Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816). The School for Scandal.
Vol. 18, pp. 115-128 of The Harvard Classics
The painted lips of the eighteenth century ladies and gallants vied with one another in whispering scathing gossip, in gleefully furthering the destruction of a good name. Sheridan depicts this gay world with a brilliant spicy pen.
(Sheridan buried in Westminster Abbey, July 7, 1816.)
LADY SNEERWELL’S Dressing-room
LADY SNEERWELL discovered at her toilet; SNAKE drinking chocolate.
THE PARAGRAPHS, you say, Mr. Snake, were all inserted?
Snake. They were, madam; and, as I copied them myself in a feigned hand, there can be no suspicion whence they came.
Lady Sneer. Did you circulate the report of Lady Brittle’s intrigue with Captain Boastall?
Snake. That’s in as fine a train as your ladyship could wish. In the common course of things, I think it must reach Mrs. Clackitt’s ears within four-and-twenty hours; and then, you know, the business is as good as done.
Lady Sneer. Why, truly, Mrs. Clackitt has a very pretty talent, and a great deal of industry.
Snake. True, madam, and has been tolerably successful in her day. To my knowledge, she has been the cause of six matches being broken off, and three sons being disinherited; of four forced elopements, and as many close confinements; nine separate maintenances, and two divorces. Nay, I have more than once traced her causing a tête-à-tête in the “Town and County Magazine,” when the parties, perhaps, had never seen each other’s face before in the course of their lives.
Lady Sneer. She certainly has talents, but her manner is gross.
Snake. ’Tis very true. She generally designs well, has a free tongue and a bold invention; but her colouring is too dark, and her outlines often extravagant. She wants that delicacy of tint, and mellowness of sneer, which distinguish your ladyship’s scandal.
Lady Sneer. You are partial, Snake. n Snake. Not in the least; everybody allows that Lady Sneerwell can do more with a word or look than many can with the most laboured detail, even when they happen to have a little truth on their side to support it.
Lady Sneer. Yes, my dear Snake; and I am no hypocrite to deny the satisfaction I reap from the success of my efforts. Wounded myself, in the early part of my life, by the envenomed tongue of slander, I confess I have since known no pleasure equal to the reducing others to the level of my own reputation.
Snake. Nothing can be more natural. But, Lady Sneerwell, there is one affair in which you have lately employed me, wherein, I confess, I am at a loss to guess your motives.
Lady Sneer. I conceive you mean with respect to my neighbour, Sir Peter Teazle, and his family?
Snake. I do. Here are two young men, to whom Sir Peter has acted as a kind of guardian since their father’s death; the eldest possessing the most amiable character, and universally well spoken of—the youngest, the most dissipated and extravagant young fellow in the kingdom, without friends or character; the former an avowed admirer of your ladyship, and apparently your favourite; the latter attached to Maria, Sir Peter’s ward, and confessedly beloved by her. Now, on the face of these circumstances, it is utterly unaccountable to me, why you, the widow of a city knight, with a good jointure, should not close with the passion of a man of such character and expectations as Mr. Surface; and more so why you should be so uncommonly earnest to destroy the mutual attachment subsisting between his brother Charles and Maria.
Lady Sneer. Then, at once to unravel this mystery, I must inform you that love has no share whatever in the intercourse between Mr. Surface and me.
Lady Sneer. His real attachment is to Maria, or her fortune; but, finding in his brother a favoured rival, he has been obliged to mask his pretensions, and profit by my assistance.
Snake. Yet still I am more puzzled why you should interest yourself in his success.
Lady Sneer. Heavens! how dull you are! Cannot you surmise the weakness which I hitherto, through shame, have concealed even from you? Must I confess that Charles—that libertine, that extravagant, that bankrupt in fortune and reputation—that he it is for whom I am thus anxious and malicious, and to gain whom I would sacrifice every thing?
Snake. Now, indeed, your conduct appears consistent: but how came you and Mr. Surface so confidential?
Lady Sneer. For our mutual interest. I have found him out a long time since. I know him to be artful, selfish, and malicious—in short, a sentimental knave; while with Sir Peter, and indeed with all his acquaintance, he passes for a youthful miracle of prudence, good sense, and benevolence.
