A Romantic Tale and a Screwball Comedy
In the early 19th century there were four Tree sisters, all of whom went on the stage. (If there were three of them, one could probably create a nice tongue twister, but there were four.) Ellen Tree, who married the noted actor Charles Kean, was the only one who remained in the theater, performing with her husband as Mrs. Charles Kean until his death.
The other three all retired from the stage when they married, and it is only Maria Tree who seems to have left much of an impression. In Our Actresses: or Glances at Stage Favourites Past and Present (1844), Mrs. C. Baron-Wilson comments on Maria’s “simplicity and blameless life … in contrast with many of her sisters in the profession.”
Mrs. Baron-Wilson notes that there was a romantic story attached to Maria’s courtship, but declines to give it. I don’t know why. It’s a charming story as recounted by Captain Gronow in his Reminiscences. Charming, and also very much in the Screwball Comedy tradition.
Maria’s first major role at Covent Garden was as Rosina in The Barber of Seville in 1818, when she would have been only 16 or 17. She was noted more for the sweetness than for the brilliance of her singing and appearance, and generally played in starring roles only when other performers were indisposed. Nonetheless, she was a very popular Viola in Twelfth Night and had her admirers. (The picture at the left, an engraving by W.H. Mote, is not Maria as Viola, but it's roughly the right period.)
One of these was Mr. James Bradshaw, a wealthy widower. He discovered that she was to perform Viola at a theater in Birmingham and would be traveling there on the mail coach. Thinking that this would be an ideal opportunity to get to know her better (and vice versa), he bought a ticket on the mail, using the name Tomkins.
Unfortunately, he had not realized that there was a mail coach that went from London to Birmingham and another that went from London to Birmingham to Manchester. She was on the first. He was on the second.
He got off the coach in Birmingham after an uncomfortable ride, feeling battered, bruised, disappointed, disgruntled, and a host of other adjectives that you can readily imagine. Still, he consoled himself, he would be able to see her at the theater the next night, so he went to a hotel to rest and recuperate.
When he woke up in the morning, he realized that he was in Birmingham, but his luggage—and his money—had traveled on to Manchester. After a moment of panic, he looked out the window and saw that the Bank of Birmingham was right across the street.
He hurried over and sat down with a banker to explain his predicament. The banker, faced with an obvious gentleman who provided the name and direction of his London banker and who carried letters identifying him as James Bradshaw, agreed to arrange a loan and promised to send the money over to him at the hotel.
Feeling greatly relieved, Mr. Bradshaw returned to the hotel to enjoy a hearty breakfast in the coffee room.
Not long after, the cashier from the bank, carrying the money, went to the hotel and asked for Mr. Bradshaw.
“There’s no Mr. Bradshaw staying here.”
“But he came in last night on the London mail.”
“The only one who came here off the London mail was Mr. Tomkins, and he’s in there having breakfast.” The clerk indicated the coffee room.
They both looked, and sure enough, the Mr. Tomkins having breakfast was the same man as the Mr. Bradshaw who wanted to borrow money. The horrified cashier hurried back to the bank to report.
The banker hurried over to the hotel and conferred with the manager. They weren’t quite sure what to do, but they didn’t want Mr. Bradshaw/Tomkins to vanish before they decided, so they told the boot boy to watch him and make sure he didn’t try to leave town.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bradshaw had finished breakfast and decided to take a stroll around the town. It didn’t take long for him to realize that everywhere he went, a small grubby boy went too. Every time he stopped, the boy stopped too. Finding this a bit disconcerting, he tried to hire a coach. The boot boy grabbed hold of him and insisted that he was not to leave the town.
Enraged at this, Mr. Bradshaw hastened back to the hotel only to find himself confronted by a constable who hauled him before the mayor of the town. That worthy demanded that he explain his behavior or find himself in prison.
With no other recourse, since he hardly wanted to spend the night in jail, Mr. Bradshaw called on Miss Tree to please identify him. This meant that he had to explain to her what he had done.
Miss Tree was not offended or outraged by his behavior. She seems to have found it rather charming and romantic because, Dear Reader, she left the stage and married him.
And as far as I know, they lived happily ever after
The painting of the Royal Mail coach is by James Pollard.
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