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BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL NOTICES
WYCHERLEY, CONGREVE, VANBRUGH,
BY LEIGH HUNT.
WYCHERLEY. TN collecting materials for the following lives, an eye has been had to the discovery I of such additional facts, however small or even collateral in their interest, as might result from a diligent perusal of the works of the authors, and a reference to the literature of their age ; and, accordingly, some have been procured, which it is hoped will not be unwelcome to the lovers of genius and of books.
The same wish to render the volume as complete as lay in the power of those concerned in it, has led also to the selection of such passages from the miscellaneous writings of the authors, as the editor, in the indulgence of a habit of that kind, felt an impulse to mark with his pen. Critical notices have been added to the biographical ; and, at the conclusion of the whole, a general estimate has been attempted of their comparative merits, together with some idea of the moral spirit in which they deserve to be read.
WILLIAM WYCHERLEY, the earliest of these chiefs of our Prose Drama, was eldest son of Daniel Wycherley, Esquire, a gentleman of some property at Clive, near Shrewsbury, afterwards one of the tellers of the Exchequer; and he was born in that village about the year 1640. His ancestors have been traced, as residents on the spot, as far back as the reign of Henry the Fourth ; but we believe nothing has been known of the family since our Author's time. A correspondent of the “Gentleman's Magazine," who in the year 1796 took the drawing of their house, from an engraving of which our vignette has been copied, says it had been a handsome structure, but left in great measure to go to decay, and the remainder clumsily turned into a farm-house. The walnut-tree in the print was said to have been planted by Wycherley, but he could not vouch for the truth of the report *.
The future dramatist appears to have received the rudiments of education, either at home or in the neighbourhood ; and instead of going to the university at the early period of life then customary, probably owing to its heterodox condition under Cromwell, was sent at the age of fifteen, or thereabouts, to the banks of the Charente in France, where he was introduced to the reigning circles of the Rambouillets and Montausiers, who converted him to the continental orthodoxy, or creed of the church of Rome. His theologian on the occasion, a natural one enough to a susceptible youth, is said to have been the Duchess de Montausier, better known to posterity as Julie d'Angennes, for whom the French poets composed the famous “ Garland ;” or still better, as the Mademoiselle Rambouillet of the Ménages and Voitures, the presiding divinity of the précieuse style of wit which was so pleasantly overthrown by Molière. But the Duke her husband, the prototype of Molière's “ Misanthrope," and consequently of Wycherley's own “Plain Dealer," was himself a convert from the Huguenots; for whose church, while he was only a younger brother, he had been educated; and as he had that strong turn of his own for the didactic, which afterwards made him so severe a tutor to the Dauphin, it is not improbable, that although his wife had a singularly staid reputation for a leader of French fashions, and he himself was a most Grandisonian and self-satisfied personage, he would be no uninterested spectator of these enlightenments of the boudoir.
On his return to England, our Author, at the Restoration, became a fellowcommoner of Queen's College, Oxford ; “ but wore not a gown,” says Wood; “only lived in the Provost's lodgings, being entered in the public library under the title of Philosophia Studiosus, in July 1660;” and he departed, the same authority informs us, without being matriculated, or taking a degree; though not without having been re-converted to the Protestant faith by Dr. afterwards Bishop Barlow, a shrewd casuist of those times, who contrived to keep his fellowship under the Puritans, though he had bantered their university proceedings in a pamphlet. We shall see, however, that this re-conversion was not our Author's last.