Snake. Yes; yet Sir Peter vows he has not his equal in England; and, above all, he praises him as a man of sentiment.
Lady Sneer. True; and with the assistance of his sentiment and hypocrisy he has brought Sir Peter entirely into his interest with regard to Maria; while poor Charles has no friend in the house—though, I fear, he has a powerful one in Maria’s heart, against whom we must direct our schemes.
Enter SERVANTSer. Mr. Surface.
Lady Sneer. Show him up. [Exit Servant.] He generally calls about this time. I don’t wonder at people giving him to me for a lover.
Enter JOSEPH SURFACEJos. Surf. My dear Lady Sneerwell, how do you do today? Mr. Snake, your most obedient.
Lady Sneer. Snake has just been rallying me on our mutual attachment, but I have informed him of our real views. You know how useful he has been to us; and, believe me, the confidence is not ill-placed.
Jos. Surf. Madam, it is impossible for me to suspect a man of Mr. Snake’s sensibility and discernment.
Lady Sneer. Well, well, no compliments now; but tell me when you saw your mistress, Maria—or, what is more material to me, your brother.
Jos. Surf. I have not seen either since I left you; but I can inform you that they never meet. Some of your stories have taken a good effect on Maria.
Lady Sneer. Ah, my dear Snake! the merit of this belongs to you. But do your brother’s distresses increase?
Jos. Surf. Every hour. I am told he has had another execution in the house yesterday. In short, his dissipation and extravagance exceed any thing I have ever heard of.
Lady Sneer. Poor Charles!
Jos. Surf. True, madam; notwithstanding his vices, one can’t help feeling for him. Poor Charles! I’m sure I wish it were in my power to be of any essential service to him; for the man who does not share in the distresses of a brother, even though merited by his own misconduct, deserves—
Lady Sneer. O Lud! you are going to be moral, and forget that you are among friends.
Jos. Surf. Egad, that’s true! I’ll keep that sentiment till I see Sir Peter. However, it is certainly a charity to rescue Maria from such a libertine, who if he is to be reclaimed, can be so only by a person of your ladyship’s superior accomplishments and understanding.
Snake. I believe, Lady Sneerwell, here’s company coming: I’ll go and copy the letter I mentioned to you. Mr. Surface, your most obedient.
Jos. Surf. Sir, your very devoted.—[Exit SNAKE.] Lady Sneerwell, I am very sorry you have put any farther confidence in that fellow.
Lady Sneer. Why so?
Jos. Surf. I have lately detected him in frequent conference with old Rowley, who was formerly my father’s steward, and has never, you know, been a friend of mine.
Lady Sneer. And do you think he would betray us?
Jos. Surf. Nothing more likely; take my word for’t Lady Sneerwell, that fellow hasn’t virtue enough to be faithful even to his own villany. Ah, Maria!
Enter MARIALady Sneer. Maria, my dear, how do you do? What’s the matter?
Mar. Oh! there’s that disagreeable lover of mine, Sir Benjamin Backbite, has just called at my guardian’s, with his odious uncle, Crabtree; so I slipped out, and ran hither to avoid them.
Lady Sneer. Is that all?
Jos. Surf. If my brother Charles had been of the party, madam, perhaps you would not have been so much alarmed.
Lady Sneer. Nay, now you are severe; for I dare swear the truth of the matter is, Maria heard you were here. But, my dear, what has Sir Benjamin done, that you should avoid him so?
Mar. Oh, he has done nothing—but ’tis for what he has said: his conversation is a perpetual libel on all his acquaintance.
Jos. Surf. Ay, and the worst of it is, there is no advantage in not knowing him; for he’ll abuse a stranger just as soon as his best friend: and his uncle’s as bad.
Lady Sneer. Nay, but we should make allowance; Sir Benjamin is a wit and a poet.
Mar. For my part, I own, madam, wit loses its respect with me, when I see it in company with malice. What do you think, Mr. Surface?
Jos. Surf. Certainly, madam; to smile at the jest which plants a thorn in another’s breast is to become a principal in the mischief.
