Sir George Etherege



Letters of Sir George Etherege, ed. Frederick Bracher (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1974).


The Dramatic Works of Sir George Etherege, ed. H. F. B. Brett-Smith, 2 vols (Oxford, 1927).


The Letterbook of Sir George Etherege, ed. Sybil Rosenfeld (London, 1928).


The Poems of Sir George Etherege, ed. James Thorpe (Princeton, 1963).


There are no known autograph manuscripts of any of Etherege's literary works; nor could any other surviving manuscripts of his works claim authority except, perhaps, for the racy verse epistles he sent to the Earl of Middleton in 1686 which are preserved, among other copies, in texts written by his secretary, Hugo Hughes (see EtG 21, EtG 44, EtG 60). Many examples of Etherege's hand survive, however, to chronicle his somewhat less successful, if no less interesting, career as a diplomat.

Letters and Letterbooks

Etherege's letters form, as Bracher notes, ‘the only considerable [extant] body of personal correspondence by a Restoration dramatist, courtier and wit’ and provide ‘a vivid and authentic self-portrait of a writer on the fringes of the Restoration court’. Indeed they provide, as Brett-Smith notes (I, xxxii-xxxiii), a more substantial source of biographical information than is available for ‘any other poet or dramatist of the century’. The texts of over four hundred of his letters survive. All except one early dispatch, written from Turkey in 1670 (*EtG 148), date from between 1685 and 1689: that is, for the most part, during the reign of James II when Etherege was British Resident at the German Imperial Diet at Ratisbon (now Regensburg) in Bavaria. Well over two hundred of his letters thence survive in the originals, the majority of them being sent to his friend and superior, the Earl of Middleton.

Besides the letters given entries below (EtG 127-150), three letters by Etherege are known from early printed texts: namely, two to George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, from Ratisbon, 2/12 November 1686 and 11/21 October ‘1689’ [but really earlier], printed in Buckingham, Miscellaneous Works (London, 1704), pp. 124-40 (reprinted from thence in Rosenfeld, pp. 411-21), and one to ‘his Friend in London’, from Ratisbon, 23 August 1688, printed in Familiar Letters … by…John late Earl of Rochester, and several other Persons (London, 1697), II, 53-5 (reprinted from thence in Rosenfeld, p. 422).

In addition, certain of Etherege's letterbooks survive. These are of great interest, not only because they supplement the original correspondence noted below (which is only partly represented in the letterbooks), but because of the extraordinary circumstances in which they were compiled, Etherege's ‘official’ diplomatic letterbooks, or copies of them, are preserved (EtG 151-156). One (EtG 152) is a selective transcript of Etherege's correspondence, partly copied from EtG 153 but also including many of his other more personal letters, this transcript being made secretly by Etherege's secretary, Hugo Hughes, for his own use. There is ample evidence that Hughes thoroughly disapproved of his master, on account of both his immoral life-style and his pro-Stuart sympathies; that he was working covertly, and indeed treacherously, to undermine Etherege's position at Ratisbon and that he was in league with Whigs (such as William Habord) and Dutch allies (such as Pierre Valkenier, the Dutch Resident at Ratisbon) who were plotting to replace James II with William of Orange. For the clearest account of Hughes's activities, see Frederick Bracher, ‘Sir George Etherege and His Secretary’, Harvard Library Bulletin, 15 (1967), 331-44. Hughes's personal transcript included all the material which he might have been able to use to discredit Etherege, for which reason he evidently had further transcripts made of his copy to give to his allies, transcripts which may in turn have been re-copied by their recipients. Entries *EtG 151, EtG 154-156 almost certainly belong to the last category and derive from Hughes's transcript (EtG 152).

Etherege's Papers

When Etherege departed from Ratisbon early in 1689, he left a quantity of his books and papers to the Scottish Benedictine Monastery of St James in Ratisbon, the Abbot of which, Placid Fleming (1642-1720), he had befriended. Investigating in 1965 the fate of this deposit, Bracher was informed that some of Etherege's books were preserved but that his papers had long been destroyed (p. xx). The papers were evidently still in existence in 1795, when an extract from one of them (by ‘Mr. Wigmore, Under Secretary of State’ [actually Owen Wynne], about the death of Nell Gwynne) was printed in The European Magazine, Vol. 27 (June 1795), pp. 396-7 (see Brett-Smith, I, lxvi). However, according to an article on ‘Scottish Religious Houses Abroad’ in the Edinburgh Review, 119 (1864), Art. VI, 168-202 (p. 182), ‘a valuable collection of documents, comprising a secret correspondence with the Stuarts for nearly a century, was accidentally burnt a very few years ago at Strahlfeldt, the country house of the Scottish Benedictines’. In a letter to Bishop James Kyle written by James McHattie from Regensburg, 18 March 1832, it is reported that the papers destroyed included ‘all James VII [i.e. James II of England's] correspondence with Etheridge, his ambassador…and most of the correspondence of Abbot Fleming’ (Bracher, p. xx).

