Elizabeth Farren: The Actress Who Became Lady Derby

Elizabeth Farren was born on 6 July 1762 to George Farren (a surgeon and apothecary) and his Liverpool wife, Margaret Wright. Farren’s father reportedly began acting around 1755 and was associated with a theatre company around 1763. He was also a hard drinking man, which resulted in his early demise and caused Wright to take to the stage to support herself and her children.

Elizabeth Farren

Elizabeth Farren. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Having this introduction to the stage was the reason Elizabeth Farren became a stage actress at a very early age with her first performances being in juvenile roles in Bath. In 1774, she performed with her family at Wakefield and at age 15, she appeared in Liverpool playing Rosetta in Love in a Village and subsequently in her best known role of Lady Townly in Colley Cibber’s The Provoked Husband. Her Liverpool manager, Joseph Younger, then introduced her to George Colman, an English dramatist, essayist, and theatre owner, usually called “the Elder” or sometimes “George the First.”

In 1773, Colman directed the comedy by Oliver Goldsmith titled She Stoops to Conquer. Goldsmith wrote it to parody what he referred to as the “weeping sentimental comedy so much in fashion at present.”[1] His play also ridiculed the lifestyle, social customs, and manners of the eighteenth century upper classes and relied on farce and satire to poke fun at the class-consciousness society. It was in this play on 9 June 1777 in the role of Miss Hardcastle that Elizabeth Farren made her first appearance and made a favorable impression on audiences.

Her first original part is claimed to have been as Rosara, in Colman’s Spanish Barber. The next year she played Lady Townly and was declared a “decided sensation” and lauded, as she had been in Liverpool. Between 1778 and 1779 she appeared both at Drury Lane and Covent Garden and was said to have been admired by audiences for her acting abilities. It was also during this time that she inspired a great passion in the prominent British Whig statesman, Charles James Fox, whose parliamentary career spanned 38 years. Unfortunately, his passion fizzled when Farren appeared on stage for the first time in a breeches role disguised as Dick Rattler in Colman’s comedy, The Suicide. It was observed in 1797:

“Her appearance in this was so different from what it had been in other characters, and she looked so much disadvantaged in breeches, that the passions of the Man of the People were completely cooled by seeing her, and after exclaiming ‘D—n it, she has no prominence either before or behind-all is a straight line from head to foot; and for her legs, they are shaped like a sugar loaf’ — he gave up the pursuit for ever. The authenticity of this fact may be relied on; and had not Mr. F[ox] been disgusted by seeing her Ladyship in breeches, he might have continued her admirer to this day.”[2]  

Of course, not everyone thought as Fox did and Elizabeth Farren had plenty of other admirers because another description of her stated:

“Her figure is considerably above the middle height, and is of that slight texture which allows and requires the use of full and flowing drapery, an advantage of which she well knows how to avail herself; her face, though not regularly beautiful, is animated and prepossessing; her eye, which is blue and penetrating, is a powerful feature when she chooses to employ it on the pubic, and either flashes with spirit or melts with softness, as its mistress decides on the expression she wishes to convey; her voice we never thought to possess much sweetness, but it is refined and feminine; and her smiles, of which she is no niggard, fascinate the heart as much as her form delights the eye. In short, a more complete exhibition of graces and accomplishments never presented itself for admiration before the view of an audience.”[3]

Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby was also not put off by Farren’s lackluster shape and pursued her. His connections then supposedly resulted in him using his influence to promote her favorably with Richard Brinsley Sheridan, one of the proprietors of Drury Lane Theatre. The Earl also helped her procure wealthy patrons, who among them was Lady Dorothy Thompson and Lady Cecilia Johnston, which then accordingly raised Farren’s status and helped her become popular in the “Fashionable World.”

Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lord Derby was married during his pursuit of her. He had married Lady Elizabeth, daughter of James Hamilton, 6th Duke of Hamilton on 23 June 1774. She was extremely popular in society and considered a leader of fashion alongside Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Although Lady Elizabeth had three children with Derby, she began an affair with a “notorious rake” named John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset. By May of 1778 rumors were rampant about the affair and newspapers articles began to hint of it. Hoping to tamp the rumors down, Lady Derby’s mother accompanied her daughter-in-law to the theatre. Nonetheless, by August Lady Elizabeth was openly living apart from her husband and gossip was swirling that she was suing him for divorce.

Lady Elizabeth Hamilton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the meantime, Dorset remained friendly with Derby. It was initially thought Lady Elizabeth would marry Dorset and so most her friends did not snub her. However, a year later, Derby announced that he was not going to give her a divorce. This made her return to society impossible and she was thereafter socially ostracized. To make matters worse, Derby also began to withhold the children from her, which ultimately caused her much anguish and contributed to her becoming a “chronic invalid.”