Lady Sneer. Psha! there’s no possibility of being witty without a little ill nature: the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick. What’s your opinion, Mr. Surface?
Jos. Surf. To be sure, madam; that conversation, where the spirit of raillery is suppressed, will ever appear tedious and insipid.
Mar. Well, I’ll not debate how far scandal may be allowable; but in a man, I am sure, it is always contemptible. We have pride, envy, rivalship, and a thousand motives to depreciate each other; but the male slanderer must have the cowardice of a woman before he can traduce one.
Re-enter SERVANTSer. Madam, Mrs. Candour is below, and, if your ladyship’s at leisure, will leave her carriage.
Lady Sneer. Beg her to walk in.—[Exit SERVANT.] Now, Maria, here is a character to your taste; for, though Mrs. Candour is a little talkative, every body allows her to be the best natured and best sort of woman.
Mar. Yes, with a very gross affectation of good nature and benevolence, she does more mischief than the direct malice of old Crabtree.
Jos. Surf. I’ faith that’s true, Lady Sneerwell: whenever I hear the current running against the characters of my friends, I never think them in such danger as when Candour undertakes their defence.
Lady Sneer. Hush!—here she is!
Enter MRS. CANDOURMrs. Can. My dear Lady Sneerwell, how have you been this century!—Mr. Surface, what news do you hear?—though indeed it is no matter, for I think one hears nothing else but scandal.
Jos. Surf. Just so, indeed, ma’am.
Mrs. Can. Oh, Maria! child,—what, is the whole affair off between you and Charles? His extravagance, I presume—the town talks of nothing else.
Mar. I am very sorry, ma’am, the town has so little to do.
Mrs. Can. True, true, child: but there’s no stopping people’s tongues. I own I was hurt to hear it, as I indeed was to learn, from the same quarter, that your guardian, Sir Peter, and Lady Teazle have not agreed lately as well as could be wished.
Mar. ’Tis strangely impertinent for people to busy themselves so.
Mrs. Can. Very true, child: but what’s to be done? People will talk—there’s no preventing it. Why, it was but yesterday I was told that Miss Gadabout had eloped with Sir Filigree Flirt. But, Lord! there’s no minding what one hears; though, to be sure, I had this from very good authority.
Mar. Such reports are highly scandalous.
Mrs. Can. So they are, child—shameful, shameful! But the world is so censorious, no character escapes. Lord, now who would have suspected your friend, Miss Prim, of an indiscretion? Yet such is the ill nature of people, that they say her uncle stopped her last week, just as she was stepping into the York Mail with her dancing-master.
Mar. I’ll answer for’t there are no grounds for that report.
Mrs. Can. Ah, no foundation in the world, I dare swear; no more, probably, than for the story circulated last month, of Mrs. Festino’s affair with Colonel Cassino—though, to be sure, that matter was never rightly cleared up.
Jos. Surf. The license of invention some people take is monstrous indeed.
Mar. ’Tis so; but, in my opinion, those who report such things are equally culpable.
Mrs. Can. To be sure they are; tale-bearers are as bad as the talemakers—’tis an old observation, and a very true one: but what’s to be done, as I said before? how will you prevent people from talking? To-day, Mrs. Clackitt assured me, Mr. and Mrs. Honeymoon were at last become mere man and wife, like the rest of their acquaintance. She likewise hinted that a certain widow, in the next street, had got rid of her dropsy and recovered her shape in a most surprising manner. And at the same time Miss Tattle, who was by, affirmed that Lord Buffalo had discovered his lady at a house of no extraordinary fame; and that Sir Harry Bouquet and Tom Saunter were to measure swords on a similar provocation. But, Lord, do you think I would report these things! No, no! tale-bearers, as I said before, are just as bad as the tale-makers.
Jos. Surf. Ah! Mrs. Candour, if every body had your forbearance and good nature!
Mrs. Can. I confess, Mr. Surface, I cannot bear to hear people attacked behind their backs; and when ugly circumstances come out against our acquaintance, I own I always love to think the best. By the by, I hope ’tis not true that your brother is absolutely ruined?
