Elizabeth Ann Linley

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Elizabeth Ann Sheridan (née Linley) (September 1754 – 28 June 1792) was a singer who also possessed great beauty. She was the subject of several paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, who was a family friend, Joshua Reynolds and Richard Samuel. Later in life she became an adept writer and a participant in whig politics.[1]

The first daughter, and second of twelve children, of the composer Thomas Linley and his wife Mary Johnson, Elizabeth was herself the wife of the leading playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She was one of the most noted soprano singers of her day, though her husband discouraged her from performing in public after their marriage.

Her early life was spent in Bath, the town of her birth, and she probably first appeared on stage beside her brother, Thomas, in 1767 although she started singing in concerts when she was nine years old. The Maid of Bath, a comedy that dramatised and ridiculed her life story, played for 24 nights at the Haymarket Theatre in 1771.

An engagement to a wealthy elderly suitor at the end of 1770 was called off just prior to the anticipated wedding; Elizabeth later eloped to France with Sheridan and a marriage ceremony may have taken place in March 1772 although no records of the matrimony exist. The couple returned to Britain in April 1772 and a formal marriage took place. Sheridan defended Elizabeth's honour twice during 1772 in duels with a married man, 'Captain' Thomas Mathews, who had amorously pursued her.

The Sheridan's relationship was stormy with both parties having affairs; Elizabeth also had several miscarriages and a still-born baby before producing a son, Thomas, born in November 1775. One of Elizabeth's lovers was Lord Edward FitzGerald who was the father of her daughter born on 30 March 1792; Elizabeth had suffered ill-health for some time before this and the traumatic labour exacerbated this. She died of tuberculosis on 28 June 1792.

Early life[edit]

painting of two young women, one standing, the other sitting beside her with a piece of paper in her lap
"The Linley Sisters", by Thomas Gainsborough (Dulwich Picture Gallery) - Elizabeth (left, standing, aged 18) with her sister Mary

Elizabeth Ann Sheridan (née Linley) was born in the autumn of 1754 but the exact date varies with sources giving 4, 5 or 7 September,[1] at either Abbey Green[1] or 5 Pierrepont Street, Bath.[2] Her father was Thomas Linley, an English musician and composer, and her mother was Mary Johnson (1729–1820) who was also a talented musician.[3] Elizabeth was the couple's eldest daughter (there was an older brother but he died in early childhood[4]), and like several of her siblings inherited her parents' musical abilities.[3] It is likely she began singing at concerts when she was only nine years old and she made her formal stage début alongside her brother, also named Thomas, in 1767 at Covent Garden, London.[1] The concert, or masque, featured music by Bach and was called The Fairy Favour.[5] Elizabeth sang and her brother played the part of Puck.[6]

Their father was rigid in his enforcement of the children's schedules, making them perform weekly in concerts at Bath and at venues in Oxford and London. Mary Dewes, a concert attendee, expressed that he overworked them and required Elizabeth to perform songs which were too difficult for her age.[1][7] Elizabeth was under indenture to her father as a music apprentice, which ensured that her performances increased his earnings.[8] To manage her image, her father carefully selected the venues where she could perform, to ensure that she sang at only high-society festivals and avoided the pitfalls of performing on the London stage. The venues he selected as her manager included his concerts in Bath and the Three Choirs Festival, which included tours at Gloucester Cathedral, Hereford Cathedral, and Worcester Cathedral, as well as performances in Cambridge, Chester, London, Oxford, and Salisbury. The tours were lavish events accompanied by social gatherings held apart from the concert appearance, wherein Elizabeth and the other performers were expected to entertain for several hours prior to each performance.[9]

Selecting a repertoire which would enhance Elizabeth's fame, her father eliminated popular songs, instead choosing regional ballads with "impeccable national pedigree"[10] and classics, centred on Handel.[10] Among her noted performances include the May 1768 performance as Galatea in Acis and Galatea, which then became a staple in her repertoire.[11] Contemporary critics, such as Fanny Burney, Daniel Lyons and Gaspare Pacchierotti, noted that her voice with its clear, unaffected, sweet expression was particularly compatible with Handel's oratorial style.[12] These same traits used to describe her voice were also attributed to her behaviour by the composer William Jackson, Charles Burney and others, adding to the public's admiration of Elizabeth,[13] propelling her to be for a time the most celebrated singer in England, as well as the object of cult-like devotion by her admirers.[14] Jackson, a composer from Exeter, Linley family friend, and author of Observations on the Present State of Music in London (1791) wrote music specifically for Elizabeth to perform.[15]

