Etherege, George

, a celebrated wit and comic writer in the reigns of king Charles II. and king James II. is said to have been descended of an ancient family in Oxfordshire, or allied to it He was born about 1636, not very distant from London, it is believed, as some of his nearest relations appear to have been settled not far from this metropolis. It is thought he was partly educated at the university of Cambridge, but travelled into France, and perhaps Flanders also, in his younger years. At his retu,rn, he studied for a while the municipal laws at one of the inns of court in London; but the polite company he kept, and his own natural talents, inclining him rather to court the favour of the muses and cultivate the belles lettres, he produced his first dramatic performance in 1664, entitled “The Comical Revenge; or, Love in a tub,” which | brought him acquainted, as he himself informs us, with Charles afterwards earl of Dorset, to whom it is dedicated. Its fame also, with his lively humour, engaging conversation, and refined taste in the fashionable gallantries of the town, soon established him in the societies, and rendered him the delight of those leading wits among the quality and gentry of chief rank and distinction, who made pleasure the chief business of their lives, and rendered that reign the most dissolute of any in our history; such as George Villiers duke of Bucks, John Wilmot earl of Rochester, sir Car Scroop, sir Charles Sedley, Henry Savile, &c. Encouraged by his first success, he brought another comedy upon the stage, in 1668, entitled “She would if she could,” which gained him no less applause, and it was supposed he would now make the stage his principal pursuit, but whether from indolence, or his pleasurable engagements, there was an interval of above seven years before the appearance of his next and last dramatic production, entitled “The Man of Mode; or, Sir Fopling Flutter.” It is dedicated by him to the duchess of York, who then was Mary, the daughter of the duke of Modena; in the service of which duchess our author, as he says in his said dedication, then was. This play still exalted his reputation, even above what both the former had done; he having therein, as perhaps he had also partly set himself some example in the others before, shadowed forth (but somewhat disguisedly) some of his noted acquaintance and contemporaries, who were known, or thought to be so, by his said draughts of them, to many of the audience; and this rendered the play very popular. In the famous poem written by the lord Rochester, after the example of sir John, Suckling’s upon the like subject, Apollo finds some plausible pretence of exception to the claim of every poetical candidate for the laurel crown; therefore our poet, by the scheme or drift of it, could escape no less disappointment than the rest: yet his lordship, to do him ample justice, has sufficiently shewed his merits to it, in every thing but his perseverance to exert them; which, after having first of all discarded Mr. Dryden, he next expresses thus:

"This reverend author was no sooner set by,

But Apollo had got gentle George in his eye;

And frankly confess’d, of all men that writ,

There’s none had more fancy, sense, judgment, or wit:

But i‘th’ crying sin idleness he was so harden’d,

That his long seven years’ silence is not to be pardon’d."

