Collection No. 10: The Heiress, by John Burgoyne

Publication Details | Synopsis | Secondary Commentary |Varieties & Dialects | Other

Publication details

Author: Burgoyne, John
Author dates: 1723 - 1792
Title: The Heiress

First played: 1786
First published: 1786, by John Exshaw. 82p.
C18th availability: Available from ECCO (1786)

Modern availability: Available from LION (1997)

Genre: Comedy

Trend(s): Contemporary Satire; Popularity

Character types: Sophisticated; French; Educated Female

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Lord Gayville wins the heart of the mysterious Miss Alton, while his sister Lady Emily demonstrates how her taste is superior to Miss Alscrip's and marries Miss Alton's long-lost brother Clifford.

Prologue: Discusses how marriages are often more for riches than for love; pleads with the audience to have the play be the Heiress of “the Public favour!”

Act I.
Mr. Blandish and Mrs. Letitia Blandish are writing letters. Mr. Blandish criticizes Mrs. Blandish’s writing style, and they discuss their poor finances. Their valet, Prompt, takes the letters off to be posted. Blandish hopes to marry his friend Lord Gayville’s sister or intended bride: he cannot choose which one.  Lord Gayville and Mr. Clifford discuss the perils of being in the upper class: with his uncle’s name to support, the Lord must marry rich, which he had intended to do with Miss Alscrip. However, he has fallen in love with a poor woman walking alone, whom he delivered from a gentleman who had been bothering her. Later, her (well-bribed) landlord let him hide in her closet; the woman discovered Lord Gayville therein, to her horror. Mr. Clifford begins to admonish him, but Blandish interrupts their tête-à-tête. Disgusted by Blandish, Clifford leaves. Lord Gayville finishes the story: the woman changed lodgings the next day, but he found her again, and sent her £200 under the name of Mr. Heartly. Blandish’s valet Prompt arrives with a letter for Mr. Heartly from the woman, the contents of which are the returned bank-notes. Gayville orders Prompt to find the woman. In order to not arouse his uncle’s suspicions, Gayville will redouble his attentions to Miss Alscrip. Mrs Sagely suggests that Miss Alton, the woman with whom Gayville is in love, become a companion to Miss Alscrip. Prompt arrives and Miss Alton hides herself. Prompt suggests to Mrs. Sagely that they move into another house, paid for by Heartly, to guarantee the young lady’s safety. Mrs. Sagely refuses. Prompt leaves, and Miss Alton is resolved to take refuge at Miss Alscrip’s.

Act II.
Lady Emily Gayville and Mr. Clifford play chess and flirt at Sir Clement’s house. Mr. Clifford is related to Sir William Charlton of Devonshire, whose fortune the Alscrip family plundered. Sir Clement and Clifford discuss whether honest men exist. Mr. Clifford tells the rest of his life story: his family has lost its fortune, and his uncle controls his sister’s allowance; after she refused to marry a suitor he had forced upon her, Clifford’s uncle threatened to withdraw her income. Sir Clement urges Clifford to watch Lord Gayville for any indiscretions, but Clifford refuses to act as a spy. Mr. Alscrip orders eggs and bacon; he is dressed fashionably, but laments that the nobility treat him as a member of a lower class. Miss Alscrip and Mrs. Blandish arrange Miss Alscrip’s hair. They discuss Miss Alscrip’s new companion, who has not yet arrived: she is to look after Miss Alscrip’s mind as Miss Alscrip’s waiting-women look after her toilette, but Miss Alscrip assures Mrs. Blandish that she will not call the companion a friend. Miss Alton arrives, and is subjected to their teasing. Miss Alton plays the harp and sings. A letter arrives, and Miss Alton reads it, but Miss Alscrip leaves with Mrs. Blandish. Miss Alton reflects on Mrs. Blandish’s judgment that Miss Alscrip’s only fault is “a too tender heart.”

