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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

§ 13. Elizabeth Inchbald

Elizabeth Sampson had been attracted to London by the glamour of the theatre, and, in London, she married the actor Inchbald. After she had spent several years in touring, The Mogul Tale was accepted for the stage, in 1784, and she established her reputation with I’ll tell you What, at the Hay (the old Haymarket theatre), in 1785. The play is a model of construction, and, though the characters are hardly more than stage figures, the plot combines the humour of classical comedy with the moralising of the newer school. Mrs. Inchbald never fulfilled the promise of this early work; but she understood the taste of the theatrical public and, in her next play, Such Things Are (1787), showed how successfully she could condense fashionable ideas into dramatic situations. At this time, John Howard’s agitation for prison reform was a common topic of discussion, and harmonised well with popular faith in human goodness; but polite audiences at Covent garden would hardly have tolerated so inelegant a subject as gaol-life, if Mrs. Inchbald had not also flattered the growing romantic taste for unreality by placing the scene in Sumatra. The central character, Haswell, as the good Samaritan among the sultan’s prisoners, rouses the nobler sentiments latent within them, and discovers devotion and heroism in the deepest dungeons. The usual contrast to these grim scenes is provided by the English inhabitants of the island, especially by Sir Luke Tremor who is always quarrelling with his wife, and by Twineall, whose attempts at social success are a satire on Lord Chesterfield’s principles. To put the seal on the sentimentality of the play, the sultan, in the end, proves to be a Christian, and one of the prisoners is discovered to be the wife whom he lost fifteen years before. Mrs. Inchbald had a distinct gift for portraying the psychology of marriage, and, though so intricate and elusive a theme is best suited to the more leisurely treatment of the novel, she endeavoured, again and again, to compress fine-spun material into one or other of her comedies. Wives as they Were (1797), a study of a pleasure-loving girl in high society, whose nobler qualities are gradually developed by the influence of her father in disguise, though quite as successful as her other comedies, is a wholly inadequate treatment of its theme when compared with the powerful novel into which it was afterwards elaborated. The most typical of her domestic plays, Every one has his Fault (1793), exhibits a series of ill-assorted or ill-judged marriages, from the case of Lady Eleanor and Irwin, founded on Amelia, down to that of the Placids, who quarrel incessantly, like the Dove ménage in The Brothers. While showing how domestic unhappiness embitters or even depraves each character, Mrs. Inchbald rises to legitimate comedy, and almost reaches a tragic note in the scene where Irwin waylays and robs Lord Norland, his unforgiving father-in-law. But, the public expected a happy issue out of all these afflictions; so, Mrs. Inchbald invents a number of incidents which have not any logical connection with either the plot or the characters, but which brought tears into the eyes of her sentimental generation. It is worth noticing that the growing desire for glimpses of a less conventional and prosaic life influenced even Mrs. Inchbald. In To Marry or not to Marry, Sir Oswin’s plans to wed the beautiful but mysterious Hester, of unknown origin, are deranged by the appearance of his mortal foe, the exile Lavensforth. The fugitive, attended by his faithful black servant, is lurking in the neighbourhood, bent on murder. Yet, when it transpires that the two enemies are father and lover of the same girl, the vendetta evaporates in a drawing-room reconciliation.