As a follow-up to my last article ‘The Courtesan Actress and the Press‘ (see below), I discovered a rather biting piece in the Public Advertiser from 4 July 1783 concerning the antics of Sarah Maria Wilson. It was quite clear that the press viewed Sarah’s behaviour with general disapprobation, more so than her peer Mary Robinson, but were happy to dedicate pages of column space detailing her activities in order to sell papers. On one occasion a mere visit to see her father was enough to be considered as ‘news’. She was also frequently compared to other actresses, not just in terms of ability, but regarding her behaviour past and present. The paragraphs in the Public Advertiser used Sarah Siddons as a favourable model to which they could unfavourably compare Sarah Maria Wilson:
‘ A good and a bad Mother exemplified from the Stage – the Siddons and Sally the Small :
To such Enormity has been experience the latter Lady’s unfeeling Profligacy, that on one of her Vicissitudes of Prostitution, when she ran away, from one Gallant, and with another, she left a new-born Infant whom she was then suckling, without any Preparation, without any Provision for its Support.’
Public Advertiser 4 July 1783
Sarah is referred to by one of her numerous sobriquets: Sally the Small. In the last paragraph the Public Advertiser makes a reference to Sarah’s first marriage to Edward Spencer Weston; the couple had married, according the the said newspaper, at Edinburgh on the 27 June 1772. During this time Sarah was acting at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh and just two weeks or so after her marriage she was playing the part of Ann Lovely in A Bold Stroke for a Wife. The notice from Wes Digges playhouse described her as ‘Mrs Weston late Miss Adcock’ and she remained with his company for a couple of seasons. She may have met the comedian Richard Wilson whilst at Edinburgh and certainly worked with Elizabeth Inchbald; they were to become more than acquaintances, but clearly not close friends. On the 30 January 1775 Elizabeth Inchbald wrote in her pocket book that she had heard that Mrs Weston had gone off with Mr Wilson. Sarah may well have had an infant – I have calculated that she had at least five children – when the elopement took place, but having discovered Sarah’s Will and noting her concern regarding the welfare of her child Maria Campbell, I find the idea of abandonment incongruous.
Sarah may have got the press treatment she deserved, though some newspapers were more generous. The Town and Country Magazine wrote that her fashion and accoutrements – thanks to the largesse of her lover – eclipsed ‘all the frail sisterhood upon the haut ton. Perdita is thought to be particularly jealous of her elevation, and has ordered a new set of liveries to surpass those of our heroine.’
Her close rivalry with Mary Robinson does not appear to have been fully examined. It might also be time to acknowledge, that the woman who was described as having ‘chirruped herself into the higher circles of the Cyprian choir, and is now perched on a very enviable spray,’ is in need of a more detailed evaluation.
MJ Holman @mishjholman