These reports prove, in fact, to be untrue. A substantial cache of Etherege's papers was discovered in 1986 by Peter Beal to be still preserved at Regensburg, essentially where it was originally. What was once the Scottish Benedictine Monastery (‘Schottenkloster’) in Ratisbon has been since the 1860s a seminary (present address: Priesterseminar St. Wolfgang, Bismarckplatz 2, 8400 Regensburg). It is, incidentally, situated about 150 steps from where Etherege's house once stood (i.e. his second accommodation, after 10 May 1688, where he held his great feast to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Wales; also known as the Wilde House (‘Wildische Haus’) and now commercial premises at 3/4 Arnulfsplatz: see Bracher, pp. 11-12, 196, and Dorothy Foster in N&Q, 154 (14 January 1928), 28). In 1971 the entire library and collections of the seminary were transferred into the custody of the Episcopal Central Library and Archive (Bischöfliches Zentralbibliothek und Zentralarchiv, St Petersweg 11-13, 8400 Regensburg). Here are now to be found thirteen folders of papers (BZA/Sch. F XVII, Fasz. 1-13) containing over 370 documents associated with Etherege and his circle. Some 340 of these, comprising nearly 900 pages (in Fasz. 1-8, 9 [Nos. 1-11], 11 and 12), are letters, dispatches, newsletters and a few other documents received by Etherege between October 1685 and December 1688 — a number considerably greater, for instance, than that of his own letters represented in Hughes's transcript of his letterbook. Eighteen draft reports written by Etherege's predecessor at Ratisbon, Edmund Poley, between November 1676 and June 1679, and evidently also retained among Etherege's papers, are preserved in Fasz. 10, while nine draft reports written by Etherege's successor, his erstwhile secretary Hugo Hughes, between 18/28 March 1689 and 14 February 1689[/90] are, for some other reason, preserved in Fasz. 9 [Nos. 12-30]. Finally, Fasz. 13 contains five draft letters written by Abbot Fleming after Etherege's departure, between 20 July 1689 (when he refers to his having been put in charge of Etherege's affairs by King James) and 14 January 1698[/9?].

The interest these papers must have for any study of Etherege's life as a diplomat hardly requires elaboration. Even if they do not comprise all the letters he received in Ratisbon (there is no sign, for instance, of any letter by Dryden), nevertheless the papers substantially fill out the two sides of his correspondence. With their news and comments on political, Court and social events, on various of Etherege's old friends, on his wife and on new publications by writers such as Dryden, they throw light on much of what he says in his own letters. Besides including actual reports he received on such notable events as the Siege of Buda and James II's declaration of religious toleration, as well as reactions to Etherege's celebrated three-day feast on the birth of the Prince of Wales in July 1688, the letters clarify the step-by-step process by which he learned of (and indeed warned against) the events leading to William of Orange's invasion and the expulsion of Etherege's master, James II. In view of the traditional acceptance of the unimportance of Etherege's diplomatic post, it is interesting to see how often his correspondents stress the special significance and urgency of his dispatches (‘You are got into a station, where there is more to be done, & more to bee seen then in all Europe besides’, Sir Gabriel Sylvius advised him on 11 January 1685/6 (Fasz. 2, No. 5), and Wynne emphasized on 15 July 1688 that Etherege's letters were ‘now Longd for ye most of any’ (Fasz. 8, No. 4). While Etherege was complimented repeatedly on being ‘a very pretty proficient’ in letter-writing (Fasz. 1, No. 13) and on having ‘so good a hand, & pen’ (Fasz. 3, No. 7), it is of interest to note Wynne's strict instructions to him on precisely how his dispatches should be written (‘…I am bid to desire you to Continue to write your dispatches in folio with a large Margin, & yt you wd write in distinct & different paragraphs, as Variety of Matter offers, separating the News-part of your Letter from yt about buisnesse, relating to your Station, & adding your News, Extracts of Letters &c either by itselfe in the latter part of your Letters or rather in a folio paper apart, since it will be much easier for my Lord [Middleton] in reading Your Dispatches att the Committee to distinguish what is fitt to be layd before ye King, as Buisnesse yt may require any orders upon't, & what as News…’ [25 November 1686: Fasz. 4, No. 16]).

