Elizabeth Linley: The Sensational Life of a Georgian Woman

Elizabeth Linley was a famous singer in the late eighteenth century, not only for the remarkable music abilities of her own family, dubbed the Nest of Nightingales, but also for the tumultuous marriage to the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.[1] Despite both of their connections to Bath, which I have visited a view times now, I hadn’t heard of them until recently. The BBC programme Britain’s Lost Masterpieces featured a painting, supposedly of her, painted by the famous Georgian portrait painter, and a personal favourite of mine, Joshua Reynolds. That programme showed a story of celebrity not unlike those known today.

Thomas Gainsborough, Elizabeth and Mary Linley (c.1772), Dulwich Picture Gallery via Art UK

Elizabeth was one of twelve siblings born to Thomas and Mary Linley, most of whom were musically capable, a trait they had clearly inherited from their father. Thomas was a famed harpsicord player and a musical director at the Bath Assembly Rooms. Elizabeth’s brother, Thomas Junior, was compared to Mozart, and her sister, Mary, was also an accomplished singer. For Elizabeth herself, she made her public debut at the age of twelve, a very young age to be performing, but with her elder siblings already in the spotlight, it was seen as normal for the Linley family. The family’s pre-eminence in Bath was noted by painter, Thomas Gainsborough, who bad become friends with the family after moving to Bath in 1759.[2] Between the late 1760s and 1789, he had painted a number of portraits of the family, including one of Elizabeth and Mary (see above image), which was altered later on, as Mary had been unhappy with the original version.[3]

With her beauty and talent, Elizabeth became sort after by many suitors. In 1769, when she was sixteen, Elizabeth’s parents had betrothed her to Walter Long, a man who was around sixty. This engagement was ended in 1771 when Elizabeth claimed she was in love with another. Walter paid £3,000, or around £270,000 in today’s money, to Elizabeth’s father and let her keep the jewels and gifts he had already given her.[4] At the same time, a married family friend, Captain Thomas Mathews, had been harassing Elizabeth for a while by trying to force her to become his mistress. He tried any tactic he could from threatening her reputation to threating to commit suicide if she continued to ignore his advances.[5] The playwright, Samuel Foote wrote a play called The Maid of Bath about the situation. The play, which opened in Haymarket, London, in 1771, insinuated that Elizabeth’s engagement had been called off because she had had an affair with Mathews.[6] The only thing that was accurate about the play was the depiction of Elizabeth as a mixture of spirited and dutiful, but this was also a popular trope for heroines at the time.[7]

Hubert von Herkomer (after Joshua Reynolds), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1880), Russel-Coates Art Gallery & Museum via Art UK

The situation with Mathews, alongside the popularity of The Maid of Bath, only appeared to make Elizabeth’s worries grow. She confided with her friends, Lissy and Betsy Sheridan, the sisters of her future husband. Between them, they concocted a plan for their brother, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to escort her to France, where she could stay until she became of age.[8] Whilst on their way, Sheridan admitted his feelings for Elizabeth and the pair were married in a village near Calais in March 1772. As this was a Catholic ceremony, the marriage was not deemed legal under English law, meaning that when the couple were persuaded to return to England, they were not seen as married.[9]

Both Elizabeth and Richard’s family didn’t accept the match and were forced apart. However, Sheridan did leave love notes at a grotto in Bath for her to find, but it’s uncertain whether she ever saw them.[10] Captain Mathews was also unwilling to give up his feelings for Elizabeth and challenged Sheridan to a duel over her. This was fought in London and Sheridan won, with the demand that Mathews retract an unflattering article he had published about Sheridan in the newspapers.[11] That was not to be the last duel as Mathews failed to keep his side of the bargain and spread rumours that it was him that had one the previous duel, not Sheridan. The second duel was fought just outside of Bath. Sheridan was injured and when reports later came about the outcome of the duel, stories were told that he had been saved from death by a miniature of Elizabeth.[12]

Sheridan still didn’t give up in his pursuit for love. When he came of age in October 1772, he followed Thomas Linley around, begging him to let his daughter marry him. He even went to nearly every, if not every, concert hall Elizabeth performed at to pester for her hand in marriage.[13] Elizabeth and Sheridan were finally able to marry in London on 13 April 1773 but it would not be the happy ever after you would expect. After their marriage, Sheridan refused to let his wife perform for fear of his own reputation if she continued. Instead, she helped her husband to write his play, The Rivals, which premiered in January 1775, which was only fair when Elizabeth’s dowry had helped pay for Sheridan’s theatrical ambitions.[14] Eventually Elizabeth was allowed to perform for exclusive functions, but this was mainly to pay for the enormous debts her husband had racked up.[15] Sheridan also began to have numerous affairs, which Elizabeth was aware of. In retaliation, she also had affairs, which produced an illegitimate daughter, as well as the legitimate children she had with Sheridan.

Thomas Rowlandson, Comforts of Bath, Plate 2 (1798), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elizabeth was known to have suffered bouts of ill health throughout her life, many of which were reported to a public who were eager to have any update possible about the celebrity couple. These became even more sort after when she had all but retired from public life after a stillbirth in May 1777 and the death of her brother, Thomas, in a boating accident in August 1778.[16] She finally died from tuberculosis on 28 June 1792 at the age of 38 at Bristol Hot Wells, where she had moved to from London for health reasons. She was buried alongside her sister, Mary, at Wells Cathedral.

Whilst Elizabeth’s life may have been short, there is no denying that it had been eventful. Both her and her husband, Richard, showed that whilst we understand celebrity as a relatively modern phenomenon, it did have its infancy in the Georgian period. Many of the celebrities of the day were of musical and theatrical backgrounds, just like Elizabeth, her family, and her husband. A plaque dedicated to her can still be seen at 11 Bath Crescent, where she had lived before her marriage. When I go back to Bath later on in the year, I will now look on it with a better understanding and appreciation for the woman who it commemorates.


[1] Dulwich Picture Gallery, ‘Elizabeth and Mary Linley’, https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/explore-the-collection/301-350/elizabeth-and-mary-linley/

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[5] Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Polly Honeycombe George Colman the Elder (Ontario, Canada: Broadview Editions, 2012), p. 36

[6] Ibid, p. 36; ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[7] Aspden, Suzanne, ‘”Sancta Caecilia Rediviva” Elizabeth Linley: Repertoire, Reputation and the English Voice’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 27.3 (2015), p. 265.

[8] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/; Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  36.

[9] Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  37.

[10] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/

[11] Ibid; Brewer, David A. (ed), The Rivals, p.  37.

[12] The Bath Magazine, ‘Duelling for the Love of Eliza’, https://thebathmagazine.co.uk/duelling-for-the-love-of-eliza/

[13] Ibid

[14] ‘Scandal in the Making’, https://georgianjunkie.wordpress.com/tag/elizabeth-linley/

[15] ‘Elizabeth Ann Sheridan nee Linley’, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/elizabeth-ann-sheridan-nee-linley/

[16] Ibid

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