‘To Mrs Martin I am endebted …’

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Volume 25

Earliest Theobald Wolfe Tone manuscripts (1783) recently discovered.

By Sylvie Kleinman

When Theobald Wolfe Tone’s son William published his father’s papers as the Life in 1826, he admitted suppressing ‘the account of some early amours’ and evidence of youthful wildness. Indeed, Tone himself had recorded in his brief autobiographical ‘Memorandums’ behaviour both reckless and risky. Second in a fatal duel at nineteen, and having to withdraw from Trinity for a few terms, he engaged in a passionate and requited love affair with the charming, talented but still married Elizabeth Martin, ‘neglected’ wife of Richard Martin. Better known as ‘Humanity Dick’, he was an MP, Volunteer colonel, ‘man of considerable fortune’ in Galway and noted duellist. Working as a tutor to Richard’s half-brothers, Tone had also discovered the dangers of rehearsing plays with their coquette of a stepmother. They had never once ‘overstepped the bounds of virtue’, yet nothing in ‘history, poetry or romance’ could describe what he suffered on her account for nearly two years, being ‘in love to a degree almost inconceivable’. In 1937 the episode was outed when Seán O’Faolain reprinted the suppressed passage of c. 700 words; this filled the titillating gap in Tone’s early twenties, between the duel and meeting his future wife, Martha Witherington, sometime in early 1785. Marianne Elliott’s biography carefully discussed this sentimental schooling straight out of a period novel, and the tragi-comic details of Tone’s performing in amateur theatricals with both the Martins. Though some have engaged in facile speculation, the only actual sources were his word and a surviving playbill for the Kirwan’s Lane theatre, Galway, for 8 August 1783: it lists Tone as the male lead, Lord Randolph, and Elizabeth as Lady Matilda Randolph in John Home’s historical tragedy Douglas.

Above: Review of Douglas by Tone.
‘—to Mrs Martin I am indebted for the highest pleasure I ever enjoyed—never was I so affected before and most probably never shall be so again—my taste for theatrical performances is spoiled—after her genuine representation of that most moving of all objects Beauty in distress, I shall never be able to bear the mimickry, for such to me it will be of another. Her excellence is too sincerely felt by all who had the happiness of seeing her for my feeble praise to assist in establishing it yet I cannot refrain from adding my note [?] to the heap.
I am afraid the style of this is passionate for a critic. I can only say in excuse that, on my honour, there is not …’. (NLI)

While researching a scholarly essay on Tone’s youth in Dublin in honour of David Dickson, I discovered two tantalising manuscripts in the National Library of Ireland, now digitised, which not only uphold the story and broaden its context but are now the earliest extant documents in Tone’s hand. The first (NLI MSS 49,616/1/f.11), a diary very like the one held by the National Museum, begins with the words ‘Memorandums 1783’; there follows in his characteristic hand the record of an ‘attempt at criticism exactly as I wrote it in the evening after our play’ that he had sent to one ‘Geo[rge] Jos[eph] Browne Esq., Galway’, who had worked on the character of Lord Randolph with ‘Mrs Richard Martin’. What had long eluded us, how precisely Tone had been introduced to the Martins, now seems clear. Browne, a former schoolmaster of Tone’s at Darling’s academy, Mabbot Street, had urged him to stick to his studies at Trinity when he wanted to join the British army, while in 1783 he was living at Kentville on Martin’s Galway estate while studying law. In May 1786 the Volunteer Journal covered a Galway performance of Rowe’s The Fair Penitent with Mrs Martin as Calista, her most celebrated role; one ‘Counsellor Browne’ had written the prologue. Involved in the Martins’ theatricals, he had also encouraged Tone’s emerging literary penchant. Tone knew that his review was ‘too passionate for a critic’, but overall the prose is poised for someone who had just turned twenty: his praise for the main actors, including Martin, is elegant and balanced. Of ‘Mr Tone’ he mentions one defect, youthfulness (for the stage role, or as a suitor off-stage?), yet he had ‘acquired the attention of the audience’ when indirectly referring to the readiness of the brave Volunteers to repel an invasion of Ireland. But he could have ‘filled a volume’ on a subject were his ‘abilities equal to the excellence of it’—Mrs Martin’s portrayal of beauty in distress. Browne may have regretted encouraging his protégé to experiment with a genre that could only, under the circumstances, expose such gushing sentiment.

The second manuscript (NLI MSS 49,616/2r) is private and tantalising, and convincingly corroborates Tone’s claim that he had exchanged ‘regular correspondence by letters’ with Elizabeth. A short, undated billet doux, signed ‘TW Tone’, it is mostly in Latin, possibly eluding the servants but not fooling them. It addresses ‘My dearest Jane’ in the prevailing language of love, Italian. ‘Jane’ was possibly a coded allusion to another of Rowe’s plays, Jane Shore, in which the heroine is entangled with two Williams, explaining why on the reverse Tone has written ‘Gulielmo’; after his name are the initials ‘S.M.’, which we shall decrypt as ‘Signora Martin’. While not transgressing ‘the bounds of virtue’, the note warmly and undeniably exudes a well-established intimacy and ‘in’ language between the two. Later, in a bizarre twist, Tone renamed his wife Matilda, but nothing but devotion emerges from family letters, and even their daughter Maria called her ‘Matty’.

Above: Letter by Tone to ‘Jane’ (translated from Latin by Thomas O’Loughlin).
‘My dearest Jane,
If all is not well, I hope this letter finds you convalescing! I [am] working hard to see you! Are you not still a muse? Has the illness begun to take it from you? I am looking forward to a whole bundle of verses from you—do not disappoint me! Reply to this letter, or rather this little letter, and believe me to be hopeful of seeing you as soon as I can.
Your sincere friend, TW Tone
[Greek text] Do you understand? A word is enough to the wise! (NLI)

‘A more agreeable person to read about hardly exists’, wrote Augustine Birrell, far less known as a literary essayist than in his (future) capacity as the chief secretary of Ireland. Reviewing R. Barry O’Brien’s 1893 edition of Tone’s Autobiography, he found this born rebel endowed with ‘a light heart, a quick wit’ and a ‘ready pen’. This had mostly served Irish nationalism, but Elliott stressed that Tone was also cherished as a hero because his candid diary and memoirs rendered him so familiar. To date, we have had no reason to doubt his claim that it was only in the summer of 1791, journeying to Belfast with Thomas Russell to help frame ‘the first club of United Irishmen’, that he began to keep ‘a kind of diary’. It remains silent on the sensational press coverage of the scandalous Martin divorce case in December of that year. But Tone had had much to write about as early as 1783, and there are pages torn out of the diary held by the National Library—by whom we shall never know. Also missing and possibly lost forever are diaries for the critical years 1793–6. Yet these two key pieces can now be added to the never-ending puzzle of history.

Sylvie Kleinman is Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin.

T. Bartlett (ed.), Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone (Dublin, 1998).
M. Elliott, Wolfe Tone (Liverpool, 2012).
S. Kleinman, ‘“Un Brave de plus”, Theobald Wolfe Tone, alias Adjutant-General James Smith: French officer and Irish patriot adventurer 1796–1798’, in N. Genet-Rouffiac & D. Murphy (eds), Franco-Irish military connections 1590–1945 (Dublin, 2009).
P. Phillips, Humanity Dick, the eccentric Member for Galway (Tunbridge Wells, 2003).


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