Collection No.27: The Belle's Stratagem, by Hannah Cowley

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

Publication details

Author: Cowley, Hannah
Author dates: 1743-1809
Title: The Belle’s Stratagem

First played: 1780
First published: 1781. 79p.
C18th availability: Available from ECCO (1781)

Modern availability: Available from LION (1997)

Genre: Comedy

Character types: Servant; French

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Realizing that her fiancé Doricourt is not very interested in her, Lettitia Hardy pretends to be stupid, then dazzles him at a masked ball.

Act I.
Saville and Courtall meet in Lincoln’s Inn. Courtall has been squiring five awkward country cousins around London, making sure that no one he knows has seen him. Saville is waiting to meet his friend Doricourt, who has just returned from Rome. The ladies of the town are creating styles based on his clothing, and he is extremely popular. However, he is engaged to be married to Miss Hardy, Saville reveals. The match has been arranged by their parents. Doricourt has not seen Miss Hardy since they were little children. Saville realizes he is late for his meeting with Doricourt, and Courtall flees his cousins. Crowquil arrives at Doricourt’s and speaks to his porter: he wants the porter to help him write an account of Doricourt’s life abroad. Saville arrives, and is seen into Doricourt’s house by his French servant. They discuss Doricourt’s practice of keeping French servants. Doricourt has seen Miss Hardy: she is beautiful and modest, but he feels she lacks the flirtatiousness and joie de vivre of French and Italian women. Nevertheless, he has no objection to his duty to marry her. At Hardy’s, Villers enters to find Flutter reading on a sofa. Mrs. Rackit enters: they discuss Miss Hardy’s visit to her suitor and Frances Touchwood’s husband who is so jealous he let her beloved pet bird go free. Lettitia Hardy enters, and Villers and Flutter leave. Lettitia is in love with Doricourt; although many young men have lavished her with praise, Doricourt seemed indifferent to her charms at their first meeting. Hardy enters and is unpleasantly surprised at Lettitia’s revelation that Doricourt is not very interested in her. Lettitia is resolved to be less pleasant to Doricourt at their next meeting so that he is not indifferent, but repulsed by her, so as to produce a later inversion of his feelings.

Act II.
Sir George Touchwood meets with Doricourt; the latter cannot believe that Sir George is married. The paranoid Sir George is reluctant to let the much younger Doricourt meet with his wife, but Doricourt catches on and insists that he be allowed to stay for a meal. Mrs. Rackit and Miss Ogle arrive. Lady Frances enters; she has been detained by her conversation with Doricourt. Mrs. Rackit and Miss Ogle mock her countrified upbringing and her attachment to her husband, and encourage her to come out into town with them for a few hours. Sir George is devastated. Flutter enters and reveals that Sir George let out his wife’s bird in a fit of jealousy, to Lady Frances’ horror. Sir George is very angry and tells her to go into the town. Lady Frances is torn, but realizes that if she capitulates, she will forever be compelled to remain with Sir George. Lady Frances and Mrs. Rackit go to an auction, where some gentlemen speak with them. Silvertongue, an auctioneer, presents various models of cities that are to be sold. Courtall enters and is enraptured with Lady Frances.

Act III.
Lettitia is resolved to act awkwardly to put off Doricourt. He visits her at home, and she refuses to look at him, asks him inane questions, and makes inappropriate (although innocent) comments about past admirers. Hardy enters and is angry with her. Doricourt expresses his disenchantment to Mrs. Rackit; he is resolved to go to Bath to escape his appalling fiancée, but Mrs. Rackit convinces him to stay for the masquerade taking place that evening. At Courtall’s, three gentlemen are tipsy; they soon leave. Saville and Courtall have both been in love with Lady Frances; they drink to her. Courtall plans to seduce her at the masquerade: he asks a servant to go to the shop where Sir George intends to get his costume. More concerned about decorum and honour, Saville discovers this plan, and pays the servant double to report to him first. Villers tells Sir George that Lady Frances still loves him, and did not enjoy her morning in town. Sir George and Lady Frances plan to go to the masquerade together, where they will not be mocked for enjoying one another’s company. Sir George will dress up as a pink domino trimmed with blue.

