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Congreve: The Most Elegant, Subtle Writer of His Time

The Works of William Congreve

edited by D.F. McKenzie, prepared for publication by C.Y. Ferdinand
Oxford University Press, three volumes, 2,200 pp., $495.00

1.

Shortly after the opening of John Vanbrugh’s comedy of 1697, The Provoked Wife, two ladies discuss what they would do if they discovered their husbands were unfaithful. The first lady declares that she would pay him back in his own coin, but the second protests that we are taught to return good for evil. On thinking this over, the first lady remarks, “That may be a mistake in the translation.” The new independence of women could affect even biblical criticism.

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Granger Collection
William Congreve, circa 1709, from the studio of Godfrey Kneller

This registers an important change in the relation of the sexes. Women could now openly claim the same entitlement to sexual pleasure that had always been taken for granted by men. Nowhere is this shown so clearly as in the English comedies of the last quarter of the seventeenth century—perhaps because women were at last permitted to be seen on the stage. It is not until the accession of Charles II in 1660 that female parts were taken by actresses (in Shakespeare’s time, even Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth were played by boys or young men.) Now some male parts were often played by women and the practice was very popular (one could appreciate female anatomy better in male attire than in the ladies’ robes then current).

William Congreve comes late in the development of a new kind of comedy with a much more open treatment of sexual matters. The new edition of his works, edited by D.F. McKenzie, does him full justice. It identifies and explains every topical allusion and informs us of every word that has slightly changed its meaning during the intervening centuries. All that Congreve wrote is printed in an accurate text, and everything written or said about him during his lifetime is made available. His debt to his predecessors, including Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, is acknowledged and displayed.

Of all the British writers of his time, Congreve was the most elegant, complex, and subtle; but without the frank grossness of many of his contemporaries, he would not have been able to achieve his original strokes. The most important of his immediate predecessors is William Wycherley. The play where Wycherley deals with a delicate problem—sexual impotence—with an admirable lack of delicacy is The Country Wife (1675). Jack Horner (i.e., cuckold-maker), returning from abroad, pretends to have become a eunuch so husbands will leave their wives alone in his company with complete confidence. His plan works splendidly—only too well, in fact, until it threatens to explode when Horner invites Lady Fidget to see his collection of “china.” She locks the door behind them, and her husband, Sir Jasper Fidget, arrives. He wants to know if there is another way to get into the room. The scene continues and builds to a grand climax; here is a much abridged version:

Mistress Squeamish: Sir Jasper, your servant; where is the odious beast?
Sir Jasper: He’s within, in his chamber, with my wife; she’s playing the wag with him.
Mistress Squeamish: Is she so? and he’s a clownish beast, he’ll give her no quarter; he’ll play the wag with her again, let me tell you. Come, let’s go help her—what, the door’s locked!
Sir Jasper: Ay, my wife locked it—
Mistress Squeamish: Did she so? Let us break it open then.
Sir Jasper: No, no, he’ll do her no hurt.
Mistress Squeamish: No…(Aside) But is there no other way to get into ’em? Whither goes this? I will disturb ’em.

Sir Jasper calls through the door to his Wife, and she answers from within:

Sir Jasper: Wife, my Lady Fidget, wife, he is coming in to you the back way.
Lady Fidget: Let him come, and welcome, which way he will.
Sir Jasper: He’ll catch you, and use you roughly, and be too strong for you.
Lady Fidget: Don’t you trouble yourself; let him if he can.

Enter Lady Fidget with a piece of china in her hand, and Horner following:

Lady Fidget: And I have been toiling and moiling for the prettiest piece of china, my dear.
Horner: Nay, she has been too hard for me, do what I could.
Mistress Squeamish: Oh Lord, I’ll have some china too, good Mr Horner—don’t think to give other people china, and me none. Come in with me too.
Horner: Upon my honour, I have none left now.

Wycherley continues to milk this joke for all that it’s worth:

Mrs. Squeamish: Nay, nay, I have known you deny your china before now; but you shan’t put me off so. Come—
Horner: This lady had the last there.
Lady Fidget: Yes indeed, madam; to my certain knowledge he has no more left.
Mistress Squeamish: Oh, but it may be he may have some you could not find.
Lady Fidget: What, d’y’ think if he had had any left, I would not have had it too? For we women of quality never think we have china enough.
Horner: Do not take it ill; I cannot make china for you all, but I will have a rolwagen for you too, another time….
Old Lady Squeamish: Poor Mr Horner, he has enough to doe to please you all, I see.
Horner: Ay madam, you see how they use me.
Old Lady Squeamish: Poor gentleman, I pity you.
Horner: I thank you, madam; I could never find pity; but from such reverend ladies as you are; the young ones will never spare a man.

