Samuel Pratt aka Courtney Melmoth, Playwright and Writer

Samuel Jackson Pratt was born on Christmas Day 1749 in the historic English town of St Ives. At the time it was the last stop before London for many travellers, as well as being a nexus for canal traffic to move onland for transportation to the capital. Samuel’s father was a brewer, which was good business in St Ives. Livestock drovers and canal men alike had usually worked up a powerful thirst by the time they reached the town. As a result he was able to educate his son at a private school, and even to engage tutors. One of these was supposedly the writer and editor John Hawkesworth. He may have inspired young Samuel to take up his own pen, as his first poem was published in 1771. Shortly before this, Samuel went into the church and was ordained as a Church of England minister. Then (as many young preachers did) he became a teacher. He taught at a girl’s school, where he met a girl named Charlotte. And that meeting was to be the end of Samuel Pratt, at least for a while, and the birth of Courtney Melmoth.

A century later every gory detail would have been laid out in the newspapers for the entertainment of the masses, but in 1772 things were kept much more discreet.

At least, that’s the most common account. People back then really didn’t like writing about scandals like this, especially ones involving churchmen. A century later every gory detail would have been laid out in the newspapers for the entertainment of the masses, but in 1772 things were kept much more discreet. As a result we don’t know what Charlotte’s “real” name was, nor do we know where she was born or even when. Some biographies guess at 1749, making her the same age as Samuel. However that doesn’t match the story that she was a pupil at the school where Samuel was teaching. She might have been a farmer’s daughter – then again, she might not. All we really know is that the Reverend Samuel Jackson Pratt disappeared from England in 1772, and then in 1773 he reappeared in Dublin. He was using the name “Courtney Melmoth”, and he had a wife who called herself Charlotte. (Though the two were never “officially” married.) Where the name came from is unclear – it’s been speculated that “Melmoth” was Charlotte’s original surname. Or Samuel might have borrowed it from the ecclesiastical author William Melmoth. If so, it was clearly a barbed jest – William Melmoth was well known for his attacks on the theatrical profession as “lascivious” and “impious”, while Courtney and Charlotte Melmoth were both actors.

Smock Alley Theatre - headstuff.org
The Smock Alley Theatre in 1789, 16 years after Courtney made his debut. Source

Courtney made his debut in the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin in February of 1773. He wasn’t a very good actor. A bit too smug, a bit too self-satisfied and amused by his own performance. On the other hand he turned out to be incredibly talented at the stagecraft and odd jobs of theatre work, and so stayed on at the theatre. In May of 1773 Charlotte made her stage debut in The Orphan, a play by Thomas Otway. Charlotte played Monimia, a tragic heroine who is the victim of a pair of competing brothers. She marries one but is tricked into committing adultery with the other on her wedding night and kills herself as a result. Charlotte, it turned out, was a very good actress. When the Smock Alley Theatre closed for the end of the season, Courtney was able to raise enough capital on the basis of that talent to set up a small theatre in Drogheda. They opened with The Merchant of Venice – Charlotte was Portia, while Courtney played Shylock. This was probably an incredibly poor choice, but despite all evidence Courtney was clearly convinced his talent was up to it. The theatre went under three months later.

The Melmoths moved back to London in 1774, where Charlotte managed to get a position as a regular performer at the Covent Garden theatre. Over the course of 1774 and 1775 she had a stream of solid secondary roles and gained a good reputation. Courtney didn’t do as well, though he did improe and got some praise from the critics. The peak of his acting career probably came in early 1775 when he played Hamlet in Covent Garden. He was also beginning to get some notice for his writing. When the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith died in 1774 Courtney wrote a lengthy elegy called The Tears of Genius. The poem lamented not just the death of Goldsmith but also several other poets who had recently died – including his own former tutor John Hawkesworth. The poem was allegedly begun and finished within a few hours of Goldsmith’s death and was published shortly afterwards, a feat which in and of itself was considered very impressive by reviewers.

And must my children all expire?
Shall none be left to strike the lyre?
Courts Death alone a learned prize?
Falls his shafts only on the wise?
Can no fit marks on earth be found,
From useless thousands swarming round?
What crowding cyphers cram the land!
What hosts of victims, at command!
The Tears of Genius

Charlotte Melmoth - headstuff.org
Charlotte as Queen Elizabeth.