Though Handel's works formed the dominant nucleus of Elizabeth's repertoire,[12] William Jackson and both her brother and father composed music particularly for her.[16] Though much of her father's work from his Bath period has not survived, Jackson's Twelve Songs (1765-1770) and Twelve Canzonets (circa 1770) were crafted to suit Elizabeth's young voice.[16] Elizabeth was advertised in local newspapers as the soloist of the concert featuring Joseph Wharton's Ode to Fancy and Jackson's Lycidas which was performed on 26 November 1767.[17][a] The cantata In yonder grove for Elizabeth's March 1773 final public performance was written by her brother Thomas, for which she penned the lyric. The aria was written to feature her vocal flexibility and specifically amplify the dramatic flair of her range.[18] Many songs which were included in her performances invoked songbirds, such as Handel's aria "Sweet Bird" in L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, lark references of Semele, and her own verse in In yonder grove which speaks of the nightingale's song.[19] Repeated linking of Elizabeth's voice and birds, was a device used to call attention to the specific qualities of her voice and amplify the public appreciation of her natural abilities.[20]

At the end of 1770, she was betrothed to an elderly but wealthy suitor, Walter Long, but the engagement was broken off shortly before the wedding took place.[1] Reports vary as to why the engagement was broken: Elizabeth's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Sheridan wrote that Linley had advised Long she would never be happy in their marriage, prompting him to withdraw his suit.[8] Other reports indicate that the characterization of Long in the play The Maid of Bath written by Samuel Foote was the cause of the break.[21] The play, which opened on 26 June 1771 was a new comedy, which premiered at the Haymarket Theatre, dramatising Linley's story.[22] It played for 24 nights in London and was very popular but made Elizabeth a figure of ridicule.[23] Yet other reports indicate that Long was put off by the attention of so many other men. Whatever the reason, the engagement was severed and[24] Long paid her compensation of £3,000 in 1771 and she also received £1,000 worth of clothing and jewellery.[1]


head and shoulders of young boy and girl side by side
Thomas Gainsborough's 1768 painting of Elizabeth with her brother Thomas

She moved to France in 1772 accompanied by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and an invalid marriage may have taken place in March 1772 but there are no official records to verify it.[1] The abscondment may have been an attempt to avoid the unwanted attention of 'Captain' Thomas Mathews, a married man.[25] The Linley family made the acquaintance of Mathews when he moved to Bath in 1770; a descendant of Thomas Mathews, he had resigned his military career when he married.[26] He amorously pursued Elizabeth despite his marital status.[27] Elizabeth's father may have delayed seeking her return until after Mathews had left Bath.[28] Mathews placed an advertisement in the Bath Chronicle, published on 9 April 1772, decrying Sheridan, then left the town a few days later.[29][30]

The young couple stayed in France for around a month,[31] returning on or around 29 April 1772.[32] A brief duel to defend Elizabeth's honour took place on the evening of 4 May 1772[33] between Sheridan and Mathews in London where they agreed to fight in Hyde Park, but finding it too crowded they went first to the Hercules Pillars tavern and then on to the Castle Tavern in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden.[34] Mathews lost his sword and begged for his life before signing a formal retraction of the advertisement he had placed.[35] The apology was made public and Mathews, infuriated by the publicity the duel had received, and goaded into action by his friend William Barnett, refused to accept his defeat as final and challenged Sheridan to another duel.[36] Sheridan was not obliged to accept this challenge, but would have become a social pariah if he had not.[36] The second duel, fought in July 1772 at Kingsdown near Bath,[25] was a much more ferocious affair.[37] This time both men broke their swords but carried on fighting in a "desperate struggle for life and honour".[38] Both were wounded, Sheridan dangerously.[37] Elizabeth was performing in Oxford and Cambridge so was unaware of the events until later.[39] Although Sheridan's injuries were severe, eight days after the duel the Bath Chronicle was able to announce that he was out of danger.[40][41]

Sheridan and Elizabeth were officially married on 13 April 1773 after their return to Britain,[1] the period when Elizabeth was described by Frances Burney as "infinitely superior to all other English singers."[1] According to later newspaper reports their courtship was "one of the classic romances of the west country" and she was "the most beautiful singer in England".[42] After they were officially married Sheridan would not allow her to appear on stage[43] in a professional capacity as he felt it reflected badly on his status as a gentleman.[44]

