The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 24. George Colman the Elder: The Jealous Wife and The Clandestine Marriage
A more important dramatist than either Murphy or Bickerstaff was George Colman the elder, who, amidst prevalent sentimentality, maintained something of the earlier and more genuine comic spirit. Polly Honeycombe (1760), his first dramatic venture, produced anonymously in deference to his uncle’s dislike of his dramatic aspirations, became a popular after-piece. In its satirical thrusts at the sentimental school, it anticipates Sheridan’s Rivals. The opening scene between Polly and her nurse suggests Lydia Languish’s discussion with Lucy of the sentimental novels of the circulating library, and enforces the satirical hits of Colman’s prologue at the sentimental novel. Polly and Lydia Languish are alike familiar with “ladders of ropes” and other accessories of sentimental elopements. A decade and a half before Sheridan, Colman turned the laugh against “The goddess of the woful countenance—The Sentimental Muse.”
It is not surprising that Colman, who made the sentimental novel a target for satire, turned to Fielding’s Tom Jones for the ground-work of a genuine comedy. The Jealous Wife (1761) is conspicuous as an early example of successful dramatisation of a popular novel. Tom Jones, Sophia, Lady Bellaston, Lord Fellmar, squire Western and Blifil become respectively Charles Oakly, Harriot, Lady Freelove, Lord Trinket, Russet and Beagle. Yet, Colman is more than a copyist. He introduces new characters in Mr. and Mrs. Oakly, and effectively transfers to Beagle squire Western’s sporting instincts. Furthermore, in welding his material into effective drama, he “took some hints from The Spectator, a suggestion from The Adelphi of Terrence” and advice from Garrick. The dramatic structure shows skill in developing action through effective stage-situations, while Harriot’s flight to Oakly’s house, which arouses the suspicions of the jealous wife, firmly links the two plots. The solution is kept somewhat in suspense; but, finally, with a belated touch of Petruchio’s manner in taming his shrew, Oakly breaks his wife’s spirit.