Courtney followed up with a book Liberal Opinions upon Animals, Man, and Providence, a collection of anecdotes that sold reasonably well. After spending the first half of 1776 in Edinburgh where Charlotte enhanced her reputation with an array of leading parts, the pair moved to Bath where Courtney invested the profits from his writing into a bookselling business. He soon decided that sales was not for him but this did allow him to make a lot of friends among the rich literary set of Bath, who he naturally borrowed money from. The Melmoths returned to London where Charlotte had a high-profile role as Lady Macbeth at Drury Lane. She seemed set to become a celebrated fixture of the London stage. And then Courtney messed it all up for her.

In 1774 Eugenia Stanhope, widowed daughter in law of Philip Stanhope the Earl of Chesterfield had caused a minor scandal when (after her father in law’s death) she had published the letters he had written to his son. Part of the scandal stemmed from her putting these relics of a revered nobleman and politician out in the public view for money (which she needed as the revered elder statesman hadn’t bothered to remember her in his will). And part of it came from the content of the letters – frank advice from the Earl to his illegitimate son on how to get on in life, including advice on how to seduce and treat women. It was this that inspired Courtney in an ultimately disastrous plan.

To the end of his days, Courtney always insisted that his goal in writing The Pupil of Pleasure, or The New System (Lord Chesterfield’s) Illustrated was pure. He wanted to expose the hypocrisy of the work by taking it to its logical conclusion, he said. So he had the protagonist of the novel (one Philip Sedley) embark on a series of seductions and frauds all based on Stanhope’s teachings, leaving the small town of Buxton in utter disarray. Courtney severely underestimated quite how scandalous this (to our eyes fairly mild) piece of satire would be. One reviewer described it as “unnatural and shocking – it cannot be read without disgust”. Moreover, some of Stanhope’s old friends took a great deal of offense at it. It didn’t take much digging for them to find something to hit back at him with. His real name, his past as an ex-clergyman, his scandalous non-marriage to Charlotte – all of these were raked out into public eye. It’s not surprising that the Melmoths fled London for Paris in 1777.

Charlotte Melmoth - headstuff.org
Charlotte as Roxana in Nathaniel Lee’s “The Rival Queens”, the last role she ever played in London.

Though the scandal had been dug up as an attack on Courtney, it shouldn’t be surprising that the mud would mostly stick to Charlotte. In English society, what was good for the gander was considered utterly scandalous for the goose. Courtney was able to clear his reputation with a biography of David Hume and a sequel to The Pupil of Pleasure that gave a much more traditional moral lesson. Charlotte, on the other hand, would never act in London again. Paris was much more cosmopolitan, but even there she struggled to find work. The pair had severe money issues, which tainted every friendship they made. One of the most influential of these friendships was with Benjamin Franklin, the ambassador of the newly formed American Republic. At a party he gave a copy of his portrait to a woman present, and Charlotte wrote him a poem lamenting that she hadn’t been so honoured. Franklin was touched and gave her a copy of the portrait, which led to a friendship between the two that was promptly ruined by Courtney seizing every opportunity to try to borrow money from him. Still, his descriptions of life in America would influence them both in different ways.

Charlotte and Courtney Melmoth returned to Britain in 1778. The scandal had been calmed enough by time and Courtney’s new works to allow them to get some work in Edinburgh, though Charlotte wasn’t given the same leading roles she had enjoyed before. They scraped by for the next few years, travelling to Edinburgh, Bath, Birmingham and Dublin. On a few occasions they were unable to get acting work and instead Charlotte told fortunes in fairgrounds. One of their most notable engagements was in Swansea where they put on a successful showing of a tragedy without any stagehands or assistants. Instead Charlotte carried the production on stage while Courtney ran around backstage doing all those jobs and occasionally joining her on stage for brief scenes.

Emma Corbett, title character of a Courtney Melmoth novel - headstuff.org
An illustration of the eponymous Emma Corbett.

Somewhere in those years Courtney found the time to write the novel he is most remembered for. Emma Corbett, or the miseries of civil war was the first book written about the American War of Independence by an English writer. Perhaps influenced by his friendship with Franklin, Courtney took a very even handed approach. His titular heroine heads across the Atlantic looking for her English soldier lover, but when she is captured by American soldiers George Washington himself orders her released and aids her search. She finds her fiance but in the end they both die – a moral imperative in the novels of the time, as the pair had a child outside wedlock. Courtney had learned his lesson well about defying convention.

Charlotte Melmoth - headstuff.org
Charlotte from a New York theatre program around the turn of the century. Source

Poverty and hardship had clearly put a strain on the Melmoths’ relationship, and in 1781 they permanently separated. Charlotte spent the next eleven years acting in various theatres in Ireland (and possibly converting to Catholicism) before emigrating to America in 1792. There she finally had the success she deserved, being hailed as “the best tragic actress New York had ever seen”. She continued to gain fame and fortune until a badly broken arm in 1811 forced her to retire from the stage. After that she ran an elocution school, finally passing away in 1823. She never saw Courtney again after the pair split up – as if by arrangement, while she was in Ireland he stayed in England. He abandoned the name of Courtney Melmoth entirely, and brought Samuel Jackson Pratt back to life as a reformed sinner. Emma Corbett gave him enough prestige to get his new play, The Fair Circassian, staged under his original name at Drury Lane. It was a success, and just like that Samuel was once again part of London society.