It may be noted, besides, that of the fourteen letters received by Etherege and transcribed on ff. 173r-86v in Hughes's letterbook (EtG 152: see Rosenfeld, pp. 344-65, and Bracher, pp. 269-78), eight are preserved at Regensburg in the originals (i.e. letters by Middleton, Barillon, Mulgrave, Skelton and four by Vaudrey about Buda: in Fasz. 1, No. 13; 2, Nos. 9 and 22; 3, Nos. 16, 20, 23 and 27; and 6, No. 12). The letter by Mulgrave, for instance — one of the few personal rather than diplomatic letters to Etherege preserved in the collection — is that of 7 March 1686/7 in which he makes remarks on ‘the Lady in the Garret’ and refers to his having seen ‘tother day by chance a letter of [Etherege's] to Mr Driden’. The letter by Middleton is that of 7 December 1685 commenting, inter alia, on the continued success at Court of The Man of Mode and reporting the King's wish that Etherege should write another comedy (‘…he expected you should putt on yr socks…’). However, a second letter by Middleton which Hughes did not transcribe, and which has therefore not been published, was written on 5 March 1685/6 (Fasz. 2, No. 20). Among other things, Middleton emphasizes the King's request reported in his earlier letter: ‘Since you made no answer to what ye King had commanded me to acquaint you with, I mean yr writting a play, I should not have troubled you with it, if his Maty had not again renewd his commands in that matter, so that I must tell you, he does seriously expect it from you’. Not even the command of King James, however, could kindle a flame of dramatic inspiration in the barren ashes of Etherege's life at Ratisbon. ‘I have given over writing plays’, he declared on 27 February/8 March 1687/8, and he confessed to Lord Dorset on 25 July/4 August 1687 that he had ‘lost for want of exerccise the use of fancy and imagination’. A few, largely bawdy, verses such as those he sent to Middleton remain the sum of Etherege's literary endeavours after he left the shores of England.

Etherege's Books

Some account of the printed books which Etherege also left with Abbot Fleming in 1689 has appeared in A. Wilson Verity's report in the The Athenaeum No. 3426 (24 June 1893), p. 808, and in Dorothy Foster's article, ‘Sir George Etherege Collections’ [4th Part], N&Q 153 (31 December 1927), 472-8 (pp. 477-8). In the ‘Catalogue of Sr. George's Bookes’ which Hughes entered in his letterbook (EtG 152) Hughes recorded over sixty titles. Because of the presence of contemporary inscriptions of provenance, it is now possible to identify for certain at Regensburg twelve of Etherege's books (comprising thirty-two volumes in all). A detailed account of this subject, with facsimile examples, is given in Peter Beal, ‘“The most constant and best entertainment”: Sir George Etherege's Reading in Ratisbon’, The Library, 6th Ser. 10/2 (June 1988), 122-44. An addition to this account is Etherege's exemplum of Sir John Chardin's Journal du voyage du Chevr Chardin en Perse & aux Indes Orientales (London, 1686), also passed on to Abbot Fleming, which corresponds to item 52 in Hughes's list of Etherege's books. This is now in the library of Robert S. Pirie, New York.

Dramatic Works

As for Etherege's best known literary works, his plays are unknown today in manuscripts except for copies of certain of the songs, which had some measure of independent circulation. A single recorded Restoration promp-tbook of his most famous play, The Man of Mode, is recorded below (EtG 123.4). What may possibly be Etherege's dedication exemplum of the first edition of this play to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, was sold at Sotheby's, 27 May 2004 (Brett-Smith sale), lot 225, to Quaritch. The reason for suggesting this connection is the volume's remarkably sumptuous morocco binding by ‘Queens' Binder B’, illustrated on the cover and on p. 136 of Sotheby's sale catalogue. Of related interest too is a contemporary reaction to the first performance of the play recorded in an unpublished letter by one Peter Killigrew to his sister, 14 March 1675/6. Besides commenting that it had ‘noe deep plott, but a great deal of witt’, Killigrew speculates on ‘the persons meant by it’: i.e. the well-known public figures he thought were represented by Etherege's characters. This letter too appeared in the Brett-Smith sale at Sotheby's, 27 May 2004, lot 224 (with a facsimile example in the sale catalogue), and is now in the library of Robert S. Pirie, New York.

