I've been examining the outspoken political opinions of the forgotten novelist Ann Ryley for a full week and I haven't really gotten into her portrayals of snobby aristocrats! I will return to that later as part of a more general discussion of the portrayal of the nobility in novels of this era. For now, I'll finish off my tribute to Ann Ryley with a look at her life.
As I mentioned in the last post, Ann tread the boards with her husband, who was an actor, comedian, and sometime theatre-manager. One of the plays in the Ryleys' repertoire is The Clandestine Wedding (1766), a comedy about young lovers who marry secretly. (Jane Austen saw this play performed at Covent Garden, but she did not see the Ryleys because they never made it out of the provinces to the big time.)
In this comedy, Ryley's husband played a rickety old nobleman who mistakenly thinks Ann's character has fallen for him. This is especially awkward for Ann's character (Fanny) because she's already secretly married to her father's clerk. Fanny’s sister, meanwhile, is looking forward to a mercenary marriage, exchanging her father’s wealth for a noble title. “Love in a cottage!” she sneers to Fanny. “Ah, give me indifference and a coach and six!”
Ann Ryley knew all about love in a cottage...
Ann was not disinherited for running off with the happy-go-lucky Sam, but her parents would have done well to withhold some or all of her settlement until she was older. The newlyweds spent their entire inheritance in a few years, living the high life, and ended up penniless, rather like Mrs. Smith and her husband in Persuasion. Unlike Mrs. Smith, there was no convenient West Indian property for them to recover. In financial desperation, Sam Ryley launched his acting career, overcoming the genteel reservations of Ann, who recognized that going on the stage was a "degradation." Ann was drawn more and more into the concerns of the play-acting company, copying the scripts and so forth, and she became an actress herself. In the 1780's, the couple lived in Manchester, a rapidly-growing city soon to be on the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.
In Which is the Man (1782), Ann Ryley played Sophy Pendragon, a naïve village girl from Cornwall who follows Lord Sparkle, a Henry Crawford type, to London. She's deluded into thinking he loves her because he quotes the most romantic passages of novels to her. Because the play is a comedy, nothing bad happens to Sophy, she just goes back home to Cornwall.
In a comedy called The Agreeable Surprise (1784), Sam Ryley played Lingo, a butler who likes to spout Latin and make classical allusions. Ann played Cowslip, a dairymaid. Some of the comedy arises out of Lingo's dialogue with Cowslip when she misunderstands what he is saying. I might as well inflict some Latin grammar jokes (who doesn't like a Latin grammar joke?) and some terrible puns on you:
Lingo: Ay, ay, all my Latin is Greek to these people... Not a soul in the house will listen to me but Cowslip the dairy maid… (Enter Cowslip, with a bowl of cream.) My sweet Cowslip, properly called Cowslip, Nominitivo, hanc hunc et hoc.
Cowslip: I have put the hock into the syllabub, Mr. Lingo, and here it is!
Lingo: …Cowslip sit down, you’re a noun adjective and must not stand by yourself. Let’s have a toast.
Cowslip: I’ll go bake one, Sir.
Lingo: No, I’ll make one. Here’s that the masculine may never be neuter to the feminine gender.... Jupiter was a fine god. He swam on a bull to Europe. He went into a flash of fire for Semele.
Cowslip: Yes, sir, he’d go any lengths for his ale.
Lingo: I mean, his amours.
Cowslip: O ay; he’d drink with Moors or Turks either.
Lingo Drink! Who?
Cowslip: Who! Why, Jew Peter, the old clothes-man. (Groan)
Although the plays of the day offered plenty of comic parts for older ladies, It appears that Ann Ryley retired from the stage before her husband did.
Sam Ryley tried and failed with various business ventures, including being a wine merchant and managing a theatre. Charles Dibdin, the composer and playwright, described Ryley as being "peculiarly unfortunate in his theatrical pursuits." Only once did Ryley have an opportunity to perform upon the London stage, at the Drury Lane theatre--but the theatre burnt down and so he lost the engagement. After so many setbacks, Ryley's youthful exuberance gave way to misery and pessimism, so much so that his fellow-comedian, Charles Mathews, based an Eeyore-like comic character, Mundungus Triste, on Ryley.
It appears that through all their ups and downs, the Ryleys remained very much in love. Ryley described his wife as having a “natural cheerfulness, and flow of animal spirits, [and] seldom suffer’d depression, even under misfortunes that drove me to despair.” Ryley's love for his wife shines through the clichés in his memoir: “Oh, happy state! Avaunt, ye scoffers! This blessed bond of union between the sexes, brings with it a solace for sorrow… whilst the fair hand of Affection wipes away the tear of Sensibility…”
After some time in Manchester and on the Isle of Man, the Ryleys moved to “a little white cottage overlooking the sea in Parkgate near Liverpool.” Mr. Ryley went out on the road, while Ann stayed home and worked on Fanny Fitz-York. One final humiliation lay in store for them, however.
