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Thus in each flower and simple bell
That in our path betrodden lie,
How fast their winged moments fly." The admirable merit of her prose fictions is indisputable. She excels in descriptions of nature, but always keeps her scenery in subservience to her personages. Her stories are not usually remarkable for skilful complications, but they excite that sort of interest which events derive from being related by one who has taken part in them. Great experience of life, keen observation, and satiric wit, flash forth from every page. There is nothing strikingly original in her characters, but they all have the air of real human beings, speaking so naturally as to sustain our eager interest, feeling so keenly as to touch our tearful sympathies, thinking so erroneously and so despondingly as to cause a sort of contemptuous compassion to blend with our just admiration of her extraordinary abilities.
Her novels seem to have been composed and printed in great haste, bearing evident marks of negligence in the construction of sentences, and being so full of verbal mistakes as to suggest the probability that the manuscripts were scarcely legible, and that she had never corrected the proof-sheets.
Hannah Cowley - Anna Seward – Mary Tighe.
“ Diverse voci fanno dolci note."
DANTE, * Dell Paradiso,' vi. 124. “Of diverse voices is sweet music made."
Cary's Translation, Canto 6, line 127.
HANNAH COWLEY, The greatest of our female comic-dramatists, was the daughter of Mr. Philip Parkhouse, a well educated and intelligent bookseller, and born in 1743, at Tiverton, in Devonshire. The poet Gay was their kinsman, and perhaps his fame stimulated Mr. Parkhouse's inclination towards learning, and increased the pride and pleasure which he felt in cultivating the precocious abilities of his shy and gentle daughter. She imbibed his knowledge from conversation rather than by any regular course of instruction, for which she had no aptitude. Had she been a person of high birth, and lived in Tudor times, she would have left behind no fame of mastered languages and operose translations, but rather would have expended her vivacious fancy wholly in diffusing domestic cheerfulness, and in the invention of masques and pageants.
At twenty-five years of age Hannah Parkhouse married Captain Cowley, an amiable and well-educated man, and went with him to reside in London. She did not often attend stage performances, but sitting one night at the theatre with her husband, and noticing his lively interest in the play which was being represented, she became suddenly conscious of her own dramatic power, and exclaimed, “ So delighted with this? Why, I could write as well myself!” He smiled incredulously, for she had attained the age of thirty-three and given no tokens of likelihood.
The next morning she wrote a sketch of the first act of her · Runaway,' which effectually convinced her husband of her ability. She rapidly completed the comedy ; it was favourably received by Mr. Garrick, brought upon the stage, and acted with such distinguished success, that her reputation as a comic-dramatist became at once established. This proved to be the last play which the English Roscius ever superintended. On its first representation the part of Emily was performed by Mrs. Siddons, whose wonderful tragic powers had not yet been recognized by a London audience. This comedy is much better adapted for acting than for reading. Its moral merit is negative, for in a licentious age, when ceremonious manners veiled very thinly gross and prevalent immoralities, she dared both in thought and word to be delicate and modest, and is reprehensible only for her too ardent descriptions of lawful love. The exaggerated and bombastic manner of making it is copied from the fashion of the times. The tragedy of * Albina' seems to have been her next composition, as it is said to have been placed in the hands of Mr. Garrick
in 1776. It was produced at the Haymarket Theatre in 1779, and met with a certain measure of success. The plot is well suited for stage effect: the tone moral and chivalrous. The blank verse is of the worst kind, having no proper rhythm, and scarcely an attempt at it, beyond a few passages imitated from some inflated speeches of Shakspeare. It is designed to illustrate the passion of envy, and fulfils its purpose. In the same year, 1779, her comedy, called “Who's the Dupe ?' was brought out at Drury Lane Theatre, and met with great applause. For this play her father, at her request, furnished her “ with Greek to laugh at.” Even in reading, the effect of the author's buoyant humour is so exhilarating that the heart must be sad indeed which cannot share its merriment ; and upon the stage its irresistible drollery insured its popularity; in spite of the splenetic critics, who censured it as farce-like, although framed from those constituent elements of college seclusion and town intercourse, which must offer a lively contrast in any civilized age.
In 1780, Mrs. Cowley reached the zenith of her dramatic course in The Belle's Stratagem.' This admirable comedy was brought out at Covent Garden Theatre, and received with the highest favour. When printed it was dedicated by special permission to Queen Charlotte; and that discreet reformer of the British Court, with her royal spouse, King George III., continued to patronise that spirited comedy as long as they attended theatrical performances. It has stood the test of time, and won a place among the standard dramas of the country ; establishing the right of Hannah Cowley to have her name enrolled among those of the ablest comic writers of her period, Goldsmith and Macklin, Cumberland, Colman, and Sheridan.
At the same theatre, two years afterwards, her comedy of · Which is the Man?' was warmly welcomed, although far below the · Belle's Stratagem 'in merit. Her whimsical and clever comedy, entitled • A Bold Stroke for a Husband,' achieved a triumph in 1783, which was only secondary to that of The Belle's Stratagem.' The beautiful Mrs. Robinson was the Victoria of its first series of representations.
In 1783, her beloved husband left her to join his regiment in Bengal, and she soothed the pains of absence by writing the sprightly comedy of More Ways than One,' which was successfully acted at Covent Garden Theatre in that year, and published with a dedication to him.
In 1786, her ‘School for Grey-beards' came out at Drury Lane. Part of the plot of this comedy was taken by a friend from an old play and given to her to be worked out. It is said to be the only one of her eleven successful dramas which did not wholly spring from her own fertile fancy. The first Donna Seraphina in this piece was Miss Farren; the first Don Henry, Mr. J. P. Kemble.
In 1788, her · Fate of Sparta' came out at Drury Lane. It is founded on the well-known history of Leonidas and Cleombrotus, and the filial and conjugal duty of Chelonice. On the first representation the part of the heroine was performed by Mrs. Siddons. The stage situations are striking, the diction is better, and the metre more exact than those of ‘Albina ;' but this second tragedy, though not a failure, tended to establish the fact, that the ability of Mrs. Cowley was essentially comic.
In 1792, her comedy, called · A Day in Turkey,' full of lively dialogue, and of exciting incidents for stage effect, was successfully brought out at Covent Garden.
In 1795, her comedy of The Town before You,' appeared at the same theatre, and closed an almost unparalleled series of dramatic successes.