The Verse Canon

Contrary to Etherege's plays, Etherege's poems ‘were frequently copied and widely known, without the aid of any collection and often without the encouragement of an attribution’ (Thorpe, p. vi). Two letters among Etherege's papers at Regensburg exemplify a case in point, where a poem sent for the amusement of a friend might be shown to other people, with the result that further copies might be made and circulated and the text eventually appear in manuscript collections of Poems on Affairs of State. On 5 March 1685/6, Middleton wrote: ‘Yrs of Hunting whores etc: [see EtG 21-33], I liked so well, that I could not forbear showing it to some of our acquaintances, which, it seems, has produced ye matter inclosd [viz. presumably Dryden's reply, though no longer enclosed with the letter: see DrJ 201-11], it may serve to confirme what I told you of ye dullnesse of this place, so that a reply to it would make some amends’ (Fasz. 2, No. 20). Later, on 17 December 1686, Owen Wynne wrote to Etherege: ‘I shewd your Letter to my Lord [Middleton], who best knew what you meant about Verses, & what ye are to doe in obedience to the Kings Command — How farre your Verses were Censured I know not; sure I am Mr Dryden & his Son (who Copied the father's answer to yow) were, for suffering Copyes of ym to steal abroad, with my Lord's name in the Title-page, & some say they were printed, tho I never saw ym but in a suffolk-gent[leman's] hand in Writing’ (Fasz. 4, No. 19). Like so many of his contemporaries, Etherege played ‘the Fool in verse and prose’ (see Bracher, p. 103) largely for private amusement and would never have anticipated a published collection of his poems. Like his friend, the Earl of Dorset, he very probably ‘cared not what became of them’.

In such circumstances, the canon is bound to be problematical. So far as it may be determined, some forty poems are attributed to Etherege with reasonable confidence in Thorpe and are represented in the entries below by various contemporary or later copies (EtG 1-97). Six others are classified in Thorpe as ‘of doubtful authorship’ (EtG 98-120), while five further poems sometimes ascribed to Etherege are positively rejected from the canon (see Thorpe, pp. 142-6). The list of poems doubtfully or spuriously assigned to Etherege in manuscript sources could be easily extended. For Instance, a small early 18th-century verse miscellany now at Yale (Osborn Poetry Box IV/53) contains eight poems ascribed to ‘Sr George Etherege’. Two of these are indeed included in the canon in Thorpe (EtG 92 and EtG 97); three others (The Constancy, Indifference and Indifference excused) are generally attributed to Sir Charles Sedley (see SeC 10, SeC 18), while the remaining three are of unknown authorship. Of these last, one, a Song (‘Prepar'd to rail Resolv'd to part’), is not at present traced elsewhere. Another, The Submission (‘Ah! Pardon Madam, if I ever thought’), is also found, as by Etherege or by Sedley or as anonymous, in Yale, Osborn MS b 218, p. 21; and Poetry Box IV/53; and in Leeds University, Brotherton Collection, MS Lt 52, f. 112v; while the third, To a Lady, who ask'd him how long he wou'd love her (‘It is not Caelia, in our power’), is also found in early 18th-century miscellanies in the Bodleian (MS Rawl. poet, 173, f. 74r-v), ascribed to Etherege, and anonymously in Yale, Osborn MS c. 549, p. 70, an anonymous copy also appearing among the manuscript verse of the Aston family of Tixall, Staffordshire (printed in Arthur Clifford, Tixall Poetry (Edinburgh, 1813), p. 344 [i.e. 244]).


One or two early documents signed by Etherege in his younger days when he was an articled clerk at Beacondsfield, Buckinghamshire, are given entries below (EtG 157-159), and see *WaE 846 for another also involving, and signed by, Edmund Waller. Otherwise various legal and other papers relating to Etherege's life and family are found in the Public Records and elsewhere. For some account of these, see, in particular, Brett-Smith, I (1927); Dorothy Foster's articles, ‘Sir George Etherege’, TLS (16 February 1922), p. 108, and (23 February 1922), p. 124; ‘Concerning the Grandfather and Father of Sir George Etherege’, N&Q, 12th Ser. 10 (6 and 12 May 1922), 341-4, 362-5; ‘Sir George Etherege Collections’, N&Q, 153 (10-31 December 1927), 417-19, 435-40, 454-9, 472-8, and N&Q, 154 (14 January 1928), 28; ‘Sir George Etherege’, TLS (21 May 1928), p. 412; and ‘Sir George Etherege’, Review of English Studies, 8 (1932), 458-9; Eleanore Boswell, ‘Sir George Etherege’, RES, 7 (1931), 207; John W. Nichol, ‘Dame Mary Etherege’, Modern Language Notes, 64 (1949), 419-22; and Rosenfeld (1928) and Bracher (1974).


An exemplum of the printed edition of The Works of Sir George Etherege (London, 1704) annotated by George Thorn-Drury, KC (1860-1931), literary scholar and editor, is at Yale, Osborn pc 95.

Peter Beal