The Fergusonia File

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Frances Burney, The Witlings (1778-80)

Frances Burney's The Witlings (1778-1780) opens in a milliner's shop (see photo), a fact which is notable in itself. The other plays we've looked at generally open in someone's dressing or drawing room, which is a cue to the upper or middle class milieu of the ensuing drama. I thought that opening The Witlings in Mrs. Wheedle's shop would indicate a different perspective for the play, but the action soon shifted away from the actual working class people (though they do resurface periodically).

The play, like others we've seen, centres on a young woman who is independently wealthy (see Cavendish's The Convent of Pleasure for an analogue). Unlike Lady Happy, however, Cecilia loses her fortune, which unsurprisingly impedes her marriage to Beaufort (yes, another Beaufort).

The play is fairly conventional in terms of plot (except for the "poetic justice" that precipitates the resolution), and the scenes sometimes drag. The lengthy repartee between characters with little plot advancement sometimes had me flipping ahead to see just how many pages were left.

That said, the characterization is good--I especially like Mrs. Sapient, whose tautologies often made me laugh out loud--and there is generally some good wit evidenced on Burney's part. Even the best of running jokes, however, can't carry a scene as far as Burney sometimes pushes it.

In terms of themes that we've looked at together, I'd like to dig into Codger's relationship with Jack--we've seen other patriarchs who wish to be listened to, but I think Codger's repeated emphasis on be listened to (in the literal sense) has special significance, given this play's preoccupation with verbal communication. I think an interesting paper could be written on the verbal economy in this comedy, with its fluctuations and upsets.


Blogger Andrea said...

Hail, Bard!

What I find most interesting re: the opening of the play in the miliner's shop is a comment that I originally took as a throwaway remark, when Mrs. Voluble says, "I declare it's the greatest treat in the World to me to spend an hour or two here in a morning; one sees so many fine things, and so many fine folks." (page 49)

Of course, she's speaking here of the other shoppers, not the employees. I couldn't help but think of this as Lady Smatter alternately eviscerates and idolizes Pope, Shakespeare, et. al. depending on the point she wishes to make. The decorative nature of knowledge (and an unwillingness to view all of reality) displayed by some of the characters in this play fascinated me. It seems to be part of a larger critique of dilletantism (is that a word?) - if one can't appreciate the effort that went into the construction of a fine hat or an excellent verse, how can one see it for what is really is?

11:59 AM  
Blogger Miriam Jones said...

Bard, what you say about pacing is quite true; I think any production would have to move along at a good clip.

Codger and Jack are fascinating, aren't they? And what to make of the patriarch defanged? (Though the patriarch in The Woman Hater has fangs!)

Andrea, I like your parallel between the decorative nature of knowledge, and the frills and furbelows in the shop.

7:35 PM  

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