Jos. Surf. I am afraid his circumstances are very bad indeed, ma’am.
Mrs. Can. Ah! I heard so—but you must tell him to keep up his spirits; every body almost is in the same way: Lord Spindle, Sir Thomas Splint, Captain Quinze, and Mr. Nickit—all up, I hear, within this week; so, if Charles is undone, he’ll find half his acquaintance ruined too, and that, you know, is a consolation.
Jos. Surf. Doubtless, ma’am—a very great one.
Re-enter SERVANTSer. Mr. Crabtree and Sir Benjamin Backbite. [Exit.
Lady Sneer. So, Maria, you see your lover pursues you; positively you sha’n’t escape.
Enter CRABTREE and SIR BENJAMIN BACKBITECrab. Lady Sneerwell, I kiss your hand. Mrs. Candour, I don’t believe you are acquainted with my nephew, Sir Benjamin Backbite? Egad, ma’am he has a pretty wit, and is a pretty poet too. Isn’t he, Lady Sneerwell?
Sir Ben. Oh, fie, uncle!
Crab. Nay, egad, it’s true; I back him at a rebus or a charade against the best rhymer in the kingdom. Has your ladyship heard the epigram he wrote last week on Lady Frizzle’s feather catching fire?—Do, Benjamin, repeat it, or the charade you made last night extempore at Mrs. Drozie’s conversazione. Come, now, your first is the name of a fish, your second a great naval commander, and—
Sir Ben. Uncle, now—pr’thee—
Crab. I’faith, ma’am ’twould surprise you to hear how ready he is at all these sorts of things.
Lady Sneer. I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish any thing.
Sir Ben. To say truth, ma’am, ’tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons on particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties. However, I have some love elegies, which, when favoured with this lady’s smiles, I mean to give the public. [Pointing to MARIA.
Crab. [To MARIA.] ’Fore heaven, ma’am, they’ll immortalize you!—you will be handed down to posterity, like Petrarch’s Laura, or Waller’s Sacharissa.
Sir Ben. [To MARIA.] Yes, madam, I think you will like them, when you shall see them on a beautiful quarto page, where a neat rivulet of text shall meander through a meadow of margin. ’Fore Gad they will be the most elegant things of their kind!
Crab. But, ladies, that’s true—have you heard the news?
Mrs. Can. What, sir, do you mean the report of—
Crab. No, ma’am, that’s not it.—Miss Nicely is going to be married to her own footman.
Mrs. Can. Impossible!
Crab. Ask Sir Benjamin.
Sir Ben. ’Tis very true, ma’am: every thing is fixed, and the wedding liveries bespoke.
Crab. Yes—and they do say there were pressing reasons for it.
Lady Sneer. Why, I have heard something of this before.
Mrs. Can. It can’t be—and I wonder any one should believe such a story of so prudent a lady as Miss Nicely.
Sir Ben. O Lud! ma’am, that’s the very reason ’twas believed at once. She has always been so cautious and so reserved, that every body was sure there was some reason for it at bottom.
Mrs. Can. Why, to be sure, a tale of scandal is as fatal to the credit of a prudent lady of her stamp as a fever is generally to those of the strongest constitutions. But there is a sort of puny sickly reputation, that is always ailing, yet will outlive the robuster characters of a hundred prudes.
Sir Ben. True, madam, there are valetudinarians in reputation as well as constitution, who, being conscious of their weak part, avoid the least breath of air, and supply their want of stamina by care and circumspection.
Mrs. Can. Well, but this may be all a mistake. You know, Sir Benjamin, very trifling circumstances often give rise to the most injurious tales.
Crab. That they do, I’ll be sworn, ma’am. Did you ever hear how Miss Piper came to lose her lover and her character last summer at Tunbridge?—Sir Benjamin, you remember it?
Sir Ben. Oh, to be sure!—the most whimsical circumstance.
Lady Sneer. How was it, pray?
