Frances Burney’s 1779 play The Witlings is a classic comedy of manners coupled with a satiric take on London literary society. Wealthy Lady Smatter is the president of the Esprit Party, a small and select group of literary aficionados, dedicated to the study and spirit of poetry. She and friend Mrs. Sapient spend most of their time fawning over the verse of Mr. Dabler--even though his poetry is absolutely terrible, “the most fantastic absurdity under heaven.” Lady Smatter is also in charge of a wealthy orphan, Cecilia Stanley, whose fortune is secured within a London bank. And she controls the inheritance of her nephew, Beaufort, who is engaged to marry Cecilia. The match is all set, the workers in Mrs. Wheedle’s milliner shop are almost finished with the bridal caps … until Cecilia is suddenly broke. To maintain decorum and society, Lady Smatter forbids the marriage between her nephew and a penniless young woman, leading to hysterics and hijinks. But all is resolved by Beaufort’s sensible friend Censor, who steps in to save the day.
A colorful collection of characters rounds out Lady Smatter’s world: Mrs. Voluble, the talkative and gossipy landlady; Mr. Codger, the doddering country gent; Bob, Mrs. Voluble’s clumsy son; and Jack, Beaufort’s step-brother who is perpetually on the move throughout London to deliver messages and have a pint. Worried about its reception in 1779--especially its perceived criticisms of London literary groups--Burney never saw the play performed in her lifetime; in fact, the first recorded performance happened in 1998. The Witlings is a witty look at London society and the manners of the time, from poetry to fortunes, and still holds its humor centuries later.
The Witlings guide sections