The Illustrated London News
August 1856


  THE great hall of Stafford House was on Monday last the scene of an event which would have caused considerable astonishment to any gentleman of the Southern States of America who might have happened to be present. A large audience was gathered together in that hall—one of the most magnificent in London—to listen to a lady of colour giving dramatic readings. The Duchess of Sutherland had devoted her mansion, for the time, to the service of a Mrs. F. Webb, and our Southerner would have been confounded and disgusted at the sight of what he would call a "tarnation nigger" being listened to with the most respectful attention by no inconsiderable number of the aristocracy of England.

  However, Mrs. Webb is not a "nigger." She is the daughter indeed of a woman of full African blood; but her father was a European. Her colour is a rich olive, and her features are remarkably delicate and expressive. Her mother, after three efforts, succeeded in making her escape from Virginia to Massachusetts, just three weeks before her daughter's birth. The daughter was brought up for some time in luxury, but hard times succeeded, and the indomitable negro-mother had to work incessantly that her daughter might complete the education begun under happier circumstances. After-events showed the wisdom of her determination. Her daughter married Mr. Webb, a tradesman of Philadelphia, in good circumstances. On his failure Mrs. Webb resolved to devote her talents to practical account; and, after taking lessons in elocution, delivered dramatic readings with great success before American audiences. She is accredited to the Duchess of Sutherland by Mrs. Stowe, who has dramatized her own novel of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for Mrs. Webb's especial benefit.

  During the first portion of the readings on Monday there was not much to strike the observer. All that could be said was that Mrs. Webb had a remarkably sweet and flexible voice, apparently without much power; that she displayed considerable feeling in the rendering of particular passages; and that she was careful on the side of restraint rather than exuberance. There was nothing to excite the sympathies of the observer very violently; and had the readings terminated here,


the reader would have made a pleasant impression and no more. In the second part, however, Mrs. Webb showed that she possessed considerable and rather peculiar dramatic power. With very little gesticulation, and simply by judicious modulations of the voice, combined with earnest and effective delivery, she gave great effect to the last dark, powerful scenes of the drama. The manner in which Cassy's story was told was especially pathetic; and although, from its length, it threatened to be tedious, the attention of the audience seldom flagged. But Mrs. Webb was most successful in the character of Tom himself. The hoarse negro voice, the solemn tones—those of a man living in the world which seems to be a perpetual contradiction to the laws of that God in whom he firmly believes—were very striking. The piety, the resignation, the humility, and, at the same time, the confidence of Tom's character were brought out fully. The singing of the hymns was remarkably effective. The peculiar negro intonation, the struggle after correctness of melody, the solemn meaning which the singer threw into the words, gave great prominence to this portion of the readings. It was a mixture of solemnity and pathos quite indescribable; and it was evident that Mrs. Webb had, in the latter part of the entertainment, regained a portion of that confidence which she had lost at the commencement. She was heartily applauded. We understand that she has produced a great sensation in America by reading portions of "Hiawatha," dressed in Indian costume. We can easily imagine that the peculiarity of her delivery would be well adapted to that curious poem. It is unlucky for Mrs. Webb that she has visited London just as "all the world," that is to say, the small fraction of London which is the peculiar patron of entertainments of this kind, is absent, or going to be absent. Nevertheless, we trust that there will be enough friends of the dark races left in London to carry out to a successful termination the attempt which the Duchess of Sutherland has so kindly and powerfully assisted.