Elizabeth Farren before 1791.

Elizabeth Farren by Thomas Lawrence before 1791. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was during Lady Elizabeth’s affair with Dorset that Derby began to pursue Farren. However, to dissuade Elizabeth Farren from making any connection with him some verses were supposedly published during his pursuit. The nasty verses did not work because instead of deterring her, she encouraged him until he finally made her an offer, which she promptly rejected as it supposedly insulted her “Ladyship’s virtue.” It was then reported:

“The prudent conduct of our Heroine made the deepest impression on Lord Derby, and added to the ardour of his love. His attentions daily increased, and he was never happy but when dangling at her heels. Frequently has he been seen following her, after morning Rehearsals, from Old Drury to Grosvenor-square, puffing from want of breath, and sighing his ‘soft tale,’ while her Ladyship, from mere wantonness, has kept him on the jog-trot, and hardly deigned to give him a smile. Still his attentions continued unabated.”[4]

Farren suffered from smallpox in the summer of 1781. Reports circulated that she was confined to house. Audiences were curious as to the extent of her suffering and whether she was scared because of the illness. Thus, when she returned to perform, hordes of people appeared, and the crowds were pleased to discover that she looked as beautiful and fair as ever.

Elizabeth Farren 1787

Elizabeth Farren by John Downman in 1787. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While an actress Farren was, like other performers, on occasion unreasonable and temperamental. Actor John Philip Kemble wrote on 17 December 1788, “Great quarrel with Miss Farren about her dress, she acted at last however for I would not change the play for her.”[5] About a year later, he noted her troublesome manners again. Apparently, this time she hated her role and was obstinate and uncooperative in the part. Kemble reported, “Miss Farren does not like her part and acts abominably.”[6]

John Philip Kemble. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

If she was acting abominably on stage, she was not behaving that way off stage. In fact, she did just the right things to snag the Earl of Derby. Supposedly it was because of her purity of character, her “impregnable virtue,” and their unconsummated relationship that she ultimately sealed the deal with him. An “almost formal engagement” was formed with the only obstacle to their marriage being Derby’s wife, who at last died on 14 March 1797.

A few weeks later Elizabeth Farren gave her last performance at Covent Garden. She portrayed Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, a comedic play written by Sheridan that was widely admired. Of Farren’s performance it was written:

“On the 8th of April … Miss Farren took leave of the stage for ever in her favourite character of Lady Teazle. She never played in better spirits, everybody said, till towards the end, when in her concluding speech to Lady Sneerwell, she said: — ‘Let me request you to make my compliments to the scandalous college of which you are president, and inform them that Lady Teazle, licentiate, begs leave to return the diploma they granted her, as she leaves off practice and kills characters no longer.’ Here she broke down and cried and courtesied the rest, in the midst of the plaudits of the house and the wild encouragement of some gay sympathisers in the Early of Derby’s box.”[7]

There was also this assessment by one eyewitness:

“The writer of this article was present on the night of her retirement, when the anxiety of the pubic to see the last of this delightful actress was so great, that the theatre was crowded soon after the doors were opened. Towards the conclusion of the play, Miss Farren appeared much affected … The fall of the curtain was attended with repeated bursts of applause, not unmingled with feelings of regret for the loss of such an actress and such a woman, then in the zenith of her charms, and whilst her dramatic reputation was higher than ever.”[8]

Elizabeth Farren and the Earl of Derby

Elizabeth Farren and the Earl of Derby in a 1796 caricature by James Gillray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Six weeks after Derby’s first wife died, Elizabeth Farren became Derby’s second wife by special license on 1 May 1797. Not everyone was happy about Farren’s sudden rise in status. Among those who objected was Eliza de Feuillide (Jane Austen‘s cousin), who stated:

“The fashionable World are also much taken up with Miss Farren’s union with Lord Derby – This lucky Woman from being servant to the Public for the last fifteen Years is now going to be the second Peeress in England – A great number of simpletons have been to see her Wedding Garments which are superlatively magnificent – She has thirty Muslin dresses each more beautiful than the other, and all trimmed with the most expensive Laces, her Wedding Night Cap is the same as the Princess Royal’s and costs Eighty Guineas – I have no patience with such extravagance and especially in such a Woman.”[9]