Act IV.
At the masquerade, Lettitia flirts with the masked men and dances a minuet with one of them. Doricourt is attracted to her and wonders who she is. Hardy arrives as Isaac Mendoza and banters with the crowd. Lady Frances loves the masquerade; Sir George tells her that the initial enchantment will soon wear thin. Saville enters with Kitty, a masked woman dressed like Lady Frances, who will distract Courtall from his real object by impersonating her. Doricourt looks for the mysterious lady; she sings. They flirt, and Doricourt attempts to remove her mask, but she flees in time. Saville frightens Lady Frances, and she seeks Sir George to comfort her. Courtall appears in Sir George’s dress and demands that they leave immediately. Saville replaces Lady Frances with Kitty, who goes with Courtall. Doricourt and Lettitia discuss what the mysterious lady would do if she were married (her fantasy includes dancing on the shores of lake Ontario). Doricourt confesses his love and again attempts to catch her, but she tells him to expect her to reveal her identity tomorrow and flees. Flutter suggests that she is mistress of several men of the town; Doricourt is enraged. Hardy reveals that she is his own daughter, but Doricourt refuses to believe it. Angered, Hardy is resolved to participate in Letty’s plot. Courtall brings Kitty to his home; still pretending to be Lady Frances, she is shocked when he reveals his identity. They are interrupted by Saville and others, who demand to take a peep at the lady. She is revealed to be Kitty Willis, to Courtall’s consternation and to the others' general amusement.

Act V.
The next morning, Villers recommends that Miss Hardy not undeceive Daricourt until they are married. Villers has all the documents ready so that the marriage may take place before nightfall. Hardy is to feign illness and demand to see the match before he dies. Villers and Mrs. Rackit express a mutual affection. Hardy does not like pretending to die before his time, fearing that the pretense will come true. Doricourt asks Saville about George Jennet’s mistress; he is angry that the woman he loves is kept by other men. Doricourt decides to pretend to be mad to avoid having to marry Miss Hardy. Sir George and Lady Frances are relieved to hear that Courtall has fled to France. Mrs. Rackit enters to announce that Doricourt’s madness has wrecked the plan to marry him to Miss Hardy that evening. When Mrs. Rackit explains the deception at the masquerade to Saville, he reveals that Doricourt has feigned madness to avoid marrying Miss Hardy, but when the masked belle’s identity is revealed, he will be overcome with joy. Miss Ogle, Mrs. Racket, Sir George and Lady Frances gather at the Hardys’. Hardy is pretending to be deathly ill; his final request is that Doricourt should not marry his daughter. He has demanded to see Doricourt even though the latter is rumoured to be mad; Doricourt goes to see him in a straight waistcoat. His friends mock his faked madness and ask to know the truth. Sir George offers Saville his sister’s hand in thanks for saving Lady Frances from Courtall. In Hardy’s sick-room, Doricourt has agreed to marry Lettitia. The mysterious masked woman appears just as Doricourt leaves the sick-room, much to his consternation. She reveals that she is not a kept woman, and that Doricourt’s treachery has destroyed her. She leaves. Doricourt is furious, nearly cutting Flutter’s throat for suggesting that his beloved is a lord’s mistress. Hardy runs out of the room and tells the company that he has feigned illness to get Doricourt to marry Lettitia. The woman reveals her identity, and Doricourt is overjoyed.  He concludes the play by praising English women’s virtue of modesty.

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Secondary commentary

A) de la Mahotière, Mary. ‘Cowley , Hannah (1743–1809)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 26 May 2008.

"Hannah Cowley's next play, The Belle's Stratagem (Covent Garden, 22 February 1780), dedicated to Queen Charlotte, again underlines the lack of wisdom of arranged marriages, in its tale of Letitia and her promised suitor, Doricourt, recently returned from the grand tour, and full of disdain for her lack of worldliness. The heroine's manner of winning his admiration through a series of misleading disguises and a final revelation of her grace and beauty at a masked ball made this play Hannah Cowley's masterpiece. It was immensely popular with actors and actresses."

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Varieties & Dialects

Overview of varieties / dialects

A servant makes several grammatical errors. In her guise as an idiot, Lettitia is impressed that she can spell "Baker", but her real wit and intelligence are demonstrated at the masked ball. A French servant and Doricourt insert some French into their speech.

Varieties / dialects

Variety: Servant
a. Sample of dialect
[page 5]
Porter. Oh hoh, I Begin to smoak you now; what, you are the fellow that tyes folkes nose to nose in your sixpenny cuts, that never met any where else.

b.1 Orthography: “tyes” “folks”
b.2 Grammar: “you are the fellow that” (vs. "who")
b.3 Vocabulary: “Oh hoh” “smoak”
c. Nationality: English
d. Character profile: servant
e. Consistency of representation: consistent

Variety: French servant
a. Sample of dialect:
[page 7 ]
French. Monsieur Saville, je suis mort de peur, ten tousand pardons, excusez mon erreur, and permit me to conduct to Mons. Doricourt; he be too happy, avoize vor.

b.1 Orthography: “ten tousand”
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary: Franglais: “je suis mort de peur”; “excusez mon erreur” ; “avoize vor” ( ?)
c. Nationality: French
d. Character profile: French servant in England
e. Consistency of representation: consistent