A century earlier Montaigne had complained that women were forced by the rules of society made by men to pretend that they had no interest in the pleasures of sex. With the arrival of the actress in Restoration comedy, we can see the modest beginnings of an emancipation from this imposed hypocrisy clearly delineated in this climactic scene of Wycherley’s The Country Wife. “We women of quality never think we have China enough” is not a shame-faced confession but a proud affirmation.

2.

The new realism made possible both a more searching (often more cynical) criticism of society and a more complex view of the psychology of men and women. In the last of the four comedies of Congreve, The Way of the World (1700), it resulted in the most brilliant portrait of a young woman in English dramatic literature, surpassing even Shakespeare’s Cleopatra.

The basis of the The Way of the World is not original with Congreve; it derives ultimately from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, with Beatrice and Benedick, the couple who insult and torment one another throughout the play until the end when they fall into one another’s arms. This was imitated widely during the Restoration with brilliant examples from John Dryden and George Etherege. The device was given a name at the time, “the gay couple,” no longer available to us for obvious reasons.

The difference in The Way of the World is that the heroine is dominant and overshadows the hero. Millamant is superior not only in wit and personality, but also in fortune (Mrs.—mistress—does not mean a married or widowed woman, but applies to any woman of good social standing without an aristocratic title). It is she who is wealthy, but her fortune is under the control of her aunt, Lady Wishfort. The main action of the play is the intrigue to force the aged aunt to release the fortune so Millamant can marry her lover, Mirabell.

This old woman is obsessed with a desire to marry a young man herself, and she is the only other character in the play painted with the vivid colors of Millamant. When Lady Wishfort is cosmetically prepared to meet a possible suitor, her maid observes, “Your Ladiship has frown’d a little too rashly, indeed Madam. There are some Cracks discernable in the white Vernish.” Consulting a mirror, Lady Wishfort replies, “I look like an old peel’d Wall,” and commands the maid to make her resemble the miniature of her painted many years before. Congreve’s treatment of the aunt is brilliant but merciless.

In none of Congreve’s comedies does the heroine appear before the second act. In The Way of the World, however, the public is prepared for her in act 1, scene 3, by a long speech of Mirabell:

I like her with all her Faults; nay, like her for her Faults. Her Follies are so natural, or so artful, that they become her; and those Affectations which in another Woman wou’d be odious, serve but to make her more agreeable…. She once us’d me with that Insolence, that in Revenge I took her to pieces; sifted her, and separated her Failings; I study’d ’em, and got ’em by Rote. The Catalogue was so large, that I was not without Hopes, one Day or other to hate her heartily: To which end I so us’d my self to think of ’em, that at length, contrary to my Design and Expectation, they gave me ev’ry Hour less and less Disturbance; ’till in a few Days it became habitual to me, to remember ’em without being displeas’d. They are now grown as familiar to me as my own Frailties; and in all probability in a little time longer I shall like ’em as well.

When Mrs. Millamant, with her maid, Mincing, finally appears in act 2, scene 5, she immediately exhibits the faults and frailties that must have been catalogued by Mirabell—insolence, cruelty, scorn, egotism, frivolity—but all portrayed in a light that strangely makes her attractive, even lovable. Arriving late for a rendezvous in St. James’s Park with a few friends, she launches at once into an explanation of her lateness with a camp babble that is intended to be taken seriously by nobody:

Millamant: Mincing, what had I? Why was I so long?… O ay, Letters—I had Letters—I am persecuted with Letters—I hate Letters—No Body knows how to write Letters; and yet one has ’em, one does not know why—They serve one to pin up one’s Hair.

A friend protests that if he knew that is what she did with all her letters, he would keep copies:

Millamant: Only with those in Verse, Mr. Witwoud. I never pin up my Hair with Prose. I fancy ones Hair wou’d not curl if it were pinn’d up with Prose. I think I try’d once.

