Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s satirical School for Scandal (1777) was inspired by his own experience of being the subject of scandalous news. This report describes Sheridan’s duels with Captain Thomas Mathews in the summer of 1772. The fights were provoked by Mathews’s pursuit of Elizabeth Ann Linley (1754‒1792), a beautiful young soprano from Bath, who later became Sheridan’s wife.
The spat played out in the papers when Mathews published insults and apologies, and journalists seized on the details in sensational stories like this. This article uses initials (‘Miss L’, ‘Mr M’, ‘Mr S’) to describe all these people, but most readers would have known who they really were.
Reports of a ‘duel’ in The School for Scandal
These inflated reports inspired Sheridan’s duel scenes in The Rivals (1775) and the brilliant Act 5, Scene 2 in The School for Scandal. In that scene, Sir Benjamin Backbite and his uncle Crabtree swap absurd, conflicting stories about a near-fatal duel that we know never happened. The episode seems to highlight the three-way interaction between real-life drama, scandalous news and 18th-century theatre.
The background: The Maid of Bath
In 1771, Eliza Linley was engaged to Walter Long, a wealthy older man from Wiltshire. But they broke off the engagement, and Long paid her father £3,000 to compensate for the lost deal. The couple inspired Samuel Foote’s play The Maid of Bath (1771), and Foote’s title was used to describe Eliza in press reports like this one.
Sheridan’s duels with Captain Mathews
Eliza was then hounded by the married Captain Mathews, and she hatched a plan to escape to a convent in France in March 1772. The 20-year-old Richard Sheridan, a family friend in Bath, agreed to escort her. On the way he proposed, and ‒ although they were both underage ‒ they were secretly married near Calais.
Back in England, Captain Mathews denounced Sheridan as a ‘treacherous S[coundrel]’ in the Bath Chronicle, 9 April 1772. When Sheridan returned and saw this, he challenged Mathews to a duel. The fight took place by candlelight in the Castle Tavern in London. As the winner, Sheridan forced Mathews to print a retraction in the Bath Chronicle on 7 May.
But Mathews went on lying about his defeat, and they fought another drunken duel at dawn on 2 July. Mathews stabbed Sheridan repeatedly, and left him for dead in Kingsdown near Bath. Sheridan was treated by surgeons at a nearby tavern and then taken home by his sisters. He distracted himself by reading the melodramatic reports, saying ‘I wish to know whether I am dead or alive’.
 The story is related by Sheridan’s sister, Alicia Le Fanu, in her Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mrs Frances Sheridan (London, 1824), p. 406.