Adelaide O’Keeffe Author, Poet and Rationalistic Educator in the Enlightenment Period

Today it’s my pleasure to have Lynda O’Keeffe with us again. Following on from her previous post about the blind playwright, John O’Keeffe, today, she’s going to tell us the very moving and tragic story of his daughter, Adelaide’s life. 

Introducing Miss Adelaide O’Keeffe, author, poet and amanuensis.

Adelaide was born in Eustace Street, Dublin on 5th November 1776 to the blind playwright John O’Keeffe and his actress wife Mary (née Heaphy). It is worth noting that Adelaide’s father was Catholic, and her mother Protestant as this union would have been difficult in a time when the outlawing of Catholicism was prevalent. Adelaide’s own religious practice is not known, which is even more interesting when considering two of her major works, Patriarchal Times, or The Land of Canaan (1811) and Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (1814); the latter portrayed Zenobia’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity and, in 1848, became the first work authored by a non-Jew to be reissued by the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia. No small feat!

Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe
Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe

Little is known of Adelaide O’Keeffe, other than her being the devoted daughter and amanuensis of her illustrious blind father. It is only through her work that we can grasp a tantalising glimpse of her character. Sadly, there are no paintings of her, only two descriptions – one by her father when she was a child, and the other by an acquaintance who visited her grave in the Extra-Mural Cemetery, Lewes Road, Brighton in 1865:

In person Miss O’Keeffe was petite, and in early life must have been extremely pretty: having bright blue eyes, sunny chestnut hair, and a most pleasing and expressive countenance. She was well known to many here, chiefly by the booksellers, and to the last dressed somewhat showily and young.

 She was fond of impressing upon strangers that she was Miss O’Keeffe; and once told a friend of ours, “that she thought it wrong for aged unmarried ladies to be called ‘Mrs’. I always will insist upon being called ‘Miss;’ I am Miss O’Keeffe and am proud to wear the garland.”

 Though from an early period she acted as amanuensis to her father, who suffered from partial blindness, her own taste for literary composition really arose from hearing read one evening Gesner’s Death of Abel. This made such an impression upon her that, before retiring to rest, she had arranged in her own mind the first four chapters of Patriarchal Times – perhaps the most popular of her works, it having gone through many editions. One of her subsequent works, The Broken Sword, was dedicated to the Prince of Wales. Many to whom her name was scarcely known have probably been familiar from childhood with her verses; for in the Original Poems by Jane and Anne Taylor (which are even now frequently reprinted) there are many bearing the signature of “Adelaide,” all of which were contributed by Miss O’Keeffe.

 The most prominent trait in Miss O’Keeffe’s character was the warmth of her affections. Her love for her father, with whom she lived till his death (at Southampton, in 1833,) was entire, unselfish, and devoted; and almost all her first earnings were devoted to pay the debts of a deceased and dearly loved brother.

 She outlived almost all of her friends; but there are some still living who retain the liveliest recollections of her genial and vivacious conversation. In changing her residence, Miss O’Keeffe always carried her father’s portrait about with her from place to place, – in loving remembrance of his memory and of her happy home; and she was much gratified when, about twelve months prior to her death, it was taken by the Government for the National Portrait Gallery and placed among those whom the country “has delighted to honour.”

 From early childhood, Adelaide was destined not to have an easy life. However, her life experiences may have been the reasons for her pioneering work on the education of young minds, the importance of family, morals, belief in God and other meritorious topics.

In this brief article, the aim is to offer recognition and appreciation to an extraordinary female author, poet and amanuensis and to honour her own personal sacrifices in providing lifelong care for her disabled father.

Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe
Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe

In 1781, Adelaide’s parents separated as the result of an affair her mother had had with a Scottish actor called George Graham. Her father removed the children from the family home in Dublin and they decamped to London. Shortly after their arrival, an incident occurred whereby the children’s mother secretly visited the children. In the Memoir section of her father’s book of poetry entitled O’Keeffe’s Legacy to his Daughter, Adelaide describes her father’s fury at the visitation; Adelaide relives this pivotal moment:

 On hearing that their poor mother had visited both at night, and clasped them in her arms, and shed tears over them, the bursting tears of grief and remorse, he suddenly, at a moment’s warning, inflamed with jealousy, the master passion of his mind, (that infirmity of the best hearts and noblest natures) sent them to France.

So, to Adelaide’s horror, she was sent to a convent in the French countryside whilst her brother, Tottenham, was sent to the Collège du Plessis in Paris. One can only imagine the feelings of the five-year-old Adelaide being taken from her home, separated from her parents and brother, and placed in a convent in a foreign land. For nearly eight years Adelaide and her brother remained in France, until the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, which facilitated their return to London and the home of their father.

It is worth mentioning here that Adelaide attended the Catholic convent Sainte-Austreberthe, Montreuil, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. Her education would have been like that of her Protestant peers in English grammar schools, with the focus on Latin and the Classics. However, there was one big difference – Catholic children did their learning in the context of a fully functioning religious community, observing and absorbing religious practices that had been outlawed in England.

Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe
Photo credit: L.A.O’Keeffe

Adelaide was twelve when she returned from France, and soon after she began working as an amanuensis to her blind father, who was then at the height of his fame. In her own words, she describes the love and care given by her father when she was an infant and proclaims:

These early remembrances laid the foundation of that devoted attachment, which, from her childhood to his lamented death, never forsook. She never experienced a mother’s care, she never knew the kindness of female relatives; her father was her first object of love, and when away from him, her brother her only protector. Be it here remarked under the solemnity of a sacred protestation, whatever the world thought to the contrary, that neither son or daughter ever voluntarily quitted their beloved, their near sightless, and sometime unhappy father.

 The work that Adelaide embarked on with her father was unrelenting as he was a prolific writer, and being blind, always needed someone to be ‘at my elbow with a pen’. With the skills she obtained from the many years of working with her eminent father, Adelaide was the first writer to turn schoolroom text into dramatic dialogues, using stage-writing techniques to convey information via dialogue and not exposition. In these dramatic dialogues, she required the children not just to memorise the texts, but also to perform them, which required physical action and further compounded the learning. As an aside, recent research has identified the linking of movement to learning – Adelaide was ahead of her time in discovering this.

It has been suggested that Adelaide was intermittently employed as a governess, thus providing her with the necessary skills to take part in the educational movement of the Enlightenment period. During this time, it was thought that a child’s mind could be best reached through the body and that human understanding comes from experience, and experience comes through sensation and reflection – this was known as rationalist education.

In 1819, Adelaide authored the first verse novel for children, A Trip to the Coast. This small book of 160 pages contains poems each linked by a narrative, whereby the children find objects on their rambles and share them with their parents, describing each item in detail. The preface, gives us an intimate insight into Adelaide’s character and intentions, notes:

The Author of the following little poems has endeavoured, by their extreme simplicity, to adapt sea-subjects to the most juvenile comprehension…

The object of this little work is rather to excite curiosity than to gratify it: its design is to lead children to think, to seek, to enquire, to read, and to exert those faculties of mind, and powers of body, which often are more brilliant and effectual, than without exertion, they themselves, or those around them, are aware of.

Each short poem is no more than ten verses long, and the whole are interlinked as a novel starting from when the family begin their journey to the coast. Throughout all the poems, there is a constant interaction between the parents and the children, encouraging the children to use their reasoning powers on given occasions. In addition, there are activities connected to moral and natural history lessons throughout. Adelaide’s method of education was not to be condescending, but for children to be an integral component of their learning, offering them the capacity for self-reflection and conscious decision making.

Excerpt from, A Trip to the Coast.
Excerpt from, A Trip to the Coast.