Act III.
Miss Alton remains in Miss Alscrip’s chamber with Chignon, the valet. Mr. Alscrip enters, and Miss Alton hides behind Chignon, but is discovered. Alscrip flirts with her, then is surprised by Miss Alscrip, who sees him kissing Miss Alton’s fingers as the latter cries for help. Miss Alton is sent out, and Miss Alscrip berates her father for his conduct. Alone, Miss Alton laments that Clifford has left her to fend for herself. Lady Emily Gayville hears the name Clifford as she enters into Miss Alscrip’s drawing-room, and believes that Miss Alton has been left by her lover. Miss Alscrip and Lady Emily converse in affected language; Lady Emily is saved by her brother’s arrival. Miss Alscrip tells Miss Alton to act in her place to refuse him. Lord Gayville enters and recognizes Miss Alton, and begins to tell her of his love; Miss Alscrip enters (hidden) and believes the speech is for her. She emerges, and Lord Gayville reveals that he loves Miss Alton. Miss Alscrip is livid, and Miss Alton says that she scorns her for her behaviour. Miss Alscrip sets out to prove the truth of the ‘proverb’ “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Mr. Alscrip meets with his lawyer, Rightly, who demands to see some hidden documents. Miss Alscrip enters, furious; Alscrip gives Rightly documents at random and leaves with Miss Alscrip, who tells him of Lord Gayville’s jilt and urges him to duel. Alscrip realizes that he has given Rightly an incriminating document and rushes back into the room, but Rightly has left with the document.

Act IV.
Sir Clement and Clifford go to visit Miss Alton, who has been confined. However, Chignon brings in Tiffany, a servant, instead of Miss Alton. Clifford is unimpressed, and comments to Sir Clement that Gayville’s passion is misdirected. Clifford writes Miss Alton a letter to say that she must not impede Gayville’s marriage to Miss Alscrip. Lord Gayville, Clifford and Sir Clement meet; the latter two berate Gayville for his poor choice. A letter arrives from the real Miss Alton, who recognized Clifford’s name. Chignon apologizes for his deception. Gayville and Sir Clement read Miss Alton’s letter, which seems to be a love-letter to Clifford. Lady Emily meets with Mr. Blandish, who tells her that Clifford has carried off the object of Gayville’s affections. Clifford enters, and Lady Emily dismisses Blandish. He gives Lady Emily the key to his apartment, in which, he tells her, a great secret is concealed. Lady Emily goes to the apartment and finds Miss Alton there. Miss Alton hides, and Sir Clement arrives. Prompt appears, and reveals that Miss Alton is somewhere in the apartment. Because no one can open the locked door, they decide to wait until everyone concerned arrives.

Act V.
Rightly tells Clifford that the portion of the Alscrips’ fortune taken from the Charltons still belongs by law to the Clifford. He urges Clifford to marry Miss Alscrip to save her family name, but Clifford refuses. He gives Rightly the name of another inheritor of the Charlton estate. Clifford meets Lord Gayville in Hyde Park, where they are to duel. Clifford refuses to fight, and reveals that Miss Alton is his sister. Gayville is delighted, and offers Clifford Lady Emily’s hand, but Clifford refuses both without the permission of Sir Clement. Miss Alscrip, Mrs. Blandish and Sir Clement find Lady Emily and Miss Alton (revealed to be Miss Harriet Clifford) in Clifford’s apartment. Clifford and Gayville enter, and Gayville professes his love to Harriet.  Sir Clement offers Harriet sanctuary in his home. Miss Alscrip reminds them that Harriet is destitute. Rightly and Alscrip enter: Alscrip is ruined. Lady Emily recommends that Miss Alscrip marry Blandish. Miss Alscrip cries because she won’t get a title; Lady Emily suggests she buy one. The Alscrips leave, humiliated, followed by the Blandishes. Rightly reveals that Clifford has given over his entire fortune to Harriet so that she can bring an appropriate dowry to Gayville; realizing Lady Emily and Clifford are in love, Sir Clement changes the distribution of the money and allows both gentlemen to propose to the ladies, who both accept.

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Secondary commentary

A) Mintz, Max M. ‘Burgoyne, John (1723–1792)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 May 2008.

"Burgoyne also wrote political satire, and he achieved a success with a comedy, The Heiress, regarded by contemporaries and later critics as an authentic depiction of upper-class society of the period. Presented in London at the Drury Lane Theatre Royal in 1786, it ran for thirty performances and remained popular in England and on the continent for half a century."

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Varieties & Dialects

Overview of varieties / dialects

Overview of varieties / dialects: The contrast between gentility and ‘new money’ is shown in Miss Alscrip’s attempts to emulate Lady Emily’s affected speech. Miss Alscrip makes reference to the poor level of education available to girls at the time to suggest that Miss Alton is of a lower class. Chignon, Miss Alscrip’s French valet, speaks in Franglais.

