“Elliston, she [her aunt] tells us has just succeeded to a considerable fortune on the death of an Uncle. I would not have it enough to take him from the Stage; she should quit her business, & live with him in London”
Elliston was Robert William Elliston a leading actor and a great favourite of Austen’s; “she” was Elizabeth Elliston his wife.
The cause of Austen’s censure was the fact that despite Robert’s success on the London stage and their eleven years of marriage Elizabeth continued to work as a dance teacher and dance academy proprietor in Bath.
Robert Elliston met Elizabeth Rundall in Bath where he had come to work at the Theatre Royal and she was working as an assistant to the sisters Anne and Kitty the then proprietors of the famous Fleming family dance academy which had been a prominent Bath institution since the 1740s. Anne, despite being middle-aged, had hopes that Elliston would marry her but he only had eyes for her beautiful and talented young assistant.
Robert and Elizabeth married on the 1st June 1796 in the parish of Peter and Paul and Elizabeth set up her own dance academy in Chapel Row in a partnership with Kitty the younger of the Fleming sisters, though there is evidence that this did not create a permanent breach in the friendship between Elizabeth and Anne.
In 1797 Elizabeth and Kitty expanded their business by opening an academy at 5 Great Pulteney Street for private pupils while retaining the public academy at Chapel Row. In addition, to dance training they also offered Robert’s services to teach the “art of reading and speaking with propriety”.
By 1800, Kitty and Elizabeth Elliston had moved their school to 2 Trim Street and in this year Elizabeth gave birth to her second and most famous child Henry Twiselton Elliston who became a composer, inventor and musician often performing with his brother William. Over the course of their 25-year marriage, she and Robert had ten children. At least two of Elizabeth's daughters seem to have earned a living as dance teachers.
By August 1801 Elizabeth had moved her academy to 39 Milsom Street and from this time started to organise balls at the Lower Rooms to display the accomplishments of her pupils and by 1803 she was putting on balls at the Upper Rooms at least one of which attracted no less a person than Her Grace Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire. Her spring ball in 1804 attracted more than 800 visitors.
|Bath Chronicle 1803|
In 1804, Richard Sheridan asked Robert to appear at his Drury Lane theatre. Initially, Elliston refused a permanent position in Sheridan’s company but gradually the lure of the London theatre and the riches it could command sucked him in. On 20 September 1804 Elliston made his first appearance as leading actor at Drury Lane. During this year, Elizabeth’s partnership with Kitty Fleming was dissolved and Elizabeth did not maintain an academy at Bath although she did do some teaching at her sister’s school.
Elizabeth’s sister Mary Ann was at this time the principal of a school for young girls in Bath. She later became obsessed by the ideas of the German scholar Gregor von Feinagle concerning memory. After he visited England in 1811 she published a book entitled "Symbolic Illustrations of the History of England". This book aimed to encapsulate the facts of history into just 39 pages, but the book received a withering review in The Quarterly Review who called it a "most absurd book". They noted that 700 pages of text were required to interpret the 39 pages of symbols!
In 1805, Elizabeth announced that she was giving up all her “country businesses” with the exception of classes at her sister’s school and was relaunching her academy at 39 Milsom Street.
When Drury Lane was destroyed by fire in on the 24th February 1809, Elliston used his fame and his uncle’s money to move into theatre management becoming known as ‘the Great Lessee’ and ‘the Napoleon of the Theatre’ for his energy in acquiring new properties.
By 1809, Elizabeth was living in London at a house in Stratford Place a reasonably high-status address just off Oxford Street. It appears that at least in part Elizabeth was in London to work on choreographing the dances in Elliston’s productions.
In this same year, Elizabeth published “Les Varieties a third set of Dances and Cotillions Reels &c Composed and Arranged for the Piano Forte by Mrs Elliston dedicated to Miss D E Rundall, Milsom Street Bath.”
We know very little about Elizabeth’s sister Miss D E Rundall except that she may also have trained with the Flemings, and that Elizabeth trusted her to run her dance school in Milsom Street while she was in London.
In her book, Elizabeth’s tells us a little about her approach to composition where her aim was to create “melodies graceful to the ear & to give them that accent which is the soul of dancing”. We also learn that her previous two books were called “Trafalgar” & “The Graces” and that they were published in London.
By 1812, Elizabeth had moved her school to 21 Milsom Street. In the same year, the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane re-opened on 10 October with a production of Hamlet featuring Robert Elliston in the title role.
From this time on Elizabeth seems to have remained in London and left her Bath interests entirely in the hands of her sister.
Elizabeth died at the age of 46 in 1821 five years before Roberts bankruptcy and ten years before his death in both of which his chronic alcoholism undoubtedly played a part. In the year of her death, her husband leased the theatre at Coventry and staged a magnificent coronation spectacle at Drury Lane. Elizabeth's death was reported around the nation in the most affectionate terms. A typical example of which is taken from Bell's Weekly Messenger is as follows:
Far from deserving Austen’s censure, Elizabeth Elliston emerges as a truly remarkable woman. A mother, composer, teacher, dancer and choreographer who managed to keep a successful business running in Bath to provide a secure income for herself and her family while at the same time supporting her mercurial risk taking drunk of a husband in his many theatrical enterprises.