That’s not to say he was welcomed back with open arms, of course. Most notably, the 1784 volume of Biographia Dramatica (a guide to the actors and playwrights of the day) made no bones about his “sham marriage” and the Pupil of Pleasure affair. Plenty of people still turned up their noses at him, but in its way that gave him a bit of a cachet. He needed it, as he was still borrowing money and got into a long-running feud with a former friend, the actor Sarah Siddons, when her husband had the impudence to suggest he should actually pay back one of these loans. In his typical self-aggrandising way, Samuel accused Sarah of “ingratitude”, suggesting that the most famous female actor in Britain “owed him” for having helped her to that level of fame. He might have changed his name, but he was still Courtney Melmoth at heart.

The unwieldy monsters of the pregnant deep;
The savage troops that through the fore?t ?weep;
The viewless tribes that populate the air;
The milder creatures of domestic care;
The rooks which rock their infants on the tree;
The race which dip their pinions in the sea;
The feather’d train, gay tenants of the bush,
The glossy blackbird, and the echoing thrush,
The gaudy goldfinch which salutes the spring,
Winnowing the thistle with his burnish’d wing;
Jove’s eagle, ?oaring to you orb of light;
Aurora’s lark, and Cynthia’s bird of night:
All these the laws of Sympathy declare;
And chorus heav’n’s first maxim, BORN TO SHARE.
– from Sympathy

Samuel Pratt aka Courtney Melmoth - headstuff.org
A drawing of Samuel in 1802 by Charles Turner

Samuel published several books of poetry during the 1780s, including his most famous poem. This was the long poem Sympathy. The poem is largely about empathy and social contracts binding people to their lives, but it’s best known for a passage where Samuel champions the rights of animals to share the earth with humans. This was a surprisingly new idea at the time. The idea of animal cruelty being wrong is a relatively modern development in Western civilisation, [1] with the first laws in Europe against it only popping up in Ireland in 1635. A hundred and fifty years later it was still not really part of mainstream culture. It wouldn’t be until 1822 that any animal cruelty legislation would be passed in the UK. Samuel was genuinely at the forefront of the beginning of this movement, and it became a major theme of his later works. This was seen as eccentric by some, but even they regarded it as deeply moral and so it too contributed to the rehabilitation of his character.

One of the places where he expressed that theme was his Gleanings, a series of romanticised remembrances of his travels through England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the continent. Some of the content of these books drew from his own memories, while others were authoritative accounts of places he’d never actually visited, but his rambling friendly style struck a chord with the reading public. Mixed in with the personal accounts and the folklore of the districts was his own personal philosophy – a respect for the natural world, a distrust of modern medicine, and a cynical disdain for politics among other things.

Samuel Pratt aka Courtney Melmoth - headstuff.org
Samuel in 1807, painted by Thomas Lawrence.

By the dawn of the 19th century, Samuel had found a niche as a respectable elder statesman of the Birmingham literary scene. His “youthful indiscretions” gave him some kudos with the younger writers, and he acted as a mentor to several of them. The most notable was probably a young Birmingham apprentice named George Mogridge, who went on (under the pen name of “Old Humphrey”) to become one of the most popular English writers of the 19th century. In 1805 Samuel began publishing The Cabinet of Poetry, a six volume set of works by British poets that included a biographical introduction to each. This wasn’t a unique idea, but it did sell well enough to keep him comfortable as well as ensuring the gratitude of future scholars.

In early 1814 Samuel fell from a horse and suffered a serious injury. The details are vague but it was enough to keep him bedbound until he died on the 4th October, a couple of months shy of his 65th birthday. His obituaries were kinder to him than the publishers of Biographia Dramatica had been thirty years earlier, and Gentleman’s Magazine commented “though he may…have fallen into errors, nothing of malice or ill-nature can justly be imputed to him”. Courtney Melmoth’s sins had thus been cleansed away from Samuel Jackson Pratt, leaving behind a pillar of moral rectitude who unsurprisingly was soon relegated to obscurity and the footnotes of history.

Images via wikimedia except where noted.

[1] Note the use of “Western” here –  several non-European cultures (most notably India) had the concept of animal rights for centuries by this point.

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