"Vanity, Like Murder, Will Out"

Context: Mrs. Cowley's comedy, The Belle's Stratagem, appealed to the audiences of her day because it was humorous, without dragging in characters from low life, as did so many other plays. She did, however, extract fun from the broken French of some of the people. Most who appear are well bred, even if not elegant, yet they bring chuckles as well as sympathy. Audiences could identify with them. The basic incident is not very funny or credible. It is hard to accept the situation that a lady could play the part of a simpleton so convincingly. That episode is not the reason for one editor of the play speaking of its "forceful and pleasing occurrences." She refers to the subplot in which the newlywed Sir George and Lady Frances Touchwood figure. They are more than warmed-over type characters of the period in their love that never becomes mawkish. Yet her disguise at the masquerade, like Doricourt's sudden and violent passion for a masked woman in the main story, are hardly credible, though they do make for good theater. This, after all, is the reason for reading or attending a play. Though the powdered ladies in their silken gowns, and references to a masquerade party of the Queen of France, dated the play shortly after its first performance at Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden in 1780, it long continued a favorite, with many revivals. Ellen Terry enjoyed playing Letitia. The opening scenes present the problem. Saville has left his friends who are shooting in the country, to come to Lincoln Inn, London, to meet his acquaintance, Doricourt, a mirror of fashions just back from Italy and about to marry the heiress Letitia Hardy, whom he has not seen since childhood. Having met her, he expresses pleasure in her beauty but laments her lack of spirit. In Scene iv we meet Letitia, bemoaning her cool treatment from Doricourt. But to Mrs. Rackett and Villers she announces her scheme. She will behave so badly that Doricourt will hate her. She is sure it is easier to change hatred into love than to modify indifference. That is her stratagem. In the rest of the play, Doricourt tries to break off their engagement after meeting a masked lady at a ball. To prevent this plot, Letitia's father pretends to be dying. Only the thought of his daughter safely married will permit him to depart in peace, so reluctantly Doricourt agrees to the wedding. Only then does he see the masked woman again. She turns out to be witty Letitia, for a happy ending. In Act I, before Letitia Hardy is introduced, Villers and Mrs. Rackett are discussing her.


VILLERS
So you brought Miss Hardy to town last night?
MRS. RACKETT
Yes, I should have brought her before, but I had a fall from my horse, that confined me a week.–I suppose in her heart she wished me hanged a dozen times an hour.
. . .
MRS. RACKETT
Had she not an expecting lover in town all the time? She meets him this morning at the lawyer's.–I hope she'll charm him; she's the sweetest girl in the world.
VILLERS
Vanity, like murder, will out. You have convinced me you think yourself more charming.
MRS. RACKETT
How can that be?
VILLERS
No woman ever praises another, unless she thinks herself superior in the very perfections she allows.