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AS the Victorian Age grows dim on the horizon, various 12 neglected luminaries reëmerge—among others the comic dramatists of the Restoration. The work of Sheridan begins to be taken at its true value—as a clever but emasculated rifacimento; the supreme master of prose comedy in English is seen to be Congreve..
to Lytm strachry WILLIAM CONGREVE 1
WILLIAM CONGREVE came of one of the old landowning families described, or rather catalogued, by Sheridan in the picture scene of The School for Scandal; families which, from generation to generation, produced judges, generals, parliament men and justices of the peace; families in which knighthoods were plentiful, and from which the House of Peers was commonly recruited. Though Staffordshire was the home of his race, he was born at Bardsey, near Leeds, where he was baptized on February tenth, 1669-1670. His father, also named William, was a soldier, and, soon after the poet's birth, was given a command at Youghal in Ireland. In Ireland, therefore, young Congreve was brought up. At the age of eleven or thereabouts he went to Kilkenny School, then the Eton of Ireland, where, for some months, he had Jonathan Swift for a schoolfellow. Probably, however, the friendship of the two men dates from their association at Trinity College, Dublin, whither Congreve
1 An excellent bibliography of the writings of Congreve by J. P. Anderson of the British Museum is attached as an appendix to Mr. Gosse's volume on Congreve in Great Writers. The plays of Congreve were first collected with his other works in Dublin, 1731, 3 vols. Two years later a London edition appeared. The last modern editions are those of Leigh Hunt (with Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar), 1840, and of A. C. Ewald in the Mermaid Series, 1887. Mr. Gosse's Life, already mentioned (London, 1888), and the article by Sir Sidney Lee in The Dictionary of National Biography, 1887, vol. XII, are trustworthy biographies,
CONGREVE - I
proceeded in 1685. Though we do not hear of his attaining any academical distinction, he became a good classical scholar after the seventeenth-century pattern, familiar with Latin literature and not ignorant of Greek. At Trinity College, too, he is said to have made his first essay in authorship, in the form of a novel named Incognita; or, Love and Duty Reconciled, which was not published until 1692. After the Revolution of 1688, both Congreve and Swift came to England, and Congreve seems never to have recrossed the Irish Channel.
He passed two years in the country; for the most part, no doubt, at the family seat of Stratton in Staffordshire. It was during these years, and probably in the summer of 1690, that he wrote The Old Bachelor, “to amuse himself” as he afterwards said, "in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness.” On March seventeenth, 1691, he was entered at the Middle Temple, and began, or ought to have begun, the study of the law; but as we find him in the autumn of 1692"an accepted poet” and a prominent collaborator in the translation of Juvenal and Persius published under Dryden's editorship, it is doubtful whether he ever seriously intended to adopt the legal profession. There must have been something very ingratiating in his personality, for the country youth was soon an intimate friend of the great John Dryden, and of several other literary leaders, who hailed him, on astonishingly scanty evidence, as the rising hope of English poetry. Revised and polished by Dryden and Southerne, The Old Bachelor was produced at Drury Lane in January, 1693, and was instantly successful. From Betterton downwards, all the first actors and actresses of the day were engaged in it; and Anne Bracegirdle, the beautiful, the lovable, the discreet, played Congreve's first heroine, as she was to play all the rest.
The young poet was overwhelmed with eulogies; but it is doubtful whether he was "instantly,” as Macaulay and Thackeray have stated, given a post of profit in the Civil Service. That in the course of his life he held several such posts' is certain; but a couplet of Swift's,
“And crazy Congreve scarce could spare
A shilling to discharge his chair”—
seems to indicate that for some time, and even after his health had broken down about the end of the century, he was in straitened circumstances. It must be remembered that the dramatist of those days was not paid by royalties constantly rolling in, but by the profits of certain stated performances. The sale of the printed play was often worth at least as much to him as his share of the theatrical receipts. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt that Congreve was in the main fortunate in money matters, as in everything else save health. He enjoyed fat offices during the latter part of his life; he was an unmarried man, and his relations with women, so far as they are known, seem to have been characterized by a good deal of worldly prudence. One might almost call them suspiciously inexpensive.
1 Commissioner for licensing Hackney Coaches; Commissioner for Wine Licences; place in the Pipe Office; post in the Custom House; Secretary of Jamaica. (Thackeray's enumeration.)
Congreve, however, was in a position to secure exceptional terms, and had at different times an actual share in the management of the theatres in Lincoln's Inn Fields and in the Haymarket.