On leaving college, he entered himself of the Middle Temple, probably with little or no intention of studying the law; for according to the dates furnished by Pope, and repeated to him again and again by Wycherley himself, he must have written his first play, “Love in a Wood,” the year before he went to Oxford, when he was nineteen, and his second, the “ Gentleman Dancing-Master,” the year after his arrival; -proofs of earliness of production, common to dramatists of his class, and no less explanatory of much of their character and defects, than creditable to their natural genius. At twenty-five he wrote the “ Plain Dealer,” which shows his acquaintance with courts of law; and two-and-thirty was the date of his concluding play, the “ Country Wife;" by which time he had completed that intimacy with the town, which had weaned him alike from the huffish foppery and self-complacency of the “young gentlemen” of his first piece, and the equally mistaken, though sincerer, endeavour to be misanthropic in the second ; leaving him, he thought, a shrewd, solid, and modest superiority to both, in the quiet impudence of the character of Horner. If Wycherley did not speak laxly of these dates to Pope, or imply a completeness in
their composition which only resulted from subsequent handling, none of his plays appeared either on the stage or in print till some years after they were written. When finally collected into a volume, or at least in one of the single-volume editions of the booksellers, their chronological order was reversed. The earliest was put last, and the “Country Wife” first ; doubtless in consideration of what was held to be most attractive.*
It is curious to think of the young theological proselyte returning to England, only to plunge into gay company and the playhouses, and write his comedy of “ Love in a Wood." He goes in like manner to the university to be made a Protestant, and compose the “Gentleman Dancing-Master.” And as he seems to have become a student-at-law for the sole purpose of drawing the character of Widow Blackacre in the “Plain Dealer,” so the trip to sea which he took, on occasion of one of our fights with the Dutch, appears to have been for no end but to write some verses denouncing its horrors, and to make his hero the Plain Dealer a sea-captain. This event in his life he has recorded in the title of the verses alluded tot. He most probably went as a volunteer, a circumstance not unusual with the gentry of that period; and for a reason we shall give when we come to speak of the play, we guess the fight to have been that with Opdam, the same in which his friend Lord Dorset was present, and that occasioned the gay verses, “ To all you ladies now at land." It is no common evidence of the manliness and philosophy of Wycherley's turn of mind at this early period of life, (unless, indeed, it was the wit of a candid effeminacy,) that his presence on so triumphant an occasion gave him no sort of prejudice in favour of the glories of war; nor even led him, with the pardonable vanity of youth, to boast of his own share in them. Indeed he makes no mention of himself at all, except in the title of the poem. He merely seems to have thought both parties engaged in a truly infernal business.
From the period of this event in his life we know of no other till the appearance of “Love in a Wood," in the year 1672. This brought him acquainted with the Duchess of Cleveland, and it is said, in a very curious manner. The story is, that this celebrated mistress of Charles the Second, who took publicity so easily that she would
* “ The chronology of Wycherley's plays I am well acquainted with," says Pope, “ for he told it me over and over. “Love in a Wood' he wrote when he was but nineteen ; The Gentleman Dancing-Master, at twenty-one ; . The Plain Dealer,' at twenty-five; and “The Country Wife,' at one or two and thirty.”Spence's Anecdotes, (Singer's edit.) p. 161. We believe this to have been the order of the compositions of Wycherley, notwithstanding the contradiction afforded to it by some of the original dates of their printed publication, and its apparent refutation in one of the scenes of tho “ Plain-Dealer;" that is to say, we have made up our miod, in common with later critics, that the author did actually write his plays in this order, however ho may have chosen to have them acted in another. A doubt (which turned out to be true) of the public acceptability of the character of Manly, in the “ Plain Dealer,” might easily bave kept that comedy back, till the later composition, the “ Country Wife,” was performed; and this previous performance would as easily account for the allusion to the “ Country Wife," subsequently added to the “Plain Dealer," when the latter was brought out. In the volume, however, now presented to the public, we have adopted the printed order, as the one the more consistent with appearances. The critical reader can still, if he pleases, go through the plays in the order in which we suppose the author to have written them.
† Posthumous Works, p. 235._"On a Sea-Fight, which the Author was in, betwixt the English and Dutch."
lie back asleep in her coach along Hyde Park with her mouth wide open, called out to Wycherley's coach in Pall-Mall from her own coach-window, soon after his play had been acted, and upon the strength of a compliment which he had paid in it to the wit and spirit of natural children, saluted him by the plainest title of affiliation with which the illegitimate of the mercenary are wont to be greeted. Wycherley, agreeably to what was considered “ good fortune" in those days, stopped his carriage, and turned, and came up with “ the lady” (as Clarendon used to call her), and the dialogue is recorded to have proceeded in the following manner.
“Madam,” said Wycherley, “ you have been pleased to bestow a title on me which belongs only to the fortunate. Will your ladyship be at the play to-night ?”
“Well," answered the duchess, “what if I am there ?"
“Why, then,” replied Wycherley, “I will be there to wait on your ladyship, though I disappoint a fine woman, who has made me an assignation.” [O loving and delicate age of Charles the Second !]
“So,” exclaimed the lady, “you are sure to disappoint a woman who has favoured you, for one who has not ?"
