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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1579

First produced: 1902

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First published: 1913

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Comedy of manners

Time of work: Napoleonic wars

Locale: English provincial village

Principal Characters:

Miss Phoebe Throssel, a spinster

Miss Susan Throssel, her sister

Valentine Brown, loved by Phoebe

Critique:

This play contains acute if not very penetrating observations on the problem of a wartime love affair in which the lovers are apart for ten years, during which time both change superficially. Most of the action is based on the heroine's successful attempt to bring her lover to his senses. Barrie employs dramatic irony quite effectively throughout and the minimum of privacy in the lives of people in a small village is brought out with good comic effect.

The Story:

In the days of the Napoleonic wars, two sisters, Phoebe and Susan Throssel, lived in a little house in Quality Street, the main thoroughfare of a provincial English village. Both were single, both were pretty. One day they entertained a needlework party in their charming blue and white parlor. One of the ladies present repeated a rumor that a gentleman of the village had enlisted to go to the wars. All wondered who the gentleman could be.

Phoebe told her sister that Valentine Brown, a dashing doctor who had come to the village two years before, had walked with her in the street, and had said that he wanted to tell her something important. The retiring Phoebe had asked Brown to come to the house to tell her. Both sisters assumed that Brown was coming to propose marriage to Phoebe, a likely conclusion since a venture in which Brown had invested their savings had failed and he would naturally feel responsible for their welfare. In anticipation of his proposal, Susan gave Phoebe a wedding dress which she had made for her own marriage, a wedding which had never materialized.

But to Phoebe's disappointment and humiliation, Brown said nothing of marriage. Instead, he told them that he was the man who had enlisted. He declared his friendship for both sisters and his liking for the little blue and white parlor, but he gave no indication of love for Phoebe, who had given her heart to him. Ironically, Phoebe revealed her disappointment by telling Brown that she had thought he was going to announce his marriage and that they were curious to know the name of the fortunate young lady. The sisters, out of pride, did not mention that the loss of their investment left them all but destitute. They planned to set up a school in their house.

Ten years later Susan and Phoebe were still conducting their school, which had prospered in spite of their many shortcomings as teachers. They were loved, but hardly respected by the older children. Dancing and the more gentle acquirements they taught with pleasure, but they detested Latin, and would teach algebra only at the request of their pupils' parents. They could not bring themselves to whip the older boys, most of whom they feared.

The wars were over at last, and everywhere people were celebrating the victory at Waterloo. On Quality Street all but Susan and Phoebe were preparing for a village ball that night. While Phoebe was out of the house, Captain Valentine Brown, who had lost his left hand during a battle on the continent, came to call on his dear old friends. Disappointed at the disappearance of the delightful blue and white parlor, he paid his respects to Miss Susan and asked to see Phoebe of the ringlets and the dancing eyes. When Phoebe returned, Captain Brown could not hide his dismay at the way she had changed into a drab, mouse-like spinster. Phoebe was hurt by his unconcealed feelings. She was further hurt later in the day when a former pupil, now Ensign Blades and a veteran, asked her, under duress, to attend the ball with him. Miserable, Phoebe declined. But Phoebe was only thirty and tired of teaching. Inspired by Susan and by Patty, the maid, she transformed herself into the Phoebe of ten years before. When Brown came again, he failed to recognize Phoebe, and he was told that she was the sisters' niece. Completely taken in and charmed by "Miss Livvy," he asked her to accompany him to the ball. "Livvy" teased him, to his discomfort, about his gray hairs.

At later balls and parties of the victory celebration, "Livvy" continued to capture the fancy of all the young men of the village. Difficulties posed by the dual existence of Phoebe-"Livvy" were met by the explanation that Phoebe or "Livvy" was either out or indisposed.

At one ball the swains hovered about "Livvy" constantly, but Captain Brown stoutly held his place as her escort. The sisters' gossipy spinster neighbors, who lived across the street and observed their comings and goings, began to suspect that something was not quite right. They were almost in a position to expose Phoebe at the ball, but Susan saved the day by lending another young lady "Livvy's" coat. Captain Brown, alone with "Livvy," told her of his love for Phoebe, explaining that he had fallen in love with Phoebe during the balls because of "Livvy's" resemblance to the Phoebe of days gone by. "Livvy," the flirt, had made Captain Brown realize that he was no longer twenty-five and that he preferred, after all, the retiring, modest, quiet Phoebe.

School over, the parlor was redecorated with its blue and white frills for the summer holiday. Phoebe, tiring of her dual role, announced that "Livvy" had been taken sick, and became the tired schoolteacher again. The gossips who came to call were more suspicious than ever because no doctor had visited "Livvy." They almost discovered that there was no one in the sick room, but they prudently did not go beyond the partly opened door.

That day Captain Brown came to propose to Phoebe. When the sisters left the parlor for a moment, he entered the sick room and found it empty. Then he heard the entire story from Patty, the maid. Captain Brown was amused, but carried on the masquerade when "Livvy" came out of the sick room and announced her recovery. The sisters were stupefied when he offered to take "Livvy" to her home twenty miles away. They stepped out of the parlor to have a hurried consultation, but they knew that Captain Brown had found them out when they heard him talking to a "Livvy" he devised with pillows and a shawl and which he carried out to a waiting coach, to the satisfaction of the gossips who were watching from their windows.

Miss Susan Throssel announced the forthcoming marriage of her sister Phoebe to Captain Valentine Brown. The reopening of school was quite forgotten.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

James Barrie's best plays are those in which he treads the thin line between "reality" and "fantasy" with the touches of fantasy adding a lively, imaginative dimension to the essentially realistic situations (except for PETER PAN, where touches of reality sharpen the meaning of the fantasy). QUALITY STREET is a charming "realistic fantasy" about a prolonged love affair that finally succeeds against the obstacles of time, age, and human misunderstanding.

Even in 1902, the subject matter and attitudes present in the play would have seemed dated, had Barrie not taken the edge off of the play's realism with a number of adroit theatrical devices. His touch is light, sentimental, and gently ironic so that one is moved by the plight of the spinster sisters, but does not take them too seriously. By placing his story in an English provincial village during the Napoleonic wars and emphasizing period settings and costumes, Barrie further distances his action from the modern world and so justifies actions and speeches for his characters that would be excessive and trite in a modern context. But the appeal of the play can probably best be accounted for by the fact that in mood and feeling it is close to a fairy tale.

The specific fairy tale is "Cinderella." Phoebe Throssel is the girl kept from her Prince Charming, Valentine Brown, not by conniving stepsisters, but by her intended's perversity in enlisting in the army rather than proposing to her. Upon his return ten years later, it is age, exaggerated by Phoebe's spinsterly role as schoolmarm, that keeps them apart. The transformation is occasioned not by magical intervention, but by Phoebe's own frustration.

So she effects her change—into her own niece Livvy—and goes off to the ball. There, like her prototype, she charms everyone including the object of her affections, but must keep her true identity a secret. The "glass slipper" which reveals the heroine and resolves the hero to marry her is replaced by the more conventional device of a talkative maid. Valentine Brown is converted by his flirtation with Livvy to the idea that it is Phoebe he really wants because she is mature and lady-like. They will live, as in all fairy tales, happily ever after, with Phoebe getting her Prince Charming and Valentine getting both the lady-like Phoebe and the flirtatious "Livvy" in one woman.

Whether or not such a conclusion would be acceptable in the modern world—either Barrie's or our own—is very doubtful. But "Quality Street" is no more real than "Never Land," and, while not so obviously a "wish-fulfillment" play, QUALITY STREET is as much a fairy tale for adults as PETER PAN is for youngsters.

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