About the same time that his wife published her novel, Sam Ryley offered a comic play he had written to the Drury Lane theatre, and it was accepted. Eagerly, he hurried down to London to watch the rehearsals. The play, registered with the censors as Castles in the Air, concerned a cast of eccentric characters and a tumble-down Welsh castle. A deluded man thinks he is Welsh royalty and he treats everyone around him as a vassal. Miss Helicon, a female pedant, advertises for a secretary at the same time as her room-mate, a widow, advertises for a husband. A comic mix-up ensues: "Do you think yourself competent to the task?" Miss Helicon asks a fortune-hunting Irish soldier, who thinks she's looking for a husband. He replies, "Competent! Don't afflict yourself about that, Honey!"
The first-read through with the actors did not go well. Ryley recalled: “I soon found that what may appear very well in the closet, bears a very different aspect, when read before critics, some of whom are not disposed to be favourable.” (Here, "closet" means, one's private bedchamber or changing room.)
Ryley was, of course, in attendance when the play, retitled the Castle of Glendower, made its debut on March 2, 1818--and was an unqualified disaster. As Ryley recounts: “a benumbing silence attended the representation, which at length burst forth in a hiss so tremendous… it will never be out of my recollection; and after that, although the play proceeded, not one line was heard. During the third act, the disapprobation became pretty general; though for what, no one could tell, for the language was inaudible, and the performers, to do them justice, bore the brunt of the storm without flinching from their duty.”
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary, and their friends, the journalist Leigh Hunt and his wife. were in the audience for the theatrical catastrophe. Mary's journal merely notes: "Go to the play in the evening — b[ox] with Hunt & Marianne — a new comedy damned."
The reviews were scathing. The Theatrical Inquisitor: “We never witnessed so complete and so deserved a condemnation… We cannot conceive how any one who ever before saw or read a play, could have imagined that it would succeed…”
Sam Ryley's dreams of financial security evaporated again, with public humiliation heaped on top. His friends held a benefit to raise some money so he could afford to go home to Liverpool.
In his memoirs, Ryley describes a scene of homecoming after he had been three months on the road: “seated at her cottage door, intent upon a book, sat my friend of forty years—the stimulant to all my labours, the ample reward of all my toils. She saw me not. Standing at the wicket, my mind whispered, ‘Oh Fortune! – if thou wouldst but even gently smile upon our latter days! --her eye caught mine—the book fell on the grass—and—conceive the rest, ye who can—smile, ye who may."
Sam Ryley was away from home, touring Scotland, when Ann died suddenly in March 1823. Her epitaph in Neston churchyard read: "Beneath this stone the Remains of Nanny Ryley, formerly of Parkgate, aged 63, are deposited, and with them every hope of happiness that this world can bestow on her disconsolate husband, in whose breast a warm and enthusiastic affection, of seven and forty years’ standing, remains unabated; which time can never obliterate, nor ought but death destroy."
Sam Ryley was clearly proud of his wife and boasts of her intelligence in his memoirs. He married again, but I think it was simply because his second wife, Ann Ryley's niece, needed a home, and he needed a nurse for his old age.
I have found no portrait of Ann Ryley. Sam Ryley cherished a miniature portrait of her, but perhaps it was buried with him when he died in 1837. The Ryleys had no children.
Sam Ryley's memoir, The Itinerant, is a blend of fiction and fact, so it is not always possible to know which anecdotes of his life on the road with Ann are true.
Dibdin, Thomas. The Reminiscences of Thomas Dibdin: Of the Theatres Royal, Covent Garden, Drury Lane, Haymarket, &c. and Author of The Cabinet, &c. Henry Colburn, 1837.
Procter, Richard Wright. Literary Reminiscences and Gleanings. T. Dinham, 1860.
Procter, Richard Wright. Manchester in Holiday Dress. Simpkin, Marshall & Company, 1866.
Ryley, Samuel William. The Itinerant; Or, Memoirs of an Actor. Taylor and Hessey, 1817.
Castles in the Air: Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, Eighteenth Century Drama, http://www.eighteenthcenturydrama.amdigital.co.uk.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/Documents/Details/HL_LA_mssLA2016 [Accessed May 25, 2022]. The manuscript of the play is written in at least three different hands and some scenes are crossed out.