its place came poverty, rejection and misery.

Linda Kelly ends her book by quoting Byron's remarks about Sheridan, jotted down when he was contemplating writing what would have been the first biography. It makes a moving conclusion to an enjoyable book. After graciously praising Sheridan as "a man of principle", Byron sighs - but "alas poor human nature". Well, yes and no. The qualities which marred Sheridan's life were also those which made him. He was a prodigal but also a prodigious person - one in whom the spirit of liberty and celebration was intensified and finally undermined by a mood of frustration and elegy.