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Eliza Farren Countess of Derby

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     In the course of the last two centuries a few untitled and humbly-born actresses, but only a few, after having 'taken the town' more or less ' by storm' as popular favorites, and having reigned for a longer or shorter period as ' queens of the stage,' have found themselves raised to coronets, which they have won with more or less propriety, and in some few cases without compromising their characters as women.*1 Perhaps the very best and brightest and purest specimen of this class was Eliza Farren from 1797 down to 1829 Countess of Derby.
     Lizzie Farren, as she was called on the stage, was the daughter of a certain Mr. George Farren, a surgeon and apothecary of Cork, who was a member of a band of strolling players, but never rose to anything beyond a provincial fame and celebrity. His talented daughter,*2 must have been born in one of the last years of the reign of George II, as in 1769 we find her going about the country acting with sylph-like grace the part of Columbine at such places as could be found where the mayor was willing to give countenance to those stage exhibitions which had been so cruelly proscribed under the Puritan regime, and were forced to remain in the cold shade for more than a century afterwards. Dr. Doran, in his 'Knights and their Days,' draws a charming picture of the little Lizzie, when her father was locked up by order of the Mayor of Salisbury as a vagabond, marching down the frozen street into the market-place, and so to the 'round-house', early on Christmas morning, to carry her father a cup of warm coffee for breakfast. He also tells us that at Wakefield at Chester, and in other provincial towns, Lizzie Farrell, as quite a child, created a furore and that in the autumn of 1776 she came up to town, furnished with an introduction from an equestrian actor named Burroughs, who was then studying for the Bar, and, even at that time, conscious of high talents, was doubtless looking forward to the judicial bench--which he afterwards attained--as his own proper stage. But Dr. Doran  shall tell the story in his own words:
On the Christmas eve of 1776, Miss Farren was seated in Colman's parlor in London, looking at him while he read two letters of introduction: one from Burroughs, the other from Younger; and both in high praise of the young bearer, for whom they were especially written. My limits will only allow me to say that Lizzie was engaged for the next summer season at the Haymarket, where she appeared on June 9, 1777, in 'She Stoops to Conquer.'
     When, in the following year, she played Lady Townley, she was declared the first, and she was then almost the youngest of living actresses. And when she joined the Drury Lane company, in the succeeding season, the principal parts were divided between herself, Miss Walpole, Miss P. Hopkins, and 'Perdita' Robinson. Not one of this body was then quite twenty years of age!
     For just twenty years she adorned the London stage, playing nearly all the principal characters in the stock English comedies. She attracted the personal attention of Charles James Fox, and of other wits of the time but without any loss of character. And for Lord Derby, whilst his first wife was living, she had a platonic affection, which was made the subject of many squibs and jests; but 'her conduct,' says Sylvanus Urban in the Gentleman's Magazine,' was so guarded as to be free from the aspersions of the most censorious and malicious.' As manageress of the plays which were performed at the Duke of Richmond's house in Whitehall, she became intimately acquainted with many leaders of ton and fashion, and all who knew her admired her and appreciated her worth at its proper value.
     At length came the season for her abdication, Eliza Farren took leave of the stage at Drury Lane at the beginning of April, 1797. At that time private theatricals were not affairs of such frequent occurrence as they have become in our own days, though several of the leading members of the nobility and wealthier gentry had private theatres fitted up at their respective countryseats. Amongst others, the Wynns of Wynnstay, Lord Barrymore at Wargrave. Lord Derby at the Oaks, near Epsom, and the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood and at his town house in Whitehall, set apart a portion of the mansions for dramatic purposes; and it was probably through the performance of some of his dramas at the Oaks that General Burgoyne became allied with the Stanley family, having married the Lady Elizabeth, sister of the then Earl of Derby.
     The earl, it so happened, had just been left a 'free man,' with a coronet at his own disposal by the death of his first wife, the Lady Elizabeth Hamilton-Douglas, daughter of James, Drake of Hamilton and Brandon. And so, on the 8th of May following her abdication, Miss Farren was married by special license to Lord Derby, at his residence in St. James's Square; she became by him the mother of three children, two of whom died young, and the third became Countess of Wilton, and mother of the late earl.
