Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1113
Mr. Harry Vane had come from Shropshire to London on business affairs. After completing his business, he decided to remain in London for pleasure, for he had seen Mrs. Woffington on the stage and had fallen in love with her. From his box seat at the theater, where he sat night after night, he sent her anonymous notes and flowers and waited for some sign that his attentions had awakened her interest. One night, he sent a corsage with a note asking her to wear the flowers in her hair if the gentleman’s notes had interested her. In the final act of the evening’s performance, she appeared with the flowers in her hair. Vane was more determined than ever to meet the actress personally.
From the audience, Sir Charles Pomander, whom Vane knew slightly, had seen Vane in his box for many evenings. Curiosity was one of Sir Charles’s greatest weaknesses; he watched to detect signs in Mrs. Woffington or in Vane to learn whether the gentleman’s suit was being successful. Observing Vane’s conduct, Sir Charles joined him in his box that night and invited Vane to accompany him to a gathering of people in the green room backstage.
One of the group backstage was Mr. Colley Cibber, known in his more youthful days as a great actor and playwright. When Vane questioned the famed actor concerning Mrs. Woffington’s ability as an actress, Cibber scoffed and claimed that acting is the art of copying nature. He added that in his day there was a much finer actress, Mrs. Bracegirdle. Mrs. Woffington overheard his slighting remarks. In order to disprove Cibber’s pompous claims, she disguised herself as the elderly Mrs, Bracegirdle and appeared among the backstage visitors as that famous old lady of the stage. She successfully fooled everyone, and Cibber was forced to admit his own deception by Mrs. Woffington’s playacting.
Sir Charles was still watching Vane for signs of the degree to which his suit of Mrs. Woffington had advanced. The actress, however, wore her feelings behind a mask. Vane himself was too astounded by his first visit backstage to reveal anything to Sir Charles, who was also pursuing Mrs. Woffington. Unfortunately, Sir Charles had to leave London for a few weeks. The next time Vane saw Mrs. Woffington, she openly expressed her admiration for him. Mrs. Woffington soon revealed to Vane that he was her ideal of goodness and perfection. Vane was deeply in love.
Triplet, the playwright, scene painter, and poet, could find no market for his talents, and his wife and children were almost starving. One day when he was at the theater trying to get Mr. Rich, the manager, to read his latest tragedies, Mrs. Woffington recognized him as a man who had been kind to her when she was a poor little Irish girl selling oranges on the streets. When she learned of his plight, she promised to sit for a portrait and to persuade Mr. Rich to read his plays.
When Sir Charles returned from his trip, he immediately continued his suit of Mrs. Woffington, who haughtily refused him. Jealous of his rival’s success, he set about to ruin Vane’s romance and bribed Mrs. Woffington’s servant to report to him whatever Mrs. Woffington did. One afternoon, suspecting that she had gone to spend the day with a lover, Sir Charles persuaded Vane to accompany him in a search for her. Trailing her to a strange apartment, they discovered her with Triplet’s family, whom she had rescued from starvation when she had gone to sit for her portrait. Vane was dismayed at his own lack of trust in Mrs. Woffington, but she readily forgave him.
While he was journeying through the countryside, Sir Charles had seen a beautiful woman in a carriage. He was arrested by her beauty and had sent a servant to inquire about her identity. Soon after the incident in Triplet’s apartment, Sir Charles learned that the beautiful woman was Vane’s wife, Mabel, who was on her way to join her husband in London. When Mabel Vane arrived at her husband’s house, there was a festive party in session. Although Mabel was a simple country girl, she discerned the meaning of Mrs. Woffington’s presence, especially after Sir Charles had described her husband’s conduct at the theater. True to his crude character, Sir Charles offered to comfort Mabel by making love to her, but she coldly sent him away. Sitting alone in the parlor, Mabel had to endure the unhappy circumstance of overhearing her husband pleading with Mrs. Woffington to forgive him. The devoted and beautiful Mabel learned that her husband no longer loved her.
The actress learned Mabel’s identity and fled from Vane’s house. She went to Triplet’s studio to seek comfort and diversion and told him that she had come to sit for her portrait. While she was sitting, Triplet received word that some of his theatrical friends were coming to his studio to view the portrait. Knowing that the critics Snarl and Soaper were vicious and that Colley Cibber would sneer at Triplet’s work, Mrs. Woffington contrived a plan to fool the arrogant men. She cut a hole in the portrait just large enough to fit around her head. When the critics saw the picture, they believed it to be a painting; in reality, however, it was merely a setting around the real head of Mrs. Woffington. True to their usual form, the critics sneered at the artist’s lack of success in his endeavor to reproduce the head of Peg Woffington. Laughing at her own deception, Mrs. Woffington stepped forward and revealed the trick to the critics. Only Colley Cibber was able to take the joke with good nature. The others left in chagrin.
Mrs. Woffington told Triplet of Harry Vane’s wife, and he warned her that two rival women were a dangerous combination. While they were talking, Mabel Vane entered the apartment. She had come to see Mrs. Woffington. The actress’ vanity and pride had been cut to the quick, but Mabel’s sweet and generous nature softened her heart. She promised Mabel that she would not only return Vane to his wife but also prove to her that the heart of her husband had never really deserted his wife. Mabel was so grateful to her that she swore to call Mrs. Woffington her sister, and the two women embraced.
The Vanes were reunited, for Harry truly loved his wife. Mabel Vane and Peg Woffington remained steadfast friends, visiting each other often in London and writing numerous letters.
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