Variety: Lettitia (acting foolishly to repulse Doricourt)
a. Sample of dialect:
My father will undo the whole;
laws, papa, how can you think he can take me for a fool, when every body knows I beat the potecary at conundrums last Christmas time; an did'nt I make a string of names all in riddles for the lady's diary. There was a little river and a great house, [150]  that was Newcastle; there was what a lamb says, and three letters---that was ba! and k e r, Baker!

b.1 Orthography: “potecary” (apothecary), “an” (and); bad punctuation: “an did’nt (sic) I make a string of names all in riddles for the lady’s diary” (no question mark)
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary: “laws, papa” (slightly rude interjection)
c. Nationality: English
d. Character profile: pretending to be an idiot, Lettitia considers it impressive that she can spell Baker
e. Consistency of representation: inconsistent; limited to this scene

Variety: Lettitia (a mysterious belle at the masquerade)
a. Sample of dialect:
[page 53]
Let. You have chosen an odd situation for study; fashion and taste preside on this spot; they throw their spells around you; ten thousand delights spring up at their command; and you a stoick, a being without senses, are wrapt in reflections!
Dor. And you, the most charming being in the world, awake me to admiration! did you come from the stars?
Let. Yes; and I shall reascend in a moment.

[page 56]

Let. A woman! if my husband should be a churl, a fool, or a tyrant, I'd break his heart, ruin his fortune, elope with the first pretty fellow that ask'd me, and return the contempt of the world with scorn, whilst my feelings prey'd upon my life.
Dor. Amazing;
what if you lov'd him, and he were worthy of your love?
Let. Why then, I'd be any thing and all; grave, gay, capricious; the soul of whim, the spirit of variety; live with him in the eye of fashion, or in the shade of retirement; change my country, my

[page 57 ]

sex; feast with him in an Esquimaux hut, or a Persian pavilion; join him in the victorious war dance [325]  on the borders of lake Ontario, or sleep to the soft breathings of a flute, in the cinnamon grove of Ceylon; dig with him in the mines of Golconda, or enter the dangerous precincts of the Mogul's seraglio; cheat him of wishes, and overturn the empire to restore the husband of my heart to the blessings of liberty and love!

b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary: elevated tone (“Ten thousand delights”; “I shall reascend”); international understanding (Esquimaux, Persian, Ontario, Ceylon, Golconda)
c. Nationality: English
d. Character profile: Lettitia is disguised at the masquerade ball; she is intelligent, witty and independent
e. Consistency of representation: consistent at and after the masquerade ball (Act IV)

Variety: Doricourt
a. Sample of dialect

[page 65]
You have hit it, elle est mon caprie; the mistress of lord George Jennet, is my caprice. Oh, insufferable!
b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary: "elle est mon caprie" (French)
c. Nationality: English, but affecting an international persona
d. Character profile: Doricourt has just returned from Europe, and believes English ladies to be inferior to French and Italian women. This excerpt suggests that the unknown belle at the masquerade is at the same level as his foreign mistresses
e. Consistency of representation: Doricourt inserts surprisingly little French into his speech (compare with Buck in Foote’s The Englishman Return’d from Paris). However, his mild use of French reinforces his tastes for foreign women

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Narrative comments on varieties and dialects

A bad pun:
[page 71]
Sir Geo. Well, here we are; but where's the knight of the woful countenance?
Mrs. Rack. Here soon, I hope; for a woful night it will be without him.
[page 72 ]
Sir Geo. Oh fie! do you condescend to pun?
Mrs. Rack. Why not; it requires genius to make a good pun; some men of bright parts can't reach it. I know a lawyer who writes them upon the back of his briefs, and says they are of great use in a dry cause.

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Other points of interest

Doricourt’s opinions of nationality:
Dor. State, my dear Saville, state: Englishmen make the best soldiers, citizens, artizans, and philosophers in the world, but the very worst footmen. I keep French fellows and Germans, as the Romans kept slaves, because their own countrymen had minds too enlarg'd and haughty to descend, with a grace, to the duties of such a station.
[page 8 ]
Sav. A good excuse for a bad practice.
Dor. On my honour, experience will convince you of its truth; a Frenchman neither hears, sees, nor breaths, but as his master directs, and his whole system of conduct is comprized in one short word, Obedience . An Englishman reasons, forms opinions, cogitates and disputes; one is the mere creature of your will, the other a being, conscious of equal importance in the universal scale with yourself, and is therefore your judge, whilst he wears your livery, and decides on your actions, with the freedom of a censor.

Sir George Touchwood’s opinions of a London fine lady:
Sir Geo.
A being easily described, madam, as she is seen every where but in her own house; she sleeps at home, but she lives all over the town. In her mind every sentiment gives place to the lust of conquest, and the vanity of being particular; the feelings of wife and mother, are lost in the whirl of dissipation; if she continues virtuous 'tis by chance, and if she preserves her husband from ruin, 'tis by her dexterity at the card-table. Such a woman I take to be a perfect fine lady.

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©2008 Arden Hegele