In total, Adelaide penned fourteen books between 1799 and 1854.

In 1833, John O’Keeffe died, and Adelaide was consumed with grief at the loss of her beloved father. Money was short and she was forced to move to smaller lodgings in Southampton and resort to auctioning furniture and books to raise funds. Now fifty-seven years of age, Adelaide found herself alone in the world with little financial security. She had sacrificed her life to care for her father and had never married, although it has been reported that, at the age of eighty years, she confided, ‘she was actually engaged to be married, when her blind father so earnestly craved her undivided time and attention, that she gave it up, and devoted herself entirely to his comforts for the remainder of his life’. In 1834, she was named as Editor on her father’s final publication, a collection of poems entitled O’Keeffe’s Legacy to his Daughter.

From here on, information becomes sparse as Adelaide embarks on an itinerant life moving from Southampton to Ryde, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Hampton Court and Brighton. We know she continued writing as she published two pieces in 1848 and 1854, and she may have been employed as a governess to subsidise her meagre living. We also know that, shortly after her father’s death, she appealed to the beneficence of the Royal Literary Fund and received £25, she was then awarded a pension from the Crown of £50, and Prince Albert personally sent her £5. Three years later, she appealed again to the Royal Literary Fund and received a further £15, which she saw as inadequate and not conducive to financial planning. By 1856, at the age of eighty years and despite her pension income, Adelaide was reduced to contemplating the last item of value to sell, a Shakespeare’s First Folio edition.

It is here that one’s heart must be touched by the hardships experienced by an unmarried female author in the 18th century. One of Adelaide’s friends appealed to the better nature of the Royal Literary Fund when he wrote to them: ‘Poor old lady, I wish she had someone to repay her in kind for her selfless generosity to her father. But, at least, I would gladly know she was not stinted in her little comforts.’ Among these little comforts, he included a fire. He continued: ‘if your excellent Society will help her once more, I shall feel very grateful; and at eighty years old, you need not fear many, if any, repetitions of her importunity.’ The appeal fell on stony ground, and nothing was given.

Adelaide’s portfolio of work emphasises her firm belief that the young were the world’s future and that, with careful nurturing and education, a brighter life and world could be achieved. Her work is, therefore, as relevant today as it was in the 1800s. She struggled for recognition as a female author, but still made efforts to aid the emancipation of women, whilst in her personal life, her love and devotion to her father was unsurpassable.

Adelaide died destitute in 1865 aged ninety, a boarder in a lodging house in Brighton. Her death certificate records her occupation as: Authoress, daughter of John O’Keeffe (Dramatist).

Listed below are the titles of Adelaide O’Keeffe’s works:

  • Llewellin: A Tale(1799)
  • Patriarchal Times, or The Land of Canaan(1811)
  • Original Poems for Infant Minds by Ann TaylorJane Taylorand Adelaide O’Keeffe  (1804, 1805)
  • Original Poems Calculated to Improve the Mind of Youth and Allure it to Virtue(1808)
  • Old Grand-Papa, and Other Poems, for the Amusement of Children(1812)
  • Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra: A Narrative, Founded on History(1814)
  • ‘Prejudice’ in The Hermit and the Traveller(1816)
  • National Characters Exhibited in Forty Geographical Poems(1818)
  • Dudley(1819)
  • A Trip to the Coast; Or Poems Descriptive of Various Interesting Objects on the Sea-Shore(1819)
  • Mamma’s Present of Pictures and Poetry (1820)
  • ‘Memoir’ in O’Keeffe’s Legacy to his Daughter(1834)
  • Poems for Young Children(1848)
  • The Broken Sword; or, A Soldier’s Honour (1854)

 

 

John O’Keeffe (1747-1833), the blind playwright

I love introducing new guests to All Things Georgian and I’m excited to welcome Lynda O’Keeffe, researcher, writer and storyteller, today to tell us about John O’Keeffe (1747-1833), the blind playwright.