The Sheridans had a tempestuous marriage as they were an ill-matched couple with Sheridan preferring city life in contrast to Elizabeth's love of the countryside.[45] After several miscarriages and a still born baby on 6 May 1777,[46] the couple had a son, Thomas (Tom), who was born in mid-November 1775.[47][b] Sheridan had several affairs, as did Elizabeth, and they spent a great deal of time apart.[1] By the time she was 36, in 1790, Elizabeth was showing signs of ill-health but had to maintain the appearance of an involvement with London society.[49] While visiting Devonshire House Elizabeth met Lord Edward FitzGerald and they became lovers.[50] She conceived a child by him, a baby girl who was born on 30 March 1792.[1] The trauma of childbirth exacerbated Elizabeth's illness and she died of tuberculosis on 28 June 1792.[1] Elizabeth was buried at Wells Cathedral on 7 July 1792.[51]


painting of four women grouped together with one holding musical instrument in her hands
Linley (right, with lyre), in the company of other "Bluestockings" (1778)

By the time Elizabeth was a teenager, she had developed a reputation not only for her singing ability, but for her beauty.[24] Thomas Gainsborough had been a friend of the family since 1759 and he painted several portraits of the Linley family.[52] His artwork The Linley Sisters was painted c. 1772 and shows Elizabeth and her sister Mary Linley shortly before the elopement.[53] Gainsborough developed an affinity with Elizabeth, intuitively sensing her subconscious thoughts.[54] His later portrait of her, entitled Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was undertaken after her marriage and has the 31-year-old Elizabeth posed on a rock set on a hillside reflecting the rural lifestyle she begged her husband to let her lead.[55] Elizabeth was also the model for the Joshua Reynolds painting St Cecilia, which was successfully exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1775, and described by Reynolds as "the best picture I ever painted."[56] Reynolds had also become a friend of the Sheridans despite earlier friction after he invited the couple to a large dinner party he was hosting. He anticipated Elizabeth would sing for his guests and purchased a new piano to be used; he was appalled when they refused on the basis she would never "sing again in public company."[57]

Richard Samuel included a portrait of Elizabeth in his group painting Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Appollo (1778),[58] which was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1789 and is now housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.[59] The popular title of the piece, The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain, referenced artists and literary figures and depicted: the poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld; scholar Elizabeth Carter; playwright Elizabeth Griffith; historian Catharine Macaulay; the three writers Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More and Charlotte Lennox; and Elizabeth, posing as classical muses.[58][60] He styled Elizabeth in the role of Terpsichore.[1]


After her death, Sheridan fulfilled his promise to look after Elizabeth and FitzGerald's baby daughter, Mary. A nurse was employed to care for the child at his Wanstead home.[61] The baby had a series of fits on an evening in October 1793 when she was 18 months old, dying before a doctor could attend. She was interred beside her mother at Wells Cathedral.[62] Elizabeth's son, Thomas, had unsuccessfully tried for a political career and briefly served in the army before running off to marry Caroline Henrietta Callander of Craigforth (1779–1851), a daughter of Sir James Campbell.[63][64] His father gifted him a 25 per cent share of the Drury Lane Theatre in 1806 and he went on to become manager there, a role he also undertook at the Lyceum Theatre, London.[64] Like so many of his relatives, Tom was also afflicted with tuberculosis and he moved abroad to ease the symptoms; he was appointed as the Colonial Governor's treasurer at the Cape of Good Hope in 1813.[63] He appears to have died on 12 September 1817.[64][c]

In an article on Mrs Sheridan included in Rees's Cyclopædia, music historian Charles Burney noted that: "There was a brilliancy, a spirit, and a mellifluous sweetness in the tone of her voice, which instantly penetrated the hearts of her hearers, as much as her angelic looks delighted their eyes. Her shake was perfect, her intonation truth itself, and the agility of her throat equal to any difficulty and rapidity that was pleasing."[66] According to musicologist and music critic Stanley Sadie, Elizabeth had "one of the sweetest and most expressive soprano voices of her time."[67]



