Collection No. 28: The Town before You, by Hannah Cowley

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

Publication details

Author: Cowley, Hannah
Author dates: 1743-1808
Title: The Town before You

First played: 1794
First published: 1795, by G. Woodfall, for T. N. Longman [etc.] 102 p.
C18th availability: Available from ECCO (1795)

Modern availability: Available from LION (1997)

Genre: Comedy

Trend(s): Class; Contemporary Satire; Gender

Character types: Country; Welsh; Nautical; Professional Female; Italian

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The play presents a picture of the follies of the town: Asgill wins the hand of Lady Horatia, a sculptor, while Fancourt is apprehended for his attempts to kidnap the heiress Georgina, who accepts Conway's proposal of marriage.

Dedication to Mrs. Frushard, of Calcutta.

Act I.
Fancourt translates passages in Greek to Mrs. Fancourt. They discuss the relationship of virtue to poverty; Fancourt believes that only the poor are virtuous, while Mrs. Fancourt thinks otherwise. Fancourt has lost his money since she married him, and his children (from his marriage with “the first Mrs. Fancourt”) are hungry. Mrs. Fancourt argues that her husband’s virtues have gradually disappeared as his wealth diminished. A bag of money arrives, generously given by the newly-knighted Sir Robert Foyer. After praising the virtue of a poor person who gives his last shilling to his friend, Fancourt refuses to share any of his newfound wealth with his poor sister. Sir Robert’s Humphrey searches his pockets. Buckram enters, introducing himself as “the young lady’s stay-maker”. Sir Robert’s servant mocks his antiques, which he has bought to give his family a semblance of upper-class stability. Humphrey returns and describes a city debate. Lady Charlotte enters after a visit with Sir Robert’s daughter, who is now with her milliner. Sir Robert asks for Lady Charlotte’s opinion on Mr. Conway. His daughter Georgina enters with her new hat. She is on her way to visit Lady Horatia Horton, a sculptor. Georgina asks her father when she will make her debut, as Lady Charlotte says that no one in town will talk to her until she has been presented. She also wants her father to become a duke so she can be a duchess. Sir Robert laments that his daughter is becoming dissipated. Conway enters into Mr. Asgill’s lodgings, followed by Fancourt, who asks for an introduction to Asgill. When Conway suggests that Fancourt’s reputation may not allow him to meet Asgill, Fancourt compares his reputation to a false gem; it looks flawless, and if he loses it, he has not lost anything of great value. Conway marvels at his amorality. Fancourt leaves. Asgill arrives; Conway gives his regrets at not being able to attend Asgill’s hunt. Conway confesses his love for Georgina, whom he met at Lady Horatia Horton’s. Asgill is in love with Lady Horatia. Perkins arrives to tell Asgill that his uncle has been ruined. Asgill is in shock and laments the impossibility of courting Lady Horatia without a fortune.

Act II.
Mrs. Bulrush asks Tippy to pay his rent. Tippy takes out his gold but doesn’t give it to her. She chases him off the stage. Tippy meets Fancourt.  Tippy pretends to be a connoisseur and has made his living for the last few months by impersonating a lord. They meet Georgina and Humphrey, and Tippy learns that Georgina is an heiress. Sir Robert arrives, and Fancourt introduces Tippy as Lord Beechgrove. Fancourt gets Sir Robert to loan him £1000 for Lord Beechgrove to use his influence. Lady Horatia is busy directing her art school. Lady Charlotte visits her and hears her reasoning for her artistic rather than social lifestyle.  Lady Horatia is unhappy because she thinks Asgill has forsaken her. Georgina arrives to act as a model for Andromache. Mr. Conway and some other gentlemen arrive to see the art school. Tippy enters and harshly criticizes Lady Horatia’s work, including the living Georgina whom he believes to be a statue. Her animation is revealed, to his confusion. Conway tries to court Georgina honourably, but she will have none of his kneeling, saying that her past lover never kneeled but loved her to distraction. Georgina flees after saying that she is afraid to fall in love with him. Conway is triumphant. Asgill’s uncle Sir Simon enters with Perkins. Asgill gives Sir Simon his one-hundred-pound inheritance and runs away in tears. Sir Simon goes to see if Lady Horatia is worthy of his nephew’s love.

Act III.
Mrs. Fancourt is distressed to hear of Fancourt and Tippy’s plot to ruin Sir Robert and Georgina, and vows to derail it despites Fancourt’s threats. Sir Simon arrives at Lady Horatia’s and sees Georgina, whom he mistakes for the lady. Georgina plays along as Lady Horatia, and refuses Asgill because he is too poor. Sir Simon leaves in a fury. Lady Horatia emerges and hears the story; she is extremely distressed. Humphrey criticizes Jenny for filling Georgina’s head with fluff. Sir Robert and Fancourt enter; Sir Robert has decided not to give Lord Beechgrove the draft for £1000 because the lord did not return his bow in the park – Fancourt realizes that Sir Robert has met the real Lord Beechgrove. Tippy enters and Fancourt hides him quickly. Fancourt says that Lord Beechgrove (really Tippy) will meet with Sir Robert again and apologize to him. Georgina wants to learn how to make wax sculptures so that she can make a likeness of Mr. Conway. Jenny gives her false directions to another studio; she plans to have the wealthy Georgina marry her impoverished brother. Conway tells Asgill that the townspeople are saddened to see ‘a good kind of young man’ impoverished; Asgill is contemptuous of this appellation, saying that it is only used to mean ‘scoundrel’. A man brings Asgill a sailor’s costume: Asgill plans to quit London and to serve his country.