| Which shews that the poem in which these lines are written was just before the publication of our author’s last comedy. Sir George was addicted to great extravagances, being too free of his purse in gaming, and of his constitution with women and wine; which embarrassed his fortune, impaired his health, and exposed him to many reflections. Gildon says, that for marrying a fortune he was knighted; but it is said in a poem of those times, which never was printed (ms collection of satires, in the Harleian collection), that, to make some reparation of his circumstances, he courted a rich old widow; whose ambition was such, that she would not marry him unless he could make her a lady; which he was forced by the purchase of knighthood to do. This was probably about 1683. We hear not of any issue he had by this lady; but he cohabited, whether before or after this said marriage is not known, for some time with Mrs. Barry, the actress, and had a daughter by her on whom he settled five or six thousand pounds but she died young. From the same intelligence we have also learnt, that sir George was, in his person, a fair, slender, genteel man; but spoiled his countenance with drinking, and other habits of intemperance; and, in his deportment, very affable and courteous, of a sprightly and generous temper; which, with his free, lively, and natural vein of writing, acquired him the general character of Gentle George and Easy Etherege; in respect to which qualities we may often find him compared with sir Charles Sedley. His courtly address, and other accomplishments, won him the favour of the duchesi of York, afterwards, when king James was crowned, his queen; by whose interest and recommendation he wa sent ambassador abroad. In a certain pasquil that was written upon him, it is intimated as if he was sent upon ome embassy to Turkey. Gildon says, that, being in particular esteem with king James’s consort, he was sent envoy to Hamburgh but it is in several books evident, that he was, in that reign, a minister at Ratisbon at least from 1686 to the time that his majesty left this kingdom, if not later and this appears also from his own letters which he wrote thence some to the earl of Middleton, inverse to one of which his lordship engaged Mr. Dryden to return a poetical answer, in which he invites sir George to write another play; and, to keep him in countenance for his having been so dilatory in his last, reminds him hovr | long the comedy, or farce, of the “Rehearsal” had been hatching, by the duke of Buckingham, before it appeared: but we meet with nothing more of our author’s writing for the stage. There are extant some other letters of his in prose, which were written also from Ratisbon; two of which he sent to the duke of Buckingham when he was in his recess. As for his other compositions, such as have been printed, they consist, for the greatest part, of little airy sonnets, lampoons, and panegyrics, of no great poetical merit, although suited to the gay and careless taste of the times. All that we have met with, of his prose, is a short piece, entitled “An Account of the rejoycing at the diet of Ratisbonne, performed by sir George Etherege, knight, residing therefrom his majesty of Great Britain; upon occasion of the birth of the prince of Wales. In a letter from himself.” Printed in the Savoy, 1688. How far beyond this or the next year he lived, the writers on our poets, who have spoken of him, have been, as in many other particulars of his life, so in the time when he died, very deficient. In Gildon’s short and imperfect account of him, it is said, that after the revolution he went for France to his master, and died there, or very soon after his arrival thence in England. But there was a report, that sir George came to an untimely death by an unlucky accident at Ratisbon; for, after having treated some company with a liberal entertainment at his house there, in which having perhaps taken his glass too freely, and being, through his great complaisance, too forward in waiting on some of his guests at their departure, flushed as he was, he tumbled down the stairs and broke his neck. Sir George had a brother, who lived and died at Westminster; he had been a great courtier, yet a man of such strict honour, that he was esteemed a reputation to the family. He had been twice married, and by his first wife had a son; a little man, of a brave spirit, who inherited the honourable principles of his father. He was a colonel in king William’s wars; was near him in one of the most dangerous battles in Flanders, probably it was the battle of Landen in 1693, when his majesty was wounded, ‘and the colonel both lost his right eye, and received a contusion on his side. He was offered, in queen Anne’s reign, twenty-two hundred pounds for his commission, but refused to live at home in? peace when his country was at war. This colonel Ktherege died at Ealing in Middlesex, about the third or fourth | year of king George I. and was buried in Kensington church, near the altar; where there is a tombstone over his vault, in which were also buried his wife, son, and sister. That son was graciously received at court by queen Anne; and, soon after his father returned from the wars in Flanders under the duke of Marlborough, she gave him an ensign’s commission, intending farther to promote him’, in reward of his father’s service but he died a youth and the sister married Mr. Hill of Feversham in Kent but we hear not of any male issue surviving. The editors of the Biographia Dramatica observe, that, as a writer, sir George Etherege was certainly born a poet, and appears to have been possessed of a genius, the vivacity of which had littlecultivation; for there are no proofs of his having been a scholar. Though the “Comical Revenge” succeeded very well upon the stage, and met with general approbation for a considerable time, it is now justly laid aside on account of its immorality. This is the case, likewise, with regard to sir George’s other plays. Of the “She would if she could,” the critic Dennis says, that though it was esteemed by men of sense for the trueness of some of its characters, and the purity, freeness, and easy grace of its dialogue, yet, on its first appearance, it was barbarously treated by the audience. If the auditors were offended with the licentiousness of the comedy, their barbarity did them honour; but it is probable that, at that period, they were influenced by some other consideration. Exclusively of its loose tendency, the play is pronounced to be undoubtedly a very good one; and it was esteemed as one of the first rank at the time in which it was written. However, ShadwelPs encomium upon it will be judged to be too extravagant.

But the production of sir George Etherege which has been most applauded, and on which his reputation has been principally founded, is his “Man of Mode, or sir Fopling Flutter.” “This,” says the Biographia Dramatica, “is an admirable play. The characters in it are strongly marked, the plot agreeably conducted, and the dialogue truly polite and elegant. The character of Dorimant is, perhaps, the only completely fine gentleman that has ever yet been brought on the English stage; at the same time, that in that of sir Fopling may be traced the groundwork of almost all the Foppingtons and petit-maltres which appeared in the succeeding comedies of that period.| In another part of the Biographia Dramatica it is asserted, that “The Man of Mode” is, perhaps, the most elegant comedy, and contains more of the real manners of high life, than any one with which the English stage was ever adorned. That the play exhibits a spirited representation of what were then living characters is not denied; but, to the praises which are so generally and indiscriminately given of it, we must be permitted to oppose the censures of sir Richard Steele, in the sixty-fifth number of the Spectator.

In Spence’s anecdotes we learn that sir George was himself a great fop, and exactly his own sir Fopling Flutter, but that he designed Dorimant for his own picture. 1


Biog. Brit. Biog. Dram, Nichols’s Poems. Tatler and Spectator, with notes, edit. 1806, 8vo.