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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 13. Garrick and his Correspondents

David Garrick was a brilliant and agreeable letter-writer, and, even when angry with those correspondents who worried him exceedingly, he continued to be bright and lively in his replies. His letters give an admirable idea of his mercurial disposition, and it has been said that he was never second in the keenest encounter of wits. The two quarto volumes of his correspondence, published by James Boaden in 1831–2, are of great value and interest, consisting of letters from many distinguished persons, and his answers to them. The miscellaneous letters were collected by Garrick himself, and copies of his own letters added to them. It has been suggested that he may have had the intention of using them as the groundwork of an autobiography; at any rate, he must have considered it important to keep the originals of his various controversies for his own justification. The correspondence is now preserved, together with family letters (not printed by Boaden) and some others, in the Forster collection at the Victoria and Albert museum. They form thirty-five bound volumes and are of considerable value. Boaden, however, arranged the letters carelessly, without putting his materials in a satisfactory chronological order or providing a much-needed index; but he added a good life of the actor, largely founded upon the materials printed by him. An improved, and more convenient, edition containing a fairly complete collection of Garrick’s letters, while condensing those of his correspondents, would be a valuable addition to our literature. As it is, however, Boaden’s collection shows how important a figure Garrick filled in the intellectual world of the eighteenth century.

The list of his correspondents contains the names of most of the distinguished men of his time, such as Lords Camden, Chatham and Lyttelton, Johnson, Burke, Reynolds, Goldsmith, Boswell, Burney, Hogarth, Hume, Sheridan and Steevens. Burke, who entertained the highest opinion of Garrick, was one of his best friends. He addressed him as “My dear David,” “My dear Garrick” and sometimes “My dearest Garrick,” and concluded his letters in terms of affection. Johnson and Garrick, notwithstanding their early relations, never got further than “Dear sir,” and ended their letters in formal style. Mrs. Montagu was a frequent correspondent and the writer of some of the best letters in the collection. On one occasion, she is found entreating Garrick, on behalf of her friend Mrs. Vesey, to obtain the election of that lady’s husband Agmondesham Vesey, into the select circle of “The Club.” The bulk of the correspondence relates to theatrical affairs, as to which Garrick was in constant trouble, by reason of his strenuous attention to his duties as manager. The actors are constantly complaining, and the actresses, who were jealous of him and of each other, sometimes almost drove him mad. Mrs. Cibber, Mrs. Yates, Mrs. Abington and Mrs. Clive—all gave trouble in various ways; but Garrick’s feelings were essentially different as to the last two ladies in the list. Mrs. Abington permanently annoyed him. He added to a letter, written by her in 1776: “The above is a true copy of the letter, examined word by word, of that worst of bad women Mrs. Abington, to ask my playing for her benefit, and why?” On the other hand, Kitty Clive and he were always quarrelling and making it up, since they thoroughly esteemed each other. In 1765, Kitty wrote an angry letter: “Sir, I beg you would do me the favour to let me know if it was by your order that my money was stopped last Saturday.” In 1776, she wrote a letter which Garrick endorsed “My Pivy—excellent.” It was not only the actors and actresses who annoyed Garrick—the playwrights were equally, if not more, troublesome. There is a long series of letters between Murphy and Garrick, which shows that they were continually at war with one another. The latter part of the second volume of Boaden’s work is full of interesting letters from Frenchmen and Frenchwomen of distinction, proving how highly Garrick’s genius was appreciated in France. Diderot, Marmontel, Mme. Necker, Fréron, Mlle. Clairon and Le Kain were among his correspondents.

The letters of Garrick do not throw much light upon his training for the stage. He seems to have been born an actor, with all the qualities of a first-rate comedian, while his achievements as a tragedian were the result of his genius and the powers of his imagination. He was of no school, and he had no master. He was well educated and possessed a singular charm of manner; but he obtained his great position by incessant study, persistent practice and wide observation. Burke described him as one of the deepest observers of man. Well might Quin say that, if Garrick was right, he and his school were all wrong! He liked to astonish spectators by his sudden change from the all-inspiring tragedian to the laughter-forcing comedian. His Lear and his Abel Drugger were equally amazing. It was the freshness, the brightness and life of his style that made the instant acceptance of him as the greatest of living actors secure. At thirty, he was joint lessee of Drury lane theatre. In 1776, he retired from the stage and sold his moiety of the theatre to Sheridan, Linley and Ford. He kept up his interest in the stage; but he had little time to enjoy his well earned rest, and died in 1779, universally regretted. Burke wrote an epitaph, which unfortunately was rejected in favour of a foolish inscription by Pratt, for the monument in Westminster abbey. It was in a passage of the former that Garrick was said to have “raised the character of his profession to the rank of a liberal art.”