Act IV.
Lady Horatia entreats Conway to find Asgill and to tell him that she will marry him and bestow her fortune upon him. Tippy (as Lord Beechgrove) visits with Sir Robert. After he hears Tippy reflecting on whether to give him a government position in India, Sir Robert gives him the draft for the money. Tippy and Fancourt leave quickly. Mrs. Fancourt, dressed as a hurdy-gurdy player, appears in the street with her children. Georgina invites her in to tell her fortune; Mrs. Fancourt tells her that she is in danger from two plotting men, and that she should remain with her father at all times. Jenny, who has overheard the warning, fears that her brother Jack has let the secret out, so sends Humphrey with a letter to him. Georgina is annoyed at the fortune-teller, who has told her that she must not meet men alone, but Mrs. Fancourt drops her foreign accent and tells her that she gives this warning at great personal risk. Georgina reflects upon it. Humphrey opens the letter to Jack, and sees that he is to come to the house as Miss Sally Martin the next day. Fancourt gives Tippy only one hundred pounds. Sir Robert enters and meets Tippy, who pretends to be Lord Beechgrove and tells him that he has been cheated, and that Fancourt is a scoundrel. Tippy returns, and Fancourt hastily gives him £400. Tippy pretends to have only been joking with Sir Robert and clears Fancourt’s reputation.

Act V.
Tippy, who is revealed to be Jenny’s brother Jack, puzzles over how he will go to Sir Robert’s as Sally Martin; he is sure to be recognized as Lord Beechgrove. Holdfast, the bailiff, enters. Tippy pretends to be his groaning landlady and manages to make an escape, but Holdfast quickly recognizes the deception. Lady Horatia visits Sir Simon, who is unhappy because of Asgill’s absence. Without knowing that the visitor is Lady Horatia, Sir Simon insults her sculptures, provoking her angry reaction and hasty departure. Conway arrives and explains that the woman who had just left was Lady Horatia. Sir Simon decides to go to visit Lady Horatia again. Tippy arrives at Sir Robert’s dressed as a girl; Humphrey grins knowingly at him. The ‘lady’ is introduced to Georgina, but quickly drops the act and tells her of his passion. Fancourt and Sir Robert enter, and Jenny shrieks. Georgina catches on to the plan and asks the ‘lady’ to speak directly to her father. After a clumsy attempted escape, Tippy’s identity is revealed. Georgina tells her father of the fortune teller’s warning, to Fancourt’s private amazement. Sir Robert and Georgina are reconciled and relieved. Fancourt departs angrily to deal with Mrs. Fancourt’s treachery. Sir Simon visits Lady Horatia, who tells him that she loves Asgill and wishes to share her fortune with him. Sir Simon reveals that the poverty was a trick to test her feelings for his nephew, and that he will give them a hundred thousand pounds. Stung by the deception, Lady Horatia denies any further interest in the rich Asgill. Perkins arrives to tell Sir Simon that Asgill has been found. Fancourt reveals to Mrs. Fancourt that he knows about her effort to warn Georgina, but just as he is about to punish her, two constables arrive and take them away. Tippy, Jenny and the Fancourts are apprehended together. Fancourt releases Mrs. Fancourt; they were never really married because the priest at their wedding was Tippy in disguise. Mrs. Fancourt is thrilled to be released, and Georgina offers her a home with their family. Conway proposes to Georgina. Asgill and Lady Horatia are reconciled; Sir Simon tells her to abandon her sculpture, for home-making is the true Englishwoman’s art.  Asgill concludes with a patriotic speech, saying that he will become a sailor again if England requires it.

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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.

"The prologue to Hannah Cowley's last play, The Town before you (Covent Garden, 1794), registers her profound dismay at the slapstick and buffoonery which were taking over the role of playwright and actor in the theatre. Her fascinating picture of late eighteenth-century London depicts a snobbish ne'er-do-well aristocrat, a clever con-man, an up-from-country social climber, and, most importantly, a much-maligned woman sculptor, Lady Horatia Horton, who has dared to found her own successful studio and whose statues are roundly condemned as unlifelike by a bogus connoisseur and denigrated by her fiancé's father."

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Varieties & Dialects

Overview of varieties / dialects

Sir Robert and Georgina, Welsh social-climbers, speak in Standard English, while their supposedly illiterate servant Humphrey speaks with a West Country accent. Mrs. Fancourt impersonates a Savoyard in a dialect mixing German and French words. Asgill uses patriotic language when he joins the navy.