She then turns her attention to her lover, who had been irritated at being ignored by her the evening before, and she wishes to pay him back for the implied criticism of her behavior:

Millamant: Mirabell, did you not take Exceptions last night? O ay, and went away—now I think on’t I’m angry—No, now I think on’t I’m pleas’d—For I believe I gave you some Pain.
Mirabell: Does that please you?
Millamant: Infinitely; I love to give Pain…. Ones Cruelty is ones Power, and when one parts with ones Cruelty, one parts with ones Power; and when one has parted with that, I fancy one’s old and ugly.
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Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
Joshua Reynolds: Mrs Abington as Miss Prue in Congreve’s ‘Love for Love,’ 1771

Mirabell replies that her beauty and power depend on the praises of her lovers, but she rejects that with a magnificent flash of scorn:

Millamant: O the Vanity of these Men! …Beauty the Lover’s Gift—Lord, what is a Lover, that it can give? Why one makes Lovers as fast as one pleases, and they live as long as one pleases, and they die as soon as one pleases: And then if one pleases one makes more.

A minute later in a private conversation, she takes revenge on his disapproval of her behavior with the barbed question, “What wou’d you give, that you cou’d help loving me?”

Before he has finished speaking, she leaves him suddenly with the words “think of me.” Left to himself, he muses:

Gone—Think of you! To think of a Whirlwind, tho’ ’twere in a Whirlwind, were a Case of more steady Contemplation; a very Tranquility of Mind and Mansion…. To know this, and yet continue to be in Love, is to be made wise from the Dictates of Reason, and yet persevere to play the Fool by the force of Instinct—

She does not like criticism but rejects approbation as well. She often repeats to herself fine lines of poetry from an earlier generation but when someone remarks on her interest in Sir John Suckling, she ungraciously retorts, “Filthy verses.”

3.

In the end, Millamant is the whirlwind to which Mirabell must pay tribute, in the most famous scene of the Restoration theater, where the two of them affirm the conditions they would lay down for marriage. (In his commentary, McKenzie writes, “The scene has many precedents, if none so fine.”)

These pages can be interpreted as an acceptance of a marriage proposal, or as a negotiation for a marriage contract, or as a descriptive analysis and criticism of the upper-class society of its time, but they have a further meaning that displays the dramatic genius of Congreve. I must selectively quote enough of the scene for this to become apparent. It opens with Millamant’s declarations that she will never be taken for granted:

No—I’ll fly and be follow’d to the last Moment; tho’ I am upon the very Verge of Matrimony, I expect you should sollicit me as much as if I were wavering at the Grate of a Monastery, with one Foot over the Threshold. I’ll be sollicited to the very last, nay, and afterwards.

She broaches the conditions of marriage with a challenge:

Ah! I’ll never marry, unless I am first made sure of my Will and Pleasure.

Mirabell responds ironically, adding a sexual innuendo:

Would you have ‘em both before Marriage? Or will you be contented with the first now, and stay for the other ’till after Grace?

This exchange implies that they have not yet slept together. Reformation comedy is popularly credited with celebrating promiscuity, and it is true that any wife or widow is considered fair game, but there seems to be an unwritten rule that one does not have sex with the woman one intends to marry.

To which Millamant snaps quickly back, “Ah, don’t be impertinent,” and then proceeds at once to enumerate her conditions very much like an operatic soprano in a bravura aria that displays all of Congreve’s eloquence:

Millamant: My dear Liberty, shall I leave thee? My faithful Solitude, my darling Contemplation, must I bid you then Adieu? Ay-h, adieu—My Morning Thoughts, agreeable Wakings, indolent Slumbers, all ye douceurs, ye Someils du Matin, adieu—I can’t do’t, ’tis more than impossible—positively, Mirabell, I’ll lye a-bed in a Morning as long as I please…. And d’ye hear, I won’t be call’d Names after I’m Marry’d; positively I won’t be call’d Names.
Mirabell: Names!
Millamant: Ay, as Wife, Spouse, my Dear, Joy, Jewel, Love, Sweet-heart, and the rest of that nauseous Cant, in which Men and their Wives are so fulsomely familiar,—I shall never bear that—Good Mirabell don’t let us be familiar or fond, nor kiss before Folks…. Let us never Visit together, nor go to a Play together, but let us be very strange and well bred: Let us be as strange as if we had been marry’d a great while, and as well bred as if we were not marry’d at all.