Although Eliza may have been displeased with Elizabeth Farren, the royal court seemed to accept her without question. Introductions of the new Countess of Derby to the royal court were conducted as courteously as expected. Because details of this meeting were of such great interest to the public, they were published in the Ipswich Journal soon after the event:

“Wednesday’s Drawing room at St. James’s was the most brilliant that has been known this season. The Princess Royal displayed on her left breast the Russian order of St. Catharine, with which she had been invested that morning. His Royal Highness the Duke of Wirtemburg, accompanied by the Duke of York, make his entrance at 3 in a blue embroidered dress. … The Countess of Derby, ci-devant Miss Farren, was presented to her Majesty on her recent marriage, and was very graciously received; … The ceremonial, which naturally excited the curiosity of the courtly circle, was conducted on the part of the Countess, with an elegance of demeanor equally free from affectation and embarrassment. After the Queen had conversed with her some time, and retired, she received the marked attention of the principal nobility, &c. present. … The Countess went to St. James’s in the plain family coach; attended by two footmen in their usual liveries; indeed the whole appearance was void of ostentation or parade. The Earl of Derby himself appeared in mourning.”[10]

Charlotte, Princess Royal. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After her marriage to Derby in 1797, Elizabeth Farren had a son and two daughters. The two eldest children – a son and daughter – died young, and her other daughter married the Earl of Wilton. Lord Derby survived Farren by five years, dying on 21 October 1834 at the age of 82. As to Elizabeth Farren, she passed away on 23 April 1829 at Knowsley Park Lancashire at the age of 67. A few days after her death a funeral procession took place. Her body was relayed in a hearse to the family vault at Ormskirk, a market town in West Lancashire, England, arriving there at half-past twelve. The procession to Ormskirk consisted of the following:

  • “Two mutes on horseback.
  • Forty tenants, with mourning cloaks and silk hatbands, ditto;
  • The gentlemen, silk hatbands and scarfs, ditto;
  • A platform of feathers borne on men’s shoulders,
  • Four mourning coaches and four, in which were the clergyman, medical gentlemen, and others;
  • The coronet borne on a cushion by a man in mourning, with a silk hatband and scarf;
  • The Hearse, drawn by six horses, decorated with the emblazoned arms of the House of Stanley;
  • A mourning coach and six, containing Lord Stanley and his son, and the Earl of Wilton;
  • Lord Derby’s carriage and six, with blinds up;
  • Two carriage and four, Lord Stanley and Mr. Stanley;
  • Several gentlemen’s carriages closed the procession.”[11]

A “strictly private” ceremony was then held in front of her coffin that was covered with crimson velvet and inscribed on silver plate was her title and age. An obituary in the Chester Chronicle described the funeral procession and stated that Elizabeth Farren was once the “brightest ornament” in the field of acting. The paper also noted her various roles during her career. In addition, the newspaper wrote:

“It was well said of her by an eminent critic, that in performance Miss Farren never deviated from the walk for which art as well as nature designed her; that were we to recollect every idea which has been suggested to us by books, or has been the result of our own observation on life, assisted by all that the imagination could conceive of a woman of fashion, we should find every idea realised, and every conception embodied in the person and acting of Miss Farren. … In private life Miss Farren was perfectly irreproachable — her dutiful attachment to her mother, from whom she was seldom absent, except when engaged in her profession, was the best eulogy on the qualities of her heart.”[12]


  • [1] O. Goldsmith, P. Cunningham and J. Forster, The present state of polite learning. The citizen of the world (London: Murray, 1878), p. 342.
  • [2] P. Arbiter, Memoirs of the Present Countess of Derby, late Miss Farren; including ancedotes of several distinguished persons … By Petronius Arbiter, Esq. (The second edition.) (London: H. D. Symonds, 1797), p. 20.
  • [3] The Gentleman’s Magazine v. 99, pt. 2; v. 146 (London: F. Jefferies, 1829), p. 79.
  • [4] P. Arbiter. 1797, p. 21.
  • [5] L. Kelly, The Kemble Era: John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and the London stage (London: Bodley Head, 1980), p. 76.
  • [6] S. Bloxam, Walpole’s Queen of Comedy: A Biography of Elizabeth Farren, Countess of Derby (London: S. Bloxam, 1988), p. 113.
  • [7] Belfast News-Letter, “Miss Farren, The Actress,” April 8, 1869, p. 4.
  • [8] Chester Chronicle, “Late Countess of Derby,” May 8, 1829, p. 4.
  • [9] D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), p. 137.
  • [10] Ipswich Journal, “Sunday’s Post,” May 20, 1797, p. 1.
  • [11] Chester Chronicle, p. 4.
  • [12] Ibid.

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