Varieties / dialects

Variety: Chignon’s Franglais
a. Sample of dialect
[page 23]

Chignon.  Eh! non, Madame; ce na releve pas--- Dat give no relief to de weight of de curl---Full in de front un gros bouton von great nob of diamend , pardie ce seroit un accommodage a' la Polyphéme de big eye of de geante in de centre of de forehead.
b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary: French words
c. Nationality: French
d. Character profile: French valet
e. Consistency of representation: very consistent

Variety: Ladylike affectation:
a. Sample of dialect
[page 35 or 36]
Lady Emily (affectedly) No, I went home directly from the Opera: projected the revival of a cap; read a page in the trials of Temper; went to bed and dream'd I was Belinda in the Rape of the Lock.
Mrs. Blandish. Elegant creature.
Miss Alscrip. (aside) I must have that air, if I die for it.
I too came home early; supped with my old gentleman; made him explain my marriage articles, dower, and heirs entail; read a page in a trial of Divorce, and dream'd of a rose colour equipage with emblems of Cupids issuing out of Coronets.
Mrs. Blandish. Oh, you sweet twins of perfection! what equality in every thing! I have thought of a name for you---The inseparable inimitables.
Miss Alscrip. I declare I shall like it exceedingly---

[Page 36 ]
one sees so few uncopied originals---the thing I cannot bear---
Lady Emily. Is vulgar imitation---I must catch the words from your mouth to shew you how we agree.
Miss Alscrip. Exactly. Not that one wishes to be without affectation.

b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary
c. Nationality: English
d. Character profile: Intending to marry Lady Emily’s brother, the lower-class Miss Alscrip tries to imitate Emily’s characteristically high-class affectation. Mrs. Blandish is obviously of a lower class, but suggests that Miss Alscrip and Lady Emily are on equal footing. Alscrip is an attorney/steward, a stereotypically conniving socially-rising figure: “Clifford. My grandfather, Sir: The plunder of his fortune was one of the first materials for raising that of Mr. Alscrip, who was steward to Sir William's estate, then manager of his difficulties, and lastly his sole creditor.”
e. Consistency of representation: Inconsistent; the affected air is contrived to show social status. Miss Alscrip deviates from the affected air within the passage (“I must have that air, or die for it”), and Lady Emily later expresses her relief at being delivered from the conversation (“No brother ever came more opportunely to a sister's relief, "I have fool'd it to the top of my bent."” (p 38)). Lady Emily’s standard speech through the rest of the play suggests that the affectation Miss Alscrip is so enthusiastically imitating is not a sign of gentility.

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Narrative comments on varieties and dialects

Miss Alscrip suggests that Miss Alton is of a lower-class and has had a poor education. Miss Alton’s standard English confirms that she is an heiress and is well educated:

[page 27]

Miss Alscrip. But finish'd, I take it for granted, [150]  at a country boarding school; for we have, "young ladies," you know Blandish, "boarded and educated," upon blue boards in gold letters in every village; with a strolling player for a dancing master, and a deserter from Dunkirk, to teach the French grammar.

Miss Alscrip. I dare say so. But who can vulgarize all at once? What will the French say?

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Other points of interest

Comments on women's education and on reading:

[page 17]
Lady Emily. Read one's acquaintance---delightful! what romances, novels, satires, and mock heroics present themselves to my imagination! Our young men are flimsy essays; old ones, political pamphlets; coquets fugitive pieces; and fashionable beauties , a compilation of advertized perfumery, essence of pearl, milk of roses, and Olympian dew.---Lord, I should now and then tho' turn over an acquaintance with a sort of fear and trembling.

Clifford. How so?

Lady Emily. Lest one should pop unaware upon something one should not , like a naughty speech in an old comedy; but it is only skipping what wou'd make one blush.

Sir Clement. Or if you did not skip, when a woman reads by herself and to herself, there are wicked philosophers who doubt whether her blushes are very troublesome.

[page 26 ]

Miss Alscrip. One that can pen a note, in the familiar, the punctilious, or the witty---It's quite troublesome to be always writing wit for one's self--- But above all she is to have a talent for music.

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©2008 Arden Hegele