Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Spat With Mr. Webster

As I mentioned in my last post, Eliza's mockery of poor Mr. Webster--the singer whose grimaces had given him the appearance of someone "labouring under the operation of a strong Emetic"--was to come back to haunt her.

Actually, it was some renewed mockery that started the trouble. In October--some months after his performance at Mr. Nenninger's concert--Mr. Webster had the temerity to perform again. In a review of this second performance in the Observer, Eliza proved herself no more impressed than she'd been in June. "When he sings," she wrote, "his face and figure remind one of the melancholy spectacle of a creature in the agonies of convulsion." His voice was actually not bad, she allowed; "but ... when with his hideous grimaces he treats us to the wretched caricature of an ape ... it is impossible ... to listen to him without disgust."

This ridicule proved too much for Webster to bear with equanimity. Three days later, what was apparently a paid notice ran in the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser, signed W.H. Webster. Headed "To the Public," the notice accused "Beatrice Ironside" (Eliza's pen name) of attempting to extort money from him in exchange for a favorable review. Webster claimed that he'd received a letter, signed by "Beatrice," warning him that "in the course of the theatrical season many attempts will be made to injure you, by means of newspaper criticisms." The letter suggested that "a weekly publication"--unnamed, but its address given as the same as that of the Observer's printer--might be helpful in this connection by defending Webster against any such attacks. The alleged letter ended, according to Webster, with the words "`The subscription is five dollars a year; the paper is circulated all over the continent,' &c &c."

I say "alleged" because, although Webster purported to quote from the letter, he had, to his great regret, "mislaid" it. He explained this oversight by saying that it "was impossible to foresee that an accomplished lady ... could have behaved thus," but he offered to swear out an affidavit for anyone who doubted his word. (Webster's notice also sheds light on what an open secret Beatrice Ironside's identity was: Webster says that when he first heard about the review, "I inquired who wrote it? and was answered Mrs. A___." Actually, not even Beatrice's name appeared on the review, which was unsigned. But apparently everyone--everyone but Webster--knew exactly who had written it.)

Two days later the Gazette ran another notice, this one headed "Mr. Webster," and unsigned. Referring to "Beatrice"in the third person, this notice vigorously denied that she had ever "solicited, personally or by letter [anyone] to become a subscriber." The author expressed mock surprise that so "singular an application" as the alleged letter addressed to Webster "should not have been thought worth preserving." This is all the more remarkable, she says, considering that "Mistress Beatrice" had already trashed Webster's singing style in that review back in June--a review which she now took occasion to quote from liberally. She concluded, "That the known and acknowledged writer of these remarks should offer to become the champion of the gentleman who was their object, is so original a circumstance that it is really a matter of surprize Mr. Webster should have been so careless in preserving its proof."

This notice ran for two more days, and on the third day was accompanied by a response from Webster. He had seen a "contradiction of his assertion" about the editor of the Observer in the paper, he said; "but as it is anonymous, I shall certainly not make the slightest reply to it." Webster's response was, to say the least, disingenuous; the following sentence indicates that he knew very well who had written it. (I'll explain in another post what that remark was.)

Eliza, not to be outdone, ran her own notice for a fourth day--this time signed "BEATRICE IRONSIDE." Webster, as far as I can tell, was not heard from again--at least not in print.

What to make of this unedifying dispute? Certainly Eliza was unkind in her criticism of Webster's singing style, but it's the prerogative of critics to be unkind. And apparently she wasn't alone in her distaste for Webster: in his notice in the newspaper, he remarks that "Beatrice is not sorry I did not subscribe; for no doubt she has made more by her scurrilous stuff than the five dollars she applied for--as all my enemies (with whom she seems to be so well acquainted) if not already, will soon become subscribers to the `Observer.'" Webster has a point: no doubt this public contretemps, like others occasioned by Eliza's sometimes vicious satire, was good for business.

And, while it's possible that Eliza really did solicit a subscription from Webster, Webster here makes a pretty good argument against that possibility: why should she care so much about one subscription when she could probably do better by continuing to lambaste Webster? Not to mention Eliza's own suggestion that, given her previous criticism of him, it seems unlikely that she would have offered to refute attacks on Webster by others. At the very least, such a defense would have looked a little suspicious.

But one thing that's interesting to note here are the little digs at Eliza's unladylike behavior--which I'll allude to more in my next post. Ultimately Eliza came to believe that much of the animus against her was motivated by those who found the idea of a woman editor outrageous. As this episode illustrates, that's certainly not the whole story: the mockery and scorn she expressed in print would probably have also led to conflicts had they been offered up by a male editor. But the fact that she was a woman does appear to have intensified the reaction against her. And, as we shall see, her scandalous extracurricular activities definitely didn't help.

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