  1. ^ There is some dispute among scholars as to which version of Ode to Fancy was sung. Jackson published his Ode to Fancy in 1770, though it could have been written earlier. Richard McGrady argues in The Elegies of William Jackson and Thomas Linley the Elder that the 1767 performance was set to music by Charles Rousseau Burney.[17]
  2. ^ Jeffares gives the date of birth as 17 November 1775[47] whereas Black gives 16 November 1775.[48]
  3. ^ Chedzoy gives September 1818, which appears to be a mis-print[63] as newspapers report details of his body being returned to the UK in early 1818.[65]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Aspden, Suzanne (2004), "Linley [Sheridan], Elizabeth Ann (1754–1792)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online, May 2009 ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 17 August 2014, (Subscription required (help)) 
  2. ^ "Mrs Sheridan's portrait", Bath Chronicle, 179 (9093), p. 14, 19 October 1935, retrieved 17 August 2014 – via British Newspaper Archive, (Subscription required (help)) 
  3. ^ a b Aspden, Suzanne (2004), "Linley, Thomas (1733–1795)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, retrieved 17 August 2014, (Subscription required (help)) 
  4. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 8
  5. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 12
  6. ^ Black (1911), pp. 22–23
  7. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 266
  8. ^ a b Mikhail (1989), p. 9
  9. ^ Aspden (2015), pp. 266-267
  10. ^ a b Aspden (2015), p. 271
  11. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 272
  12. ^ a b Aspden (2015), p. 273
  13. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 274
  14. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 263
  15. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 278
  16. ^ a b Aspden (2015), p. 280
  17. ^ a b Aspden (2015), p. 281
  18. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 283
  19. ^ Aspden (2015), pp. 286-287
  20. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 287
  21. ^ Aspden (2015), p. 265
  22. ^ Black (1911), p. 35
  23. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 47
  24. ^ a b Brewer (2012), p. 36
  25. ^ a b "The Maid of Bath", Bath Chronicle, 173 (8782), p. 16, 26 October 1929, retrieved 31 August 2014 – via British Newspaper Archive, (Subscription required (help)) 
  26. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 40
  27. ^ Black (1911), p. 40
  28. ^ Black (1911), p. 55
  29. ^ Black (1911), pp. 56–57.
  30. ^ "Bath", Bath Chronicle, XII (599), p. 3, 9 April 1772, retrieved 31 August 2014 – via British Newspaper Archive, (Subscription required (help)) 
  31. ^ Moore (1825), p. 71
  32. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 74
  33. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 79
  34. ^ Wheatley (2011), p. 19
  35. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 81
  36. ^ a b Chedzoy (1998), p. 92
  37. ^ a b Cohen (2010), p. 55
  38. ^ Steinmetz (1868), p. 17
  39. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 91
  40. ^ "Bath, Wednesday July 8th", Bath Chronicle, XII (612), p. 3, 9 July 1772 – via British Newspaper Archive, (Subscription required (help)) 
  41. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 95
  42. ^ "Poor Mrs Sheridan", Western Daily Press, 185 (30546), p. 6, 10 November 1950, retrieved 17 August 2014 – via British Newspaper Archive, (Subscription required (help)) 
  43. ^ "Richard Brinsley Sheridan, poet, dramatist, statesman", Aberdeen Weekly Journal (7497), p. 4, 27 February 1879, retrieved 17 August 2014 – via British Newspaper Archive, (Subscription required (help)) 
  44. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 128
  45. ^ Beckett (1994), p. 243
  46. ^ Highfill, Burnim & Langhans (1991), p. 317
  47. ^ a b Jeffares, A. Norman (2004), "Sheridan, Thomas (1775–1817)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online, January 2008 ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 30 August 2014, (Subscription required (help)) 
  48. ^ Black (1911), p. 133
  49. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 278
  50. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 278, 281
  51. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 296
  52. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 61
  53. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. xi
  54. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 62
  55. ^ British and American Grand Manner Portraits of the 1700s, National Gallery of Art, archived from the original on 30 November 2014, retrieved 30 November 2014 
  56. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 157
  57. ^ Rhodes (1933), p. 53
  58. ^ a b Nussbaum (2011), p. 274
  59. ^ Head (2013), p. 36
  60. ^ "Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo", National Portrait Gallery, archived from the original on 19 June 2017, retrieved 19 June 2017 
  61. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 297
  62. ^ Chedzoy (1998), p. 298
  63. ^ a b c Chedzoy (1998), p. 299
  64. ^ a b c Jeffares, A. Norman (2004), "Sheridan, Thomas [Tom] (1775–1817)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online, January 2008 ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 30 August 2014, (Subscription required (help)) 
  65. ^ "London, Friday February 6", Morning Post (14680), p. 3, 6 February 1818 – via British Newspaper Archive, (Subscription required (help)) 
  66. ^ Burney (1819), p. 498
  67. ^ Sadie (1963), p. 261