Crab. Why, one evening, at Mrs. Ponto’s assembly, the conversation happened to turn on the breeding Nova Scotia sheep in this country. Says a young lady in company, “I have known instances of it; for Miss Letitia Piper, a first cousin of mine, had a Nova Scotia sheep that produced her twins.” “What!” cries the Lady Dowager Dundizzy (who you know is as deaf as a post), “has Miss Piper had twins?” This mistake, as you may imagine, threw the whole company into a fit of laughter. However, ’twas the next morning everywhere reported, and in a few days believed by the whole town, that Miss Letitia Piper had actually been brought to bed of a fine boy and a girl: and in less than a week there were some people who could name the father, and the farm-house where the babies were put to nurse.
Lady Sneer. Strange, indeed!
Crab. Matter of fact, I assure you. O Lud! Mr. Surface, pray is it true that your uncle, Sir Oliver, is coming home?
Jos. Surf. Not that I know of, indeed, sir.
Crab. He has been in the East Indies a long time. You can scarcely remember him, I believe? Sad comfort, whenever he returns, to hear how your brother has gone on!
Jos. Surf. Charles has been imprudent, sir, to be sure; but I hope no busy people have already prejudiced Sir Oliver against him. He may reform.
Sir Ben. To be sure he may: for my part, I never believed him to be so utterly void of principle as people say; and, though he has lost all his friends, I am told nobody is better spoken of by the Jews.
Crab. That’s true, egad, nephew. If the Old Jewry was a ward, I believe Charles would be an alderman: no man more popular there, ’fore Gad! I hear he pays as many annuities as the Irish tontine; and that, whenever he is sick, they have prayers for the recovery of his health in all the synagogues.
Sir Ben. Yet no man lives in greater splendour. They tell me, when he entertains his friends he will sit down to dinner with a dozen of his own securities; have a score of tradesmen waiting in the antechamber, and an officer behind every guest’s chair.
Jos. Surf. This may be entertainment to you, gentlemen, but you pay very little regard to the feelings of a brother.
Mar. [Aside.] Their malice is intolerable!—[Aloud.] Lady Sneer—well, I must wish you a good morning: I’m not very well. [Exit.
Mrs. Can. O dear! she changes colour very much.
Lady Sneer. Do, Mrs. Candour, follow her: she may want your assistance.
Mrs. Can. That I will, with all my soul, ma’am.—Poor dear girl, who knows what her situation may be! [Exit.
Lady Sneer. ’Twas nothing but that she could not bear to hear Charles reflected on, notwithstanding their difference.
Sir Ben. The young lady’s penchant is obvious.
Crab. But, Benjamin, you must not give up the pursuit for that: follow her, and put her into good humour. Repeat her some of your own verses. Come, I’ll assist you.
Sir Ben. Mr. Surface, I did not mean to hurt you; but depend on’t your brother is utterly undone.
Crab. O Lud, ay! undone as ever man was—can’t raise a guinea!
Sir Ben. And everything sold, I’m told, that was movable.
Crab. I have seen one that was at his house. Not a thing left but some empty bottles that were overlooked, and the family pictures, which I believe are framed in the wainscots.
Sir Ben. And I’m very sorry also to hear some bad stories against him. [Going.
Crab. Oh, he has done many mean things, that’s certain.
Sir Ben. But, however, as he’s your brother— [Going.
Crab. We’ll tell you all another opportunity. [Exeunt CRABTREE and SIR BENJAMIN.
Lady Sneer. Ha! ha! ’tis very hard for them to leave a subject they have not quite run down.
Jos. Surf. And I believe the abuse was no more acceptable to your ladyship than Maria.
Lady Sneer. I doubt her affections are farther engaged than we imagine. But the family are to be here this evening, so you may as well dine where you are, and we shall have an opportunity of observing farther; in the meantime, I’ll go and plot mischief, and you shall study sentiment. [Exeunt.