As her name denotes, she is a descendant of John O’Keeffe. Lynda has spent over eight years researching the life and works of this extraordinary man and with that she can safely say that she knows this man, everything from his favourite meal to the ribbons in his hair. The object of her research is that his story must be told, his life and experiences are as relevant today as in the 18th century. 

Lynda has worked as a literary and creative arts agent – representing actors, musicians and writers. With a passion for theatre, obviously in the blood, the writing of The Blind Playwright is her first major foray into writing – an experience she says could be likened to an assault course! Finding herself on the other side of the fence, she sought out a writer that she both respects and admires, attended his workshops and now states firmly and unabashedly that without the encouragement and expertise of Niall Williams (author of This is HappinessFour Letters of Love, etc.), she would not have had the confidence to embark on The Blind Playwright.  Her writing has enabled her to escape the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic to dash through the streets of 18th-century London, privy to O’Keeffe’s many amusing anecdotes and cavorting with some of his famous friends including R.B. Sheridan, Charles Macklin, Elizabeth Inchbald and Dorothea Jordan. 

With her confidence bolstered, Lynda’s labours have now come to fruition with the completion of a historical novel based on his life, a play script of O’Keeffe’s life, the reworking of one of his previously unperformed plays and the transformation of several of his comedic poems into a story and play script. Her research has also earned her the support of academic institutions around the world including Trinity College Dublin and London Metropolitan University and national institutions include National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery Dublin and the Fitzwilliam Museum. 

You can join Lynda on her Instagram page and find out more about her ancestor there: the_blind_playwright

National Portrait Gallery

18th century London was never going to be an easy place for a blind Irish playwright to prosper and thrive …

Introducing John O’Keeffe, a man who in his own time needed no introduction at all – the most prolific and significant playwright of the 18th century. With works including operas, comedic farces and poetry, he could be called the Andrew Lloyd Webber of Georgian theatre.  John O’Keeffe’s story is one of survival and success in the face of adversity. He was born in Abbey Street, Dublin on 24th June 1747 into an affluent Catholic family; his father held an office of Prerogative and was a descendant of the Kings of Ireland.  Being born into a life of privilege ensured a fine education, so John attended school in Dublin and soon became a Classics scholar proficient in four languages. Upon his parents’ own desire for their sons to become artists, John and his brother Daniel were sent to the Royal Academy of Art in the city. John’s skill with a paintbrush led to numerous commissions in both portraiture and landscape, but little did he foresee that the observational skills he learnt at the RAA would in the future be his treasured and most invaluable tools. 

National Gallery Ireland, Dublin. Item Number 1810

In 1761, John visited London and upon seeing David Garrick perform was mightily impressed. Unbeknown to the fourteen-year-old John, this was to be the catalyst behind his life choices. He went on to study at Trinity College Dublin, a bright young man with a character described as forever merry and good hearted. He was the life and soul of the party with a fine singing voice, a quick humour and a kindly disposition, and he was considered a man of principles. By this time he was already a published writer, flooding the newspaper editors’ desks with his poetry and amusing stories, forever using the pseudonyms of his classical heroes – Democritus was a favourite.  

After completing his education, John decided upon a career change and became an actor, a strolling player travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. However, after a raucous night out with friends in Dublin, the twenty-two-year old thespian fell into the River Liffey, a watery accident that resulted in a rapid deterioration of his sight, with complete blindness setting in some eight years later. 

THE SHE GALLANT by John O’Keeffe published 1767 for Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin. Credit: Collection of L.A. O’KEEFFE  Photo Credit: L.A. O’KEEFFE

With his acting career now thwarted, the indefatigable John turned his skills to playwrighting. His first play, The She Gallant, became a roaring success in Dublin, and he and his young family decamped to London to find fame and fortune. 