It is clear that she has no intention of permitting marriage to change her way of life in the least. When Mirabell asks, “Have you any more conditions to offer? Hitherto your Demands are pretty reasonable,” she replies by enlarging on her decision to keep her unmarried habits and privileges absolutely unaltered:

Millamant: Trifles,—as Liberty to pay and receive Visits to and from whom I please; to write and receive Letters, without Interrogatories or wry Faces on your part; to wear what I please, and chuse Conversation with regard only to my own Taste; to have no Obligation upon me to converse with Wits that I don’t like, because they are your Acquaintance; or to be intimate with Fools, because they may be your Relations. Come to Dinner when I please, dine in my Dressing-Room when I’m out of Humour, without giving a Reason. To have my Closet inviolate; to be sole Empress of my Tea-Table, which you must never presume to approach without first asking leave. And lastly, where-ever I am, you shall always knock at the Door before you come in. These Articles subscrib’d, if I continue to endure you a little longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a Wife.

The last sentence is perhaps the most often quoted line of late-seventeenth-century English comedy.

Mirabell finds her “Bill of Fare somewhat advanc’d in this latter account.” His own demands are less revolutionary than Millamant’s, particularly her refusal to have anything to do with her husband’s kinsmen if they are fools. Her conditions are entirely about herself and her freedom; his are little else than an attempt to prevent her from engaging in the most outlandish, unattractive, and scandalous practices of well-to-do women at the time, among these the wearing of masks and the exaggeratedly heavy use of cosmetics (“Item, I Article, that you continue to like your own Face, as long as I shall: that you endeavour not to new Coin it”).

The most personal condition that he makes is that she should not have the kind of female confidant who would arrange secret affairs for her behind his back:

No Decoy-Duck to wheedle you a Fop—scrambling to the Play in a Mask—Then bring you home in a pretended Fright, when you think you shall be found out—And rail at me for missing the Play, and disappointing the Frolick which you had to pick me up and prove my Constancy.

Millamant makes little objection to his provisos, but they betray his fear of her unpredictable character. Her fear, on the other hand, is the consciousness that marriage will inevitably diminish her.

It remains for Millamant to accept the proposal. I had not known before reading McKenzie’s commentary that to accept before a third person at that time made the decision final and legally irrevocable. The third person arrives—Mrs. Fainall, Millamant’s cousin and the daughter of Lady Wishfort, formerly a widow who became Mirabell’s mistress, but who is now married to one of his friends, and would like to blacken Millamant’s name with a scandalous divorce and seize control of her fortune.

Millamant’s acceptance is one of the most astonishing moments of dramatic literature:

Millamant: Fainall, what shall I do? Shall I have him? I think I must have him.
Mrs. Fainall: Ay, ay, take him, take him, what shou’d you do?
Millamant: Well then—I’ll take my Death I’m in a horrid Fright—Fainall, I shall never say it—Well—I think—I’ll endure you.
Mrs. Fainall: Fy, fy, have him, and tell him so in plain Terms: for I am sure you have a Mind to him.
Millamant: Are you? I think I have—and the horrid Man looks as if he thought so too—Well, you ridiculous thing you, I’ll have you—I won’t be kiss’d, nor I won’t be thank’d—Here kiss my hand tho’—so hold your Tongue now, don’t say a word….

As he leaves, she calls out to him, “Ay, go, go. In the mean time I suppose you have said something to please me,” and Mirabell’s reply gives her what she wants: “I am all Obedience.”

Her acceptance is couched almost like a humiliating rejection, and both the sense and rhythm of her last sentences are funny and moving at the same time, and suggest that she is emotionally and morally exhausted. Yet Millamant is never both more imperial and more vulnerable than at the moment she faces diminishment into a wife. When Mirabell has gone, she suddenly tells her cousin, “Well, if Mirabell should not make a good Husband, I am a lost thing;—for I find I love him violently.”

The manner of her acceptance makes it clear that what we have just witnessed is not simply a marriage negotiation but a scene of love between two independent spirits, each one made uncomfortable or even terrified by the love he or she feels and holds at arms’ length throughout the entire scene. Since we were told earlier in the play that the two had planned to marry without her aunt’s consent although Millamant would have lost half her fortune, the marriage is a foregone conclusion. Millamant knows Mirabell cannot help loving her in spite of himself, and he knows Millamant loves him in spite of all his lecturing her on her behavior. The actual binding acceptance of marriage is only a formality, although the confirmation reveals the discomfort of the protagonists, who clearly find the institution of marriage ill-suited to the preservation of their individuality. The apparent negotiations make such an effective scene because they suggest the half-acknowledged explosive passions below the surface.

