All allowances made for the near alliance of great wits—“the lunatic, the lover, and the poet”—there comes a point where the vagaries of temperament overlap and are confounded, and where the historian, at least, must take a line. None of Sheridan’s biographers, and he has had, as I think, more than his share, refer to an eclipse of his rational self which he undoubtedly suffered; probably because it was not made public until the other day. Yet there have always been indications of the truth, as when, on his death-bed, he told Lady Bessborough that his eyes would be looking at her through the coffin-lid. Being the woman she was, she probably believed him, or thought that she did. It is from her published letters that we may now understand what reason she had for believing him.
These letters are contained in the correspondence of Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, who was our Ambassador in Paris on and off between 1824 and 1841, a correspondence published in 1916, in two hefty volumes. The period covered is from 1781 to 1821, and the documents are mainly the letters to him of Lady Bessborough, which reveal a relation between the pair so curious that, to me, it is extraordinary that nobody should have called attention to them before. I can only account for that by considering that the letters, which are very long, and the volumes, which are very heavy, do not readily yield what store of sweetness they possess, and that those in particular of Lord Granville Gower have no store of sweetness to yield. They are the wooden letters of a wooden young man. He may have been a beautiful young man, and an estimable young man; but he was insensitive, dull, and a prig. The best things he ever did in his days were to be belettered by Lady Bessborough and married, finally, to her witty and sensible niece.
Meantime, there is no need to disguise the fact, since we have it in cold print, that the acquaintance of the couple, begun at Naples in 1794 as a flirtation, developed rapidly, on the lady’s side, into a love affair which was only ended by her death. In 1794, when it all began, Lady Bessborough was thirty-two, had been married for fourteen years, and had four children. Granville Gower was twenty, well born, rich, exceedingly good-looking, and with no excuse for not knowing all about it. In fact, he knew it perfectly, and was not afraid to allude to himself as Antinous. We hear more than enough of his fine blue eyes from Lady Bessborough—and perhaps he did too. She, in her turn, was to hear, poor soul, more than her own heart could bear. All that need be said about that is that, being the woman she was, it was to be expected. And exactly what sort of woman she was she herself puts upon record, in April, 1812, in the following words:—