Wycherley, William (DNB00)
|←Wycheham, William de||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 63
WYCHERLEY, WILLIAM (1640?–1716), dramatist, was born about 1640 at Clive, Shropshire, where the family had settled at least as early as 1410. Wycherley's grandfather, Daniel (d. 1659), married Margery, daughter of William Wolfe; and their son Daniel (born about 1617) married, on 20 Feb. 1640, at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, Bethia, daughter of William Shrimpton of St. Andrew's, Holborn (Gent. Mag. 1850, ii. 336). She died in May 1700, aged 82 (Foster, London Marriage Licences, p. 1462). Daniel Wycherley, the dramatist's father, was a teller to the exchequer, was admitted to the Inner Temple 25 Nov. 1658, and was afterwards steward to John Paulet, fifth marquis of Winchester [q. v.] Contemporaries said that he appropriated money to his own use; he was able to buy the manors of Wem and Loppington, but was afterwards involved in lawsuits (Lords' Journals, xiii. 692, 703, 707, 714, xv. 104, 127, 138, 143, 150), and was obliged to convey the two manors to Judge Jeffreys (Shropshire Archæological and Natural History Society Transactions, 2nd ser. ii. 335–40, 356–7). In 1659 and 1660 there was litigation between the Marquis of Winchester and Daniel Wycherley on the one side, and Lord St. John, the marquis's heir, on the other. Wycherley said that in 1651, when the marquis's estates had been sequestered for the part he had taken in the civil war, he, at the importunity of the family, took over the management of their affairs, gave up his previous employment, and borrowed over 30,000l. to repurchase the estate. For his services he was made chief steward for life; but in 1662 a bill was presented to parliament to make void his patent and grant, and he petitioned that his interests might be protected (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. pp. 94, 100, 161, 172; Lords' Journals, xi. 531). Daniel Wycherley died on 5 May 1697, and was buried at Clive on 7 May. Besides William, he had three sons—George (b. 1651), of Queen's College, Oxford, rector of Wem 1672, who died in the Fleet prison, and was buried on 3 Jan. 1689; John, who died in 1691, leaving two sons; and Henry (b. 1662) (Foster, Alumni Oxon.)—and two daughters: Elizabeth, who died insane; and Frances. There are views of Clive Hall and Chapel in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1811 (ii. 505) and 1812 (i. 609).
When about fifteen William Wycherley was sent to the west of France (Saintonge or the Angoumois). There, living on the banks of the Charente, he was, we are told, admitted to the conversation of the most accomplished ladies of the court of France, particularly Madame de Montausier, formerly Mademoiselle de Rambouillet, celebrated by Voltaire in his ‘Letters’ Dennis, Original Letters, i. 213; Spence, Anecdotes, 1858, p. 13). This lady was wont to call him ‘the little Huguenot.’ Shortly before the restoration of Charles II Wycherley became a gentleman commoner of Queen's College, Oxford, where he lived in the provost's lodgings, and was entered in the public library as ‘philosophiæ studiosus’ in July 1660 (Wood, Athenæ Oxon. iv. 527). He left the university, however, without matriculating or having his name entered on the college books, having been reconciled by Dr. Barlow to the protestant religion, which he had abandoned when abroad. He had already been admitted a member of the Inner Temple on 10 Nov. 1659 (Foster, Inns of Court Registers); but the fashionable and literary circles in London were more attractive to him than the study of the law, and, if we may believe his own account, two of his plays were written by 1661. He told Pope ‘over and over’ that he wrote ‘Love in a Wood’ when he was but nineteen, the ‘Gentleman Dancing-master’ at twenty-one, the ‘Plain Dealer’ at twenty-five, and the ‘Country Wife’ at one or two and thirty (Spence, Anecdotes, p. 121). Macaulay has pointed out various passages which must have been written long after the dates here suggested, because they refer to events of later years; but it may of course be replied that no doubt the dramatist, on bringing forward a manuscript which had long been in his drawer, would revise it and add touches with reference to recent events. The main ground for doubting Wycherley's account is that the plays, even the earliest of them, at least in the form in which we have them, seem to be the work of a mature man, and not of a youth of nineteen or twenty-one. Moreover, if these plays had been written by 1660 or 1661, they would readily have been accepted at the theatre, and ten or twelve years would not have elapsed before they were acted. Wycherley's vanity seems to have led him in his old age to exaggerate the powers of his youth; and, speaking in the days when Vanbrugh and Farquhar were producing their best work, he may have been anxious to assert his claim as founder of a new school of comedy, and have antedated his own pieces from fear of claims of priority being advanced on behalf of Etherege or Dryden, several of whose plays were acted before any of Wycherley's. Verses entitled ‘Hero and Leander in Burlesque,’ published anonymously in quarto in 1669, are attributed to Wycherley; there is a copy in the Bodleian Library.
