Congreve in His Letters

William Congreve: Letters & Documents

collected and edited by John C. Hodges
Harcourt, Brace & World, 259 pp., $6.75

As a playwright, Congreve still calls for more precise definition; as a man he is all but lost to us. Nor does any mere disguise blot out the man: what we have is more like an empty chair. And though few would deny that The Way of the World is the most brilliant artificial comedy in the language, Congreve seems to leave the critic as indifferent as he leaves the biographer stranded. Occasional stage revivals aside, Congreve has become a boneyard for the academic scholar who contrives that every small gain in substance shall mean a falling off in style, that every new effort to resurrect him shall be another interment. But if an effort to make flesh and blood of the man must clearly fail, there being nothing left to work with, just as clearly Congreve’s temperament and relation to his age, Congreve’s talent and relation to his art, could be asserted by some one consanguineous and perceptive enough.

Professor Hodges, twenty years ago in his biographical William Congreve the Man, and now in Letters & Documents, has scrupulously burrowed to bring to light many small new facts about Congreve’s background and associations. But even such scholarly perseverance can scarcely turn up much more; nor in its kind can we want much. Of the 157 letters and documents brought together here—many of them about Congreve rather than by him—twenty are “new”; but a number of these are mere laundry lists, none lets in new light, none furnishes clues to a new approach. What is of real value is our having all this related material in one volume.

There is something noteworthy about how many of England’s wittier and worldlier creative writers—whether Drydon or Pope, whether Thackeray or Trollope—have been disappointing, where not downright uninteresting, writers of letters; and Congreve is of their company. With Congreve, moreover, there is hardly more substance than sheen. He very little portrays his age, and almost never uniquely. To a Swift or Pope he writes too formally, to Robert Keally and other friends, too factually; while to the two women who occupied large if often dimly lighted places in his life—the actress Anne Bracegirdle and Henrietta Duchess of Marlborough—not one word that he wrote has survived.

In how little they reveal or are meant to, Congreve’s letters do represent him—as, at least, a discreet, detached, unillusioned worldling of a particular era. From an acquaintance with the surfaces of the polite world he inferred the secrets of those who inhabited it. These discoveries became in some measure the stuff of his plays; his letters, on the other hand, are bland, rather bored, sometimes boring. The writer is all but effaced, and the man keeps his distance. There is no assertive sense of a man-about-town or a drawing-room wit (perhaps gout and failing eyesight kept Congreve from often being one). Temperamentally he tends to look backward, with a touch of Horace, toward LaRochefoucauld or Halifax …

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