“Yes," returned he, “if the one who has not favoured me is the finer woman of the two! But he who can be constant to your ladyship till he can find a finer, is sure to die your captive.”
And so, with this climax of common-place, and a conviction on both sides that there was no heart in the matter, these two poor people were bound to meet at the play, as they did, and to “make as if” they were full of love and tenderness.- Voltaire, in his “ Letters on the English Nation,” says, that the duchess used to go to Wycherley's chambers in the Temple, dressed like a country maid, in a straw hat, with pattens on, and a box or basket in her hand.
Pope, according to Spence, related the story of the meeting in a different, and probably truer manner; for Dennis's version has a taste of the literary cookery of the time. “Wycherley,” said Pope, “ was a very handsome man. His acquaintance with the famous Duchess of Cleveland commenced oddly enough. One day, as he passed that duchess's coach in the Ring, she leaned out of the windows, and cried out loud enough to be heard distinctly by him, “Sir, you're a rascal; you're a villain!' (Most probably Spence, in one of his fits of dulness, had forgotten the real appellation.) Wycherley from that instant entertained hopes! He did not fail waiting on her the next morning; and, with a very melancholy tone, begged to know how it was possible for him to have so much disobliged her grace?” (Upon which, of course, the explanation of the allusion would take place.) “They were very good friends from that time; yet, after all,” concludes the poet with naïveté, “what did he get by her ?” (A very natural question.) “He was to have travelled with the young Duke of Richmond. King Charles gave him, now and then, a hundred pounds, not
Wycherley, however, was so proud of this intimacy, that an offence which Cleveland's cousin the Duke of Buckingham took against him, might be traced to the foppery of his dedication of the play to her, without enlisting in the matter a personal jealousy that might have had no sort of foundation: for, though the duke is said not to have been without his gallantries towards the royal mistress, there was in general little love lost between those two noble personages. Wycherley, in this dedication, repeatedly speaks in strong and exulting language of the “favours” which her grace had shown him; and though he explains these favours to mean her having been to see his play two nights running, yet the vanity natural to a young author, the story already in circulation (according to Dennis), and the equivocal acceptation of the word, might combine to create a suspicion of its being intended to convey a more triumphant meaning; and the fashionable circles might be offended, whatever was the case with the lady. Be this as it may, mutual friends succeeded in doing away the offence ; and Buckingham, pleased with a wit and conversation which no man knew better how to appreciate, took the startled offender under his patronage. He gave him a commission in his regiment; made him one of his equerries, as master of the horse ; and helped to bring him into such intimacy with the king, that besides the bounties abovementioned, Charles visited him while lying ill of a fever at his lodgings in Bow-street; recommended him to try the air of Montpelier for the recovery of his health (which he did); and what will astonish those who are acquainted with the exchequer-accounts of that reign, presented him with five hundred pounds to defray the expenses of the journey. But probably it was the fair hand of the duchess that opened the pursestrings on this occasion, grateful for some wit and sincerity of companionship which she could not procure at court ; for Wycherley was a better man than he seemed in his writings; and his heart, albeit through his vanity, could not help being touched perhaps by such circumstances as Voltaire relates, and which are not at all incompatible with what is known of the manners of the time. As to the royal third party, he had infidelities enough of his own to warrant him in pardoning those of one of his mistresses, perhaps even to induce him to desire them, in order to save him from her reproaches. Charles had such an esteem for Wycherley as even to wish him to be tutor to his son the Duke of Richmond, whom he spoke of bringing up like a prince ; but we shall see how this appointment was prevented. What, in all probability, crowned the favour of Wycherley at court, as long as it lasted, was the reputation which he had acquired for sincerity and manly feeling, and which must have given a very rare character to his homage.
Meantime, while these events had been growing, our author had produced on the stage, and published, his three other plays,—the “ Gentleman Dancing-Master,” in 1673, the “Country Wife” in 1675, and the “ Plain Dealer,” in 1677* For want of a date for the event we are now about to speak of, we are inclined to put Wycherley's first marriage soon after the appearance of the last of the three; for the “ Plain Dealer” was the occasion of it; and the circumstance with which the story commences looks as if the play had been but newly published. The once formidable Dennis, the critic, is again the authority for these amatory matters. It is curious that
* These dates are taken from the “ Biographia Dramatica,” pot the very best authority, except where corroborated; but in some later accounts no regard bas been had to the variety of editions. Any date, met with, has been assumed to be the first.