Varieties / dialects

Variety: Humphrey (West Country)
a. Sample of dialect:
Rot et, here be three caerds or noates, or what the devil they be, left after all. Dang et, I have delivered seventeen---all the way from Manchester-square to Petty France; from there to Bishopsgate-street after sweet-meats for Miss, and then to the Hay-market about the pianny forty. Hang me if I doant make dead men of these
(tearing the notes)
dead men tell no tales. The people they were for, will never know their loss. I can say I found nobody at hoam; ha, ha, ha! that was amoast the first word I larn'd, when I come to Lunnun---"Not at hoam, Sir." Dad! the gentry here have the cheapest way of entertaining their friends; it doesn't cost above a dozen or two lies a day to keep acquaintance with great quality. Hey! did you speak to me, Sir?

b.1 Orthography: “et” ; “caerds or noates”; “pianny forty”; “doant”; “hoam”; “amoast”; “Lunnon”
b.2 Grammar: “here be”;
b.3 Vocabulary: interjection “Dad!”
c. Nationality: English (West Country)
d. Character profile: a “loitering, west-country booby”, but he can read and write
e. Consistency of representation: consistent

Variety: Sir Robert
a. Sample of dialect:
Sir Robert.
Where have you been, you loitering, west-country booby, these three hours?

Three hours! Why, Sir, 'tis my belief you wou'd have loitered six hours, if you had seen what I have seen, and heard what I have heard.

Sir Robert.
What hast thou seen and heard?
b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar: inconsistent pronouns (lapses into “thou” when talking to Humphrey)
b.3 Vocabulary
c. Nationality: Welsh
d. Character profile: a Welsh social climber; he was made a sheriff then a knight
e. Consistency of representation: inconsistent use of "thou" / "you"

Variety: Mrs. Fancourt as a Savoyard
a. Sample of dialect:
[page 64 ]
Mrs. Fancourt.
From von great vay off; I live among de mountains, and I be come to make please de prit lady of dis country.
(Georgina throws down silver.)
Take up l'argent, ma petite, and put it in votre poche---Bless your charité. Lady, I can tell de fortune by looking at de vite hand.

b.1 Orthography: “de”; “vite”; “vay”; “prit”; “dis”
b.2 Grammar: “I be come to make please”
b.3 Vocabulary: “von”; French: “l’argent, ma petite…votre poche”; “charite”
c. Nationality: English, but pretending to be a Savoyard
d. Character profile: StE speaker in disguise
e. Consistency of representation: inconsistent; lapses back into StE when she is pressed

Variety: Asgill’s patriotism
a. Sample of dialect:
Misjudge me not! I, insensible to beauty, and to love! O! my glowing soul confesses their force, and adores their power. Yet the enthusiasm which seized me, when I trod the deck of the Victory, can never be chill'd! In the glorious tars around me, valour, intrepidity, heroism, shone forth with all their fires; they flashed through my heart! And, I swear, that should my country need my assistance, I will again resume the trowsers,

[page 103 ]

and sail before the mast, wherever she bids her cannon roar, or her proud pendants fly.
(Advancing forward)

Ah! repose on us ! And when you look on the gallant spirits, who do honour to this habit, let every fear subside; for, whilst the sea [100]  flows, and English sailors are themselves , England must be the mistress of the globe!

b.1 Orthography
b.2 Grammar
b.3 Vocabulary: patriotic, elevated tone
c. Nationality: English
d. Character profile: English gentleman whose patriotism was awakened by a brief stint in the navy
g. Consistency of representation: consistent from the point at which Asgill goes to become a sailor; elevated tone throughout

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Narrative comments on varieties and dialects


[page 11]
Sir Robert.
Not come out ! Bless me, Georgina, my dear, why then Saint James's has its slang as well as Saint Giles's.
Yes, to be sure it has; and we must make haste and get the slang , or they will

[page 12 ]

find us out to be mere bumpkins. When shall I be presented?

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Other points of interest

On the value of an education:
A) (Asgill) But what can I do? bred to no profession, knowing nothing; ignorant of every art by which independence, or even bread may be obtained; I am thrown a vagabond upon the world. O! my too indulgent Uncle, when you sent me to Cambridge, had you placed me, rather, in a counting-house, I might now have been in a situation to have soften'd all your afflictions---instead of which---O, horror! my soul sickens---my head is dizzy---I sink to death.

B) (Mr. Fancourt) What, Madam, do you doubt my knowledge of Greek! Some people can hardly read English at sight; I can translate at sight, thanks to the milk I suck'd in at Oxford. Doctor Johnson and I, were both Oxford men. ---I like to read that old Quiz, he was so fond of us Oxford fellows. But he had too much respect for riches---he liked rich people.

Educational expectations of a servant:

The wafer's wet, ha, ha, ha! now she thinks I can't read wroiting---help her sappy head! ha, ha, ha! I can read and wroite too, but that's a secret between me and my ownself.

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©2008 Arden Hegele