Monday, February 13, 2017

Madwomen in the Attic #4 Elizabeth Griffith

Elizabeth Griffith was born in Wales in 1727 to Thomas Griffith a well known Dublin actor-manager and his Yorkshire wife Jane Foxcroft, however she was raised in Ireland and educated by her father. She read both English and French and her father encouraged her to recite verse, no doubt anticipating a life on the stage. Her father died in 1744 and by 1749 Elizabeth is listed as an actress in Thomas Sheridan's company (husband of Frances Sheridan) Sometime in the early 1750s Elizabeth secretly married Richard Griffith and in 1753 they moved to London and she began performing at Covent Garden. When her husband's business failed Elizabeth turned to writing; publishing her courtship letters and following those with poetry and drama. She also translated a number of works from French. She achieved enough success that she could seek employment with the famed David Garrick for whom she wrote The School for Rakes in 1769 and though other plays followed they were less successful. Elizabeth soon turned to novel writing and the fashionable epistolary novel. She toned down her characters in her novels as she received criticism for her forthright female characters in her plays and conscious of the need to provide for her family she tailored her work to the market. She published her first novel in the same year as her husband The Delicate Distress (1769) was followed by The History of Lady Barton (1771) and The Story of Lady Juliana Harley (1776) These novels feature characters who are preyed upon by violent men conforming to the trend for sentimental novels at the time, the tone is quite moralistic and as a consequence her books dated very quickly and rapidly went out of fashion. Griffith however continued what she saw as her more serious work editing works by women dramatists such as Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood and translating French work such as Voltaire and the Princess of Cleeves by Marie-Madeleine, Comtesse de La Fayette. She also wrote Literary Criticism and her The Morality of Shakespeare's Drama Illustrated (1775) is especially significant as she was one of the first scholars to discuss Shakespeare's legacy and importance.

Although she often received a harsh critical reception Elizabeth Griffith was widely respected in the literary circles of her day, her admirers included Fanny Burney, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell and Edmund Burke. Griffith has often been dismissed as a sentimental novelist but she made a sizeable contribution to the literary world of her day. She was a member of the Blue Stocking Society; an intellectual salon consisting of mostly female members and organised by Elizabeth Montagu.

Elizabeth Griffith is pictured here (seated right) with other Bluestockings in this 1778 painting by Richard Samuel. Elizabeth Griffith's son joined the East India Company and became a wealthy man,  in 1786 Elizabeth and her husband settled at Millicent House at Clane in County Kildare with their son and Elizabeth died there in 1793. 

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