Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 12. Thomas Holcroft: The Road to Ruin; The Deserted Daughter

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama

§ 12. Thomas Holcroft: The Road to Ruin; The Deserted Daughter

Holcroft, a dauntless fellow worker with Godwin and Paine, had begun, as early as 1778, to turn to account his talent for letters and his experience as prompter and strolling player; but it was not till 1792 that he produced, at Covent garden, The Road to Ruin. The play shows how even business men, such as the banker Mr. Dornton and his head clerk Mr. Sulky, conceal human hearts beneath their dry exteriors, and that even spendthrifts, such as Dornton’s son Harry, have a generous sense of duty despite their recklessness. When Harry’s extravagance, at last, causes a run on his father’s bank, the youth resolves to save the house by espousing the wealthy Mrs. Warren, though really in love with her daughter. One half of the action takes place in the luxurious mansion of the odious widow, satirising her vicious circle, especially Goldfinch, the brainless man of fashion, with his endless tag “that’s your sort,” who is eager for the widow’s wealth in order to defray his debts. In the end, the bank is saved by the staunch loyalty of Sulky; Harry, sobered by his experience, is free to marry the girl of his choice, and Mrs. Warren is disinherited by the discovery of a new will. The Road to Ruin is Holcroft’s least inartistic success; but The Deserted Daughter is a more striking indication of the tendency of the theatre. Taking a hint from Cumberland’s The Brothers, he attempted to show how bad men may become good. Mordent neglects his dutiful wife, hates the world, plunges into debt and consorts with two dishonest lawyers, Item and Grime, who rob him. All this misery is due to the consciousness that he has a natural daughter, Joanna, whom he is afraid to own publicly. The play shows how Mordent passes from bad to worse, till he is on the brink of moral and financial ruin. But, just at the climax, Grime and Item are detected by means of an intercepted document; Joanna is married to the generous and wealthy young Cheveril; her relationship with Mordent is then made public; and the father, now relieved of his secret, is reconciled to his wife. The Deserted Daughter abounds in plagiarisms and artificialities. Mrs. Sarsnet is the shadow of Mrs. Malaprop; Joanna’s physiognomical intuitions are copied from Clarissa. Item’s despair at the loss of the telltale document is taken from l’Avare or Aulularia; Donald, the faithful Scottish servant, who talks unintelligible English, is the one attempt at humour. Yet, the play manages, in a melodramatic form, to portray the doctrines of the Godwin circle. Cumberland had shown, more than twenty years earlier, how far demoralisation is due to the burden of an overgrown society. Holcroft goes further; he champions the new belief in the perfectibility of man, and pictures how the soul springs up erect the moment that the burden is removed. Thus, in spite of its literary demerits, The Deserted Daughter is worth remembering, especially as Mrs. Inchbald and Colman the younger had, also, chosen this doctrine as the theme of their most important work.