London soon recognised John’s brilliance and he became one of the most prolific and significant playwrights of the 18th century, writing for the Theatre Royals of Covent Garden and the Haymarket. His portfolio totalled above seventy-nine pieces, and between 1778 and 1798 fifty-seven of his plays, amounting to over two thousand performances, were performed on the London stages. 

He was the epitome of celebrity, enjoying royal patronage from King George III and the royal family, and lauded and praised by his illustrious friends and peers, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sarah Siddons, Charles Macklin, Elizabeth Inchbald, Kane O’Hara, William Shield and Oliver Goldsmith. The finest actors, actresses and musicians of the 18th century performed in his works, with Dorothea Jordan, William Lewis, Ann Catley, Michael Leoni and Mrs Powell to be found on the cast lists. He was adored and courted by both society and the public. 

Theatre Royal Covent Garden. Photo by L.A. O’KEEFFE. Print exhibited at The Queens Gallery, George IV Art and Spectacle 2019

But while John’s career was rising to exalted heights, his personal life was crashing down around him. His professional and private lives were on a collision course, and despite reaching the pinnacle of success as a writer, he was ravaged by tragedy and loss. If losing his sight at age thirty was not enough, his first child Gerald died in infancy, his marriage to Mary (née Heaphy) failed, he lost another son Henry at age ten years, and his brother Daniel died in 1787. The final nail in this ‘mental crucifixion’ was the death of his eldest son, the Reverend John Tottenham, at the age of 28 years.  

Throughout all these tragedies, with his daughter Adelaide as scribe, John continued in his work, turning out operas, farces and poetry to enchant and amuse his audiences – even whilst his own heart had been blown wide open. A quote from his memoirs, Recollections of the Life of John O’Keeffe, displays his actions behind his broken human heart: 

The effort to be envied, rather than pitied, often proves a successful stimulus to the greatest actions of human life.’

Portrait of Mrs John O’ Keefe, Wife of the Artist. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

John’s blindness was a major contributing factor to many of his personality traits, influencing how he reacted to the events that befell him. His character could change in the blink of an eye; from being introverted and often reclusive, he would almost instantly become exuberant and flamboyant. He suffered with bouts of depression, anxiety and vulnerability, yet demonstrated confidence and enthusiasm when putting pen to paper and creating his theatrical masterpieces. The theatre was his Utopia. And even while beset with his own tragedies, this man of principles maintained a strong social conscience. He was a champion and advocate for gender equality, female authorship and the abolition of slavery – and he never missed an opportunity to express his own thoughts through his work. His example in and commitment to socio-political issues remain as relevant to modern times and resonate loudly with current equality movements and issues of modern slavery and human trafficking, immigration and world poverty. From the many pieces John wrote, the most famous over time has been Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. In 1788 (pre-dating Disney by over 230 years) John dramatised the story of Aladdin as a harlequinade, with its first performance on the stage of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden – it having had resounding worldwide success since. 

Zoe Wanamaker in the RSC’s production of ‘Wild Oats’
Photo credit:www.zoewanamaker.com photo by Reg Wilson

John’s play Wild Oats, first performed in 1791, remains a popular choice with modern theatre companies: hugely successful productions were staged in 1976 by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with a cast including Zoë Wanamaker, in 1997 by the National Theatre, and in 2012 by the Bristol Old Vic. 

Credit: Collection of L.A. O’KEEFFE. Photo Credit: L.A. O’KEEFFE

On this note, I will end John’s story with a review of the RSC production by Bernard Levin: 

‘With ”Wild Oats” the RSC have struck gold and oil at once, and rubies and diamonds to the utmost profusion, mingled with vintage champagne, lightly chilled, caviar is there…A farce by an altogether forgotten Irish born man of the theatre.’ 

John O’Keeffe died in Southampton on 4th February 1833 in poverty, with only four people attending his funeral, somewhat forgotten too at the end of his own life after so many years feted in the spotlight. Remember him next time you see the posters going up for a Christmas production of Aladdin.