     In a dramatic magazine of the date of her retirement from the stage, Eliza Farren is thus described:
     ‘Her figure is considerably above the middle height, and of that slight texture which allows and requires the use of full and flowing drapery, an advantage of which she knows well how to avail herself. Her face, though not regularly beautiful, is animated and prepossessing; her eye, which is blue and penetrating, is a powerful feature when she chooses to employ it on the public, and either flashes with spirit or melts with softness as its mistress decides on the expression she wishes to convey; her voice, though perhaps deficient in sweetness, is refined and feminine; and her smiles, of which she is no niggard, fascinate the heart as much as her form delights the eye. In short, a more complete exhibition of graces and accomplishments
     never presented itself for admiration before the view of an audience. To this enumeration of her personal charms we have to add the list of her talents. It is not wise, indeed, to separate them, as they are mutually improved and benefited by each other . . . A rarer combination of nature and art, to qualify. their favorite for the assumption of the principal characters in the higher comedy, has never been known ; she possesses ease, vivacity, spirit, and humor, and her performances are so little injured by effort, that we have often experienced a delusion of the sensor, and imagined, what in a theatre it is so difficult to imagine, the scene of action to be identified, and Miss Farren really the character that she was only attempting to sustain ; and we cannot admit even the supposition that St. James's ever displayed superior evidence of fine breeding to that which Miss Farren has done in her own person.'
     It is almost superfluous to add that, when Miss Farren took her farewell of the play-going public at Drury Lane, the house was filled to overflowing. Towards the conclusion of the play, we are told, she appeared to be ‘much affected,’ and when Mr. Wroughton came forward to speak some lines which had been written for the occasion, she was fairly overcome and 'had to be supported by Mr. King.' The fall of the curtain was attended with repeated bursts of applause, not unmingled with feelings of regret for the loss of an actress then in the zenith of her charms, and while her dramatic and personal reputation were both in the highest teem of the public.
     The Countess, of Derby died on the 23rd of April, 1829, at Knowsley Park, Lancashire, ‘after protracted suffering,' at the age of sixty-six and lies buried in the family tomb of the Stanleys. It is said that she gave her step-grandson, the future premier of England and translator of Homer's ‘Iliad,' his earliest lessons in elocution.
          It may be interesting to add that the Mr. Burroughs who is mentioned above, was the same person who, as a boy, had helped Eliza Farren to carry to her father his Christmas breakfast in his prison at Salisbury, and who eventually became a judge, and received the honor of knighthood.  An anecdotes relating to him shall be told by Dr. Doran in his own words:
     ‘Not long after presentation at court,  where she was received with marked kindly condescension by Queen Charlotte,  the countess  was walking in the marriage procession of the  Princess Royal and the Duke of Wurtemburg; her foot caught in the carpeting, and she would have fallen to the ground but for the ready arms once more extended to support her of Mr. Burroughs---now an eminent man indeed.
     Many years have been added to the roll of time, when a carriage containing a lady was on its way to Windsor. It suddenly came to a stop by the breaking of an axle-tree.  In the midst of the distress which ensued to the occupier, a second carriage approached bearing a good-natured-looking gentleman, who at once offered his services. The lady, recognizing an old friend, accepted the offer with alacrity.   As  the two drove off together in the gentleman’s carriage towards Windsor, the owner of it remarked that he almost expected to find her in distress on the road; for it was Christmas eve, and he had been thinking of old times.
     ‘ “How many years is it, my lady countess," said he, “since I stood at my father's shop-door in Salisbury, watching your perilous passage over the market-place with a bowl of milk?"
     ‘ “Not so long, at all events," she answered, with a smile, “but that I recollect my poor father would have lost his breakfast but for your assistance." "
      ‘ “The earl is already there," added the countess, “and he will be happier than the king himself to welcome the legal knight who has done such willing service to the Lady of the Knight of the Bath."'

*1   The best known of these ladies were Lavinia Fenton ('Po1lyPeachum'), Duchess of Bolton; and Miss Louisa Brunton, Countess of Craven.

*2 Eliza's mother was a miss Wright, daughter of a brewer of Liverpool. She brought 'Mr. Farren souse fortune, which he dissipated by his irregular habits, and particularly by his attachment to theatrical amusements, which led him to neglect his profession, and to join a company of strolling players.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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