Wednesday 12 August 2020

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle read The Modern Husband (Part Two)

We returned to Fielding’s The Modern Husband more prepared for the cynical tone, which was good as we begin Act Three with the line,
   “Can you be so cruel?” and proceeds to show Lord Richly gleefully making plans to seduce Mrs Bellamant and bribing Mrs Modern into helping him. As a former flame of Lord Richly, Mrs Modern most looks forward to seeing him drop Mrs Bellamant as she has been dropped He admits this is likely to be true but he is so rich and she so desperate, that he could easily have her back. Mrs Modern is amazed that Lord Richly has chosen Mrs Bellamant, she’s as close to her husband as Lady Coquette and her smelly lapdog. It’s Mrs Bellamant’s perceived loyalty that has Lord Richly courting Mrs Modern, he plans to use one woman to soften up the other. 

Mrs Bellamant is busy entertaining Gaywit, Amelia, Lady Charlotte and her stepson, Captain Bellamant. Charlotte gets most of the best lines, whether she’s being ‘charmed with those delightful creatures’, the inmates of Bedlam, or castigating Gaywit for crying in a tragedy - could be worse though, he could be laughing in a comedy. Indeed, Lady Charlotte can’t remember when she last saw the first act of a play, she doesn’t go to the theatre for all that acting nonsense.

As this play is set in a tight community of gossips, we are often given names of characters who we never see. As most of the names in the piece are essentially descriptions of their characters, we have a parade of vices and follies whenever these off-stage characters are named. Particular favourites in this section were Beau Smirk and the Duchess of Simpleton. One never-met character who is described a little more is Lady Grim, the subject of vicious mockery by Lady Modern and her maid, Lately. If their descriptions are correct, Lady Grim has little eyes, short nose, a head wedged between her shoulders and one leg shorter than the other - yet she believes herself beautiful. Lately endears herself to her mistress, describing Lady Grim as;
  “an ugly, ungenteel, squinting, flirting, impudent, odious, dirty puss,” Such slander serves her best.

Whereas Mrs Modern is trying to do her best to flirt her way out of money troubles, obsequious Mr Modern has a plan of his own. If he catches Mrs Modern with someone else, he’ll be able to take them to court and win damages. She’s dismayed by this idea, not wanting to lose her reputation but Mr Modern compares reputation to clogs, something only poor people need. Ultimately it doesn’t matter is Mrs Modern is on-board with the idea, if he can pay a servant to ‘catch’ her with another man, the plan doesn’t need her consent.

Meanwhile, Lord Richly’s plans are coming on well. He’s won a note for one hundred pounds off of Mrs Modern (which she had borrowed from Mr Bellamant) and has given it to Mrs Bellamant in payment for a six pound gambling debt. He sees these hundred pounds like little Greek soldiers behind Troy’s walls, ready to obey his commands and open the gates for him. However, he is an old hand at seducing other men’s wives, having made twenty men cuckolds for the promise of a place, and he’s keeping Mrs Modern in reserve.

Lord Richly’s plan goes awry though, and the hundred pounds betrays him. Mrs Bellamant gives it to her husband, who recognises it as the one he gave to Mrs Modern. At the same time Mr Modern ‘catches’ Mr Bellamant with his wife, which he decries in as exaggerated manner as he can. All looks wrong for the Bellamants..for about a minute.. before his giving back all the kisses he ever gave her wakens her passion and forgiveness. After all, as Mr Bellamant declares, he’s not injured her with ‘any other woman’ but Mrs Modern

While we await the outcome of these events next week, it is a good time to bring up the time that life imitated art. Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, played Captain Bellamant in the first production of The Modern Husband. The part of Lady Charlotte was played by his first wife, Jane, who died the same year. It was thought that her busy schedule of acting and pregnancy was the cause of her death. Two years later, Theophilus married up-and-comer, Susannah Arne. Only three years into the marriage and following some bad business decisions and gambling debts, he took to selling off Susannah’s clothes, furniture and jewellery as well as taking her earnings. 

The couple set up house with a rich squire called John Sloper, where they lived in a kind of ménage a trois. Sloper paid all the bills but even this wasn’t enough and Theophilus had to flee to France to escape his creditors. While he was there, Susannah wrote a letter to Theophilus, telling him she was going to leave him for Sloper. His response was to come back to England, hire armed thugs to kidnap his wife and to imprison her in a London house. This plan was foiled when Susannah’s brother Thomas, the composer of ‘God Save the King’, led an armed assault on the house and rescued her. 

Theophilus’s next plan was to take John Sloper to court and sue him for criminal conversation - the exact same plan Mr Modern has in the play. The sum Theophilus sueded for was the immense one of £5,000. The court were not convinced that John Sloper was with Susannah without the connivence of Theophilus, deciding that he had happily turned a blind eye to the relationship when it was paying for his lifestyle and only caused a problem when it no longer was. He was awarded a paltry £10. Humiliated, he took Sloper to court again, this time he wanted £10,000 for detaining his wife and was awarded £500. No longer a favourite of the London public, he toured provinces and frequently performed in Ireland.

Theophilus Cibber claimed his tempestuous nature was caused by his being born in the great storm of 1703, he was to die in a storm in the Irish Storm on the way back from a performance in Dublin.

Surprisingly, the story of Theophilus, Susannah and John is the subject of a romance novel by Karen Hooper. The book itself is well researched and told but the title is Midnight Mirage and the front cover features a topless man in khaki trousers ravishing a women in blue lingerie. I found a copy at a bus-stop, I only hope you will be as lucky.

The Modern Husband

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