Friday, January 20, 2017

Madwomen in the Attic #1 Frances Sheridan

Most of what we know about the early life of  Frances Sheridan (née Chamberlaine) comes from Memoirs of the Life and writings of Mrs Frances Sheridan which was written by her granddaughter Alicia LeFanu and published in 1824. Frances was born in Dublin in 1724, her mother died when she was a baby and she was raised by her father; an Anglican minister under a strict and repressive regime. Her father did not believe in educating girls, but luckily Frances had some liberal minded brothers who taught her Latin, Botany and Literature and by her mid teens Frances had begun writing fiction herself, 'Eugenia and Adelaide' was written on paper stolen from the housekeeper's account books. Frances also attended the theatre with her brothers and it was there that she met actor and manager of the Smock-Alley theatre Thomas Sheridan. They married in 1747. Soon she was writing plays of her own. Marriage to Thomas brought Frances into literary circles including Dr Johnson, Sarah Fielding and Samuel Richardson whom Frances greatly admired and they became good friends. Frances showed him the manuscript of 'Eugenia and Adelaide'  he encouraged her to seek publication and although it was rejected Frances continued to write. During the 1750s Frances gave birth to six children and grew increasingly frail while her husband's theatre suffered terrible financial blows and eventually failed,  they were left with an enormous debt and Thomas sought work in London, money was still incredibly tight and Frances hoped that Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph would help to support the family financially. Published in 1761 Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph was a huge success, praised by the critics and soon after it was translated into French and German. Frances followed the success of her novel with a play The Discovery staged at Drury Lane, starring her husband and David Garrick but financial problems dogged them and they fled their creditors settling in Blois in France were Frances wrote A Trip to Bath and Nourjahad the first of a planned series. The Sheridans were planning to return to Ireland  in 1766 when Frances became suddenly ill and died, aged just 42. The two completed novels were published posthumously the following year. Frances' son Richard Brinsley Sheridan became a celebrated playwright but a careful study of his work and his mother's will show that he was not only inspired by her but in some cases transposed ideas and characters unchanged from her work. There were other writers in the family; daughters Elizabeth and Alicia, granddaughter Alicia and of course great-grandson Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu the popular Victorian gothic novelist. Frances was both critically acclaimed and and a popular bestseller in her day and her books were a huge influence on the generation that followed; including Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen but as fashions in fiction changed as the 19th Century approached her work fell into obscurity.

Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph is published by Oxford Classics.

Find out more about Frances and many other forgotten women writers in Mothers of the Novel by Dale Spender.

Picture credit National Library of Ireland

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