A Penny for a Song

by John Whiting
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778

Sir Timothy Bellboys

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Sir Timothy Bellboys, the eccentric bachelor landowner of a large estate on the Dorset coast in southern England. As Napoleon’s power grows in Europe, rumors of invasion circle England, and Timothy is obsessed by them. In fact, he is convinced that the French will land their forces on his property. He has therefore devised a plan to outwit the French, by disguising himself as Napoleon and then ordering the French troops to lay down their arms. He also believes that the local volunteer soldiers’ exercise is the real invasion, and he proceeds to put his plan into operation. In the process, he descends a well (twice), rides a balloon, is involved in an explosion, and actually convinces the volunteers that he is Napoleon. For all his bizarre behavior, he shows himself to be a courageous and resourceful gentleman.

Lamprett Bellboys

Lamprett Bellboys, Timothy’s brother, who lives with him and is equally eccentric. Unlike Timothy, Lamprett is married, although the marriage was more or less forced on him to save his wife’s honor during his university days; he had been helping her make a protofeminist gesture to prove women intellectually capable of being Oxford students. Lamprett is in charge of the house’s fire engine and believes that his is the most important function of the whole community. He is as single-minded as his brother, so they conflict, especially over the function of William Humpage. Later, Lamprett puts out all the warning fires lit in the mistaken belief that Napoleon has landed.

Hester Bellboys

Hester Bellboys, Lamprett’s wife. Although Hester may seem far more capable and organized than her husband, it is soon revealed that she has her own obsessions. She is part of an early feminist movement and has been invited to form part of a women’s army corps. She is prepared to leave her family, even in the middle of a supposed invasion, to take up her post. Her energies are largely consumed in getting herself ready, especially her dress and equipment. Like the other eccentrics, she believes that the endeavors of the others are largely a waste of time.

Dorcas Bellboys

Dorcas Bellboys, the seventeen-year-old only child of Lamprett and Hester. Unlike them, she appears quite natural and delightfully innocent. Her mother believes that it is time for Dorcas to behave more maturely. Dorcas falls in love with Edward Sterne, a veteran who comes to the house. He appears to be one of the first normal men she has met, and she responds to both his personal suffering and his honesty and radical convictions. He does not return her affection, and she intuitively realizes this. She bravely accepts that love can be an unhappy experience.

Hallam Matthews

Hallam Matthews, a middle-aged dandy who arrives at the house from London with his servant, Samuel Breeze. He has been asked by Timothy to bring a number of items to further his Napoleonic disguise scheme. Hallam is as concerned with his own affairs as the other older people; in his case, it is his personal comfort. He does, however, discuss with Edward and Dorcas a number of contemporary issues, such as Romanticism and revolutionary theories. As might be expected, he represents a worldly wisdom that, although somewhat cynical and reactionary, is more than mere prejudice.

Edward Sterne

Edward Sterne, a mercenary and a radical, about twenty-eight years old. He appears first asking for food, in the company of a small boy whom he has rescued from some European battlefield. (In the first version of the play, Edward was blind, but his sight was reinstated in the final version.) He talks to Dorcas and Hallam Matthews about his experiences of actual fighting and the devastation it brings to civilians as well as soldiers, jarring the pastoral eccentricity of the scene and making many of the older people’s obsessions seem absurd and selfish. Hallam’s refutation of much of Edward’s revolutionary philosophy and Edward’s inability to return Dorcas’ love temper the audience’s natural sympathies for him.

George Selincourt

George Selincourt, a man who has taken over as captain of the local volunteers, reared initially by Timothy. There is considerable antagonism between them: Selincourt’s plans for military exercises are never communicated to Timothy, giving rise to the plot confusions. He is finally redeemed in Timothy’s eyes when it is discovered that he is a first-class cricketer.

William Humpage

William Humpage, the old family servant, who divides his loyalties between Timothy, who wants him as a lookout for the Napoleonic invasion, and Lamprett, who needs him as a lookout for fires. His ensuing behavior is more than slightly bizarre.

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