This is confirmed at the end of the play. Lady Wishfort finally releases Millamant’s fortune and approves the marriage to Mirabell, saying, “Well Sir, take her, and with her all the Joy I can give you.” One assumes that there is a slight pause, and Millamant assumes command once again, and there is a brilliant final exchange:

Millamant: Why does not the Man take me? Wou’d you have me give my self to you over again?
Mirabell: Ay, and over and over again; [Kisses her hand.] for I wou’d have you as often as possibly I can. Well, Heav’n grant I love you not too well, that’s all my Fear.

Mirabell gives a sexual meaning to Millamant’s more innocent use of the verb “give”; it is one the few moments of overt passion. His final words, however, are to be taken at face value. He is as frightened of his love as Millamant of hers. The marriage is intended as a happy ending, but Congreve’s presentation of the complex psychology of his hero and heroine does not fully convince us that the happiness is assured. He has here examined the painful incipient resentment at the heart of most love affairs, as Benjamin Constant and Marcel Proust were to do much later. Like the classically ordered alexandrine lines in the plays of his French contemporary, Jean Racine, the elegance of Congreve’s wit covers disorderly and troubling elements that violate the decorum expected of literature at the time.

4.

The role of Millamant is a wonderful gift to a great actress. I saw the play some thirty years ago with Maggie Smith, and went back to buy a ticket again two days later, something that I have done only one other time, when I heard the young Maria Callas sing Bellini’s Norma at the Rome opera. There is reason to think that the actress who created the part, Anne Bracegirdle, was, in fact, the inspiration for the role. Colley Cibber, a contemporary actor and author, wrote that if not supremely beautiful (perhaps because she was not a blond) Anne Bracegirdle was very attractive—she must have been, indeed, since she was given the role of Venus in Congreve’s The Judgment of Paris.

A few years before The Way of the World, she had appeared in a play by Thomas Southerne, The Maid’s Last Prayer, in which she was given a sensational scene as Lady Trickit, a married woman with her lover, a scene that seems to forecast aspects of Mrs. Millamant:

Sir, I won’t be suspected, I won’t be enquir’d into: a husband can do no more; and I have enough of one husband and his ill humours at home, I thank you, ever to allow of a husband abroad to torment me. Perhaps you think I can’t break with you; I wou’d have you to know, sir, I can, and will break with you and fifty more, rather than break one hour’s rest for any of you. I’ll change as often as I shift my cloaths, but I’ll light upon a man that has sense enough to value his pleasure, without invading mine. If I depended upon you indeed, and there were nobody else to be had, you might tie me to your own terms; but, make us thankful, there’s roving room enough in this dear town: I can provide myself, I warrant you.
A mistress is a name implies command:
Nor shall the scepter fail within my hand:
But if you wou’d take back that pow’r you gave,
Marry the woman you wou’d make a slave.

This has none of Millamant’s elegance or her unpredictable caprice, but it has her independence and her insolence. It is possible that Congreve was influenced by Southerne, but the similarity suggests that the actress was the model in both cases.

In a letter to Bracegirdle’s sister of September 27, 1700, Congreve writes, “I would have written to the Alcayd, but that would make me reflect that I was at a distance from her, which is pain I cannot bear”—“Alcayd” is from the Arabic “a governor,” interpreted by the editor as the one who governs Congreve, or Anne Bracegirdle. This clearly suggests a love affair. They lived on the same street for years. A comic writer of gossip, Thomas Brown, two years later reports that she dines and rides with Congreve every day but is still a virgin.

In 1707 a satirical poet claimed that they were married. He phrases it very coarsely: “But at length the poor Nymph did for justice implore/H’as married her now, tho’ he’d——her before.” This appears to be mistaken, although the belief that they were married is repeated by Thomas Brown in 1710. When Congreve developed cataracts, he was no longer able to read or write, and he went to live near the Duchess of Marlborough, who supported him. When he died in 1729, he left the duchess his fortune, £7,000 of which she used to buy a diamond necklace, and Joseph Spence remarked later, “How much better would it have been given to poor Mrs. Bracegirdle?” Indeed.

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