A Room in SIR PETER TEAZLE’S House
Enter SIR PETER TEAZLESir Pet. When an old bachelor marries a young wife, what is he to expect? ’Tis now six months since Lady Teazle made me the happiest of men—and I have been the most miserable dog ever since! We tiffed a little going to church, and fairly quarrelled before the bell had done ringing. I was more than once nearly choked with gall during the honeymoon, and had lost all comfort in life before my friends had done wishing me joy. Yet I chose with caution—a girl bred wholly in the country, who never knew luxury beyond one silk gown, nor dissipation above the annual gala of a race ball. Yet she now plays her part in all the extravagant fopperies of fashion and the town, with as ready a grace as if she never had seen a bush or a grass-plot out of Grosvenor Square! I am sneered at by all my acquaintance, and paragraphed in the newspapers. She dissipates my fortune, and contradicts all my humours; yet the worst of it is, I doubt I love her, or I should never bear all this. However, I’ll never be weak enough to own it.
Enter ROWLEYRow. Oh! Sir Peter, your servant: how is it with you, sir?
Sir Pet. Very bad, Master Rowley, very bad. I meet with nothing but crosses and vexations.
Row. What can have happened since yesterday?
Sir Pet. A good question to a married man!
Row. Nay, I’m sure, Sir Peter, your lady can’t be the cause of your uneasiness.
Sir Pet. Why, has any body told you she was dead?
Row. Come, come, Sir Peter, you love her, notwithstanding your tempers don’t exactly agree.
Sir Pet. But the fault is entirely hers, Master Rowley. I am, myself, the sweetest-tempered man alive, and hate a teasing temper; and so I tell her a hundred times a day.
Sir Pet. Ay; and what is very extraordinary, in all our disputes she is always in the wrong! But Lady Sneerwell, and the set she meets at her house, encourage the perverseness of her disposition. Then, to complete my vexation, Maria, my ward, whom I ought to have the power of a father over, is determined to turn rebel too, and absolutely refuses the man whom I have long resolved on for her husband; meaning, I suppose, to bestow herself on his profligate brother.
Row. You know, Sir Peter, I have always taken the liberty to differ with you on the subject of these two young gentlemen. I only wish you may not be deceived in your opinion of the elder. For Charles, my life on’t! he will retrieve his errors yet. Their worthy father, once my honoured master, was, at his years, nearly as wild a spark; yet, when he died, he did not leave a more benevolent heart to lament his loss.
Sir Pet. You are wrong, Master Rowley. On their father’s death, you know, I acted as a kind of guardian to them both, till their uncle Sir Oliver’s liberality gave them an early independence. Of course, no person could have more opportunities of judging of their hearts, and I was never mistaken in my life. Joseph is indeed a model for the young men of the age. He is a man of sentiment, and acts up to the sentiments he professes; but for the other, take my word for’t, if he had any grain of virtue by descent, he has dissipated it with the rest of his inheritance. Ah! my old friend, Sir Oliver, will be deeply mortified when he finds how part of his bounty has been misapplied.
Row. I am sorry to find you so violent against the young man, because this may be the most critical period of his fortune. I came hither with news that will surprise you.
Sir Pet. What! let me hear.
Row. Sir Oliver is arrived, and at this moment in town.
Sir Pet. How! you astonish me! I thought you did not expect him this month.
Row. I did not: but his passage has been remarkably quick.
Sir Pet. Egad, I shall rejoice to see my old friend. ’Tis sixteen years since we met. We have had many a day together:—but does he still enjoin us not to inform his nephews of his arrival?
Row. Most strictly. He means, before it is known, to make some trial of their dispositions.
Sir Pet. Ah! there needs no art to discover their merits—however, he shall have his way, but, pray, does he know I am married?
Row. Yes, and will soon wish you joy.
Sir Pet. What, as we drink health to a friend in a consumption! Ah! Oliver will laugh at me. We used to rail at matrimony together, but he has been steady to his text. Well, he must be soon at my house, though—I’ll instantly give orders for his reception. But, Master Rowley, don’t drop a word that Lady Teazle and I ever disagree.
Row. By no means.
Sir Pet. For I should never be able to stand Noll’s jokes; so I’ll have him think, Lord forgive me! that we are a very happy couple.
Row. I understand you:—but then you must be very careful not to differ while he is in the house with you.
Sir Pet. Egad, and so we must—and that’s impossible. Ah! Master Rowley, when an old bachelor marries a young wife, he deserves—no—the crime carries its punishment along with it.