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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VI. The Restoration Drama

§ 11. Vanbrugh’s Life and Character

It would be difficult to find a more obvious contrast to Congreve than Sir John Vanbrugh. In the sense that Congreve was a man of letters Vanbrugh was not a man of letters at all. He was wholly unconscious of the diction, which for Congreve was a chief end of comedy. Cibber spoke the truth when he said that the best scenes of Vanbrugh’s plays “seem’d to be no more than his common conversation committed to paper.” In other words, Vanbrugh wrote as he talked, without reflection and with great good humour. But, if the gift of artistic expression were denied him, he lacked not compensations. He was a man of a bluff temper and vigorous understanding, who easily communicated to his works the energy and humour of his mind. Like many another of foreign descent, he was more English than the English, he engrossed in his own temperament the good and evil qualities of John Bull. Thus it was that he delighted in farce, not of situation but of character, and he separated himself from the other writers of comedy by a vivid talent of caricature. He overcharged the eccentricity of his personages with so bold a hand as to anticipate the excesses of Gillray in another art. In brief, he was a highly competent gentleman, who found no enterprise too difficult for his courage and intelligence. He was a man of affairs, a soldier, a herald, an architect; and, no doubt, following the fashion, he sat himself down to write a comedy with the same easy carelessness wherewith he undertook to build a palace. Few men known to history were more of a piece than he. In his life, as in his works, he was a simple, sturdy, natural Englishman, devoid alike of affectation and concealment. Pope ranked him among the three “most honest-hearted real good men” of the Kitcat club, and his dignity wrung from Swift, not apt for apology, a public regret that he had once satirised “a man of wit and humour.”

His grandfather, a merchant of Ghent, had found an asylum in London from the persecutions of the duke of Alva, had followed his craft with success, and had left two sons, the younger of whom, Giles, was the father of the dramatist. Nothing is known of Sir John’s youth and training. In 1691, when he was twenty-seven years of age, he was clapt up in the Bastille as a suspected spy, meditated a comedy within its comfortable walls, and, as Voltaire owns with surprise, was never guilty of “a single satirical stroke against the country, in which he had been so injuriously treated.”