Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle met a little later than usual, following an English win at the Euros, to perform the next section of Hannah Crowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem. Where the first part had enjoyed a rather simple plot, the levels of shenaniganry ramped up significantly.
We start in an auction house, where the auctioneer goes over plans with his puffers. One puffer’s job must talk up the items for sale, the other has to appear as a lady buyer and raise the biddings. None of the three seem to know very much about what they are selling. But it doesn’t really matter, as a lady of fashion enters and shows that she doesn’t really know what she’s buying either, confusing a picture of David spying Bathsheba bathing for Actaeon in a similar situation, seeing the naked Diana in Ovid’s myth.
Then Lady Frances enters, on a girls’ day out with Mrs Rackett and Miss Ogle. They discuss a wax model of a city, the auctioneer having to admit he doesn’t know exactly which city it is. He nonetheless tries to make a selling point of it, showing how, with a little imagination, the model could represent all cities: ‘call it Rome, Peking, or London, ‘tis still a city. You’ll find in it the same jarring interests, the same passions, the same virtues, and the same vices’. I’d love to see the prop of this city which manages to be every-place and no-place. Lady Frances is a bit confused by everything and is disturbed by the figure of Courtall staring at her. After being introduced, they chat. She feels that she’s being merely polite to a friend of her friends, but he reads her politeness as encouragement. He imagines he’s making romantic advances and may have a chance with her later. When describing her day of fun later, Lady Frances observes: ‘Everybody about me seemed happy; but everybody seemed to be in a hurry to be happy somewhere else.’ Sure enough, the ladies don’t have time to actually attend the auction itself and rush off to the next engagement.
The next scene is at Hardy’s house where Letitia is talking to Mrs Racket, a woman who seems able to get everywhere. Letitia’s plan is to act a complete fool in front of Doricourt, her lacklustre intended. This, she hopes, will make him hate her, her risky long game being to then turn this hatred into powerful love. She comes in as he’s appreciating the beauty of her portrait and proceeds to run her mouth off, talking nonsense ‘as fast as anybody’ and pretending that she thinks Gulliver’s Travels is a true account. Has Doricourt, she wonders, met any talking horses on his own travels? Most annoyingly, she pretends to think she’s witty and clever, making riddles of people’s names (‘What a lamb says, three letters?’ Answer: Baker - Baa-ker). Doricourt takes the news that his intended is a simpleton well, deciding to either run straight to Bath or kill himself. But an invitation to a masquerade diverts him.
All the characters start making plans for the masquerade. Hardy (Letitia’s father) decides to go in disguise to convince Doricourt that Letitia isn’t an idiot, but Letitia has her own plans. Sir George decides he will accompany his wife after all (and orders the most boring costume). However, the character with the most plans for the masquerade is Courtall. He has been utterly won over by Lady Frances and, while admitting he would hate to have a wife of his own, has a fondness for other people’s. He bribes a servant to find out what Sir George is to wear, planning an identical disguise so he can carry off Lady Frances. He even bets on his success with Saville, also her admirer. Saville, however, decides to save Lady Frances by bringing along another young woman disguised, as you’ve guessed, in Lady Frances’s costume. If he can switch the real Lady Frances for a fake one, Courtall will find he’s made off with is in fact Kitty Willis, the name ‘Kitty’ apparently signalling that she is a woman of loose virtues. (I hope everyone’s getting this.. I said it gets more tricky).
Finally, we get to the masquerade. One of the features of this kind of entertainment that we have lost in modern fancy dress parties is that everyone who is dressed up as a particular kind of person must roleplay the part all evening. While I could see this getting irritating eventually, I’d much rather go to a party where all the James Bonds have to act like James Bond and all the Wonder Womans have to talk like her.
Cowley has great fun introducing the characters in masquerade. There’s a Merry-Andrew, talking nonsense from a hobby-horse; a mountebank plying fake potions and a soothsayer whispering prophecies in people’s ears. Hardy has gone as a popular Jewish stage character, leading to a number of jokes any modern production would wish to excise. Sir George is dressed as a Domino. This is the spoil-sport’s choice, as it’s a plain costume with no particular character. When his wife is called away, he wants to follow but is stung by all the nasty things people are saying about his possessiveness, even referring to him as a Hurlo Thrumbo (the eponymous hero of the eighteenth-century play which had the second longest run because people went to laugh at him).
Meanwhile, Doricourt catches the eye of a beautiful woman. She dances gracefully, sings purely and flirts up a storm. They have a tremendous back and forth, he starting with a rather weak, ‘did you come from the stars?’ She responds that she plans to reascend soon and proceeds to tease him – she’ll reveal herself later when he’s least expecting it. He’s in raptures: here is a woman as alluring and witty as any foreign lady. But with the benefit of an English accent! He asks around for her identity, stupidly asking the gossip Flutter, who is always wrong. Should he also feign madness, he wonders, to avoid marrying Letitia? Who could the mystery woman be?
Meanwhile, Courtall has approached Lady Frances alone, convinced her that he’s Sir George and ordered her back into the carriage. But loyal Saville has switched out Lady Frances for the fake one - so all’s well there.
And that’s where we ended for the night. Will Doricourt discover his mystery lady? Will Lady Frances and Sir George decide to live their marriage as they want to without worrying about other people? Will Courtall be content with his faux-Lady Frances? Will Flutter ever get a single piece of gossip correct? That’s to be seen in the final instalment.