Wycherley's first play, ‘Love in a Wood, or St. James's Park,’ was published in 1672, or the end of 1671, with a dedication to the Duchess of Cleveland. It was registered at Stationers' Hall on 6 Oct. 1671, and in the dedication Wycherley speaks of himself as ‘a new author’ who had never before written a dedication. He says that the duchess saw the play on two consecutive days in Lent; and assuming, as we may fairly do, that she was present at early performances, and remembering that the play ran only a few nights at the most, it seems fairly certain that ‘Love in a Wood’ was first acted in the early spring of 1671. Genest (Some Account of the English Stage, i. 134) thought that the first performance was by the king's company after their removal to Lincoln's Inn Fields at the end of February 1672, owing to the Theatre Royal having been burnt down in January. But in that case, as Mr. W. C. Ward remarks in his edition of Wycherley's plays, the first performance must have taken place later than that of the ‘Gentleman Dancing-master,’ whereas Wycherley calls himself a ‘new’ author in the dedication to ‘Love in a Wood.’ Moreover, the date of registration of the play is in itself clear evidence that it was acted before October 1671. No doubt the piece was printed towards the end of that year, with the date (in accordance with a common practice) of the following year on the title-page; it is certain that it was not published until some time after it was acted.
‘Love in a Wood’ was a successful comedy, and Dennis says it brought its author acquaintance with the wits of the court. The principal parts were taken by Hart (Ranger), Mohun (Dapperwit), Lacy (Alderman Gripe), Kinaston (Valentine), and Mrs. Knipp (Lady Flippant). The play contains many witty scenes, but is marred by its indecency and is wanting in unity; the hypocritical Alderman Gripe, and his sister, Lady Flippant, the widow who is anxious to find a husband while she declaims against matrimony, are the most important of the characters. Certain supposed resemblances in the piece to Sedley's ‘Mulberry Garden’ are discussed at length in Dr. Klette's ‘Wycherley's Leben und dramatische Werke,’ 1883. The production of this comedy secured for Wycherley the intimacy of the king's mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland. Passing Wycherley in her coach in Pall Mall, the duchess addressed to him a coarse remark in allusion to one of the songs in the play; and Wycherley, seizing the opportunity, asked her to come to the next performance; and, ‘in short, she was that night in the first row of the king's box in Drury Lane, and Mr. Wycherley in the pit under her, where he entertained her during the whole play’ (Dennis, Original Letters, 1721, i. 216–17; cf. the account given by Spence, Anecdotes, p. 13). For a long time, says Voltaire (Letters concerning the English Nation), Wycherley was ‘known to be happy in the good graces’ of the duchess; and there is a story, which seems to rest on no good ground, and is obviously improbable, that she often stole from the court to her lover's chambers in the Temple, disguised like a country girl. The intrigue seems to have caused no annoyance to Charles II, for in 1678 (or 1679), when Wycherley was ill of a fever in his lodgings in Bow Street—at the widow Hilton's, on the west side (Wheatley, London Past and Present, i. 229)—the king visited him, advised him to take change of air, and paid the expenses of the journey. George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, one of the duchess's lovers, was at first jealous, but, through the mediation of the Earl of Rochester and Sir Charles Sedley, he became a friend, and in 1672 gave Wycherley a commission as lieutenant in his own regiment of foot (Dalton, English Army Lists, i. 120), and as master of the horse made him one of his equerries.
Wycherley's second play, ‘The Gentleman Dancing-master,’ was published in 1673. Genest (i. 136), following Downes (Roscius Anglicanus, 1708, p. 32), says that the first performance was by the duke's company at their new theatre in Dorset Gardens, near Salisbury Court, probably in December 1671 or January 1672; it ‘lasted but six days, being liked but indifferently.’ In a ‘prologue to the city’ Wycherley says the piece ‘would scarce do at t'other end o' th' town.’ Mr. W. C. Ward argues plausibly that there had probably been an earlier performance, in 1671, by the same company at their old theatre in Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields. This theory accords with the words already quoted from the prologue, where Wycherley also says that the performance at Dorset Gardens in the city was ‘his last trial.’ These words, however, are capable of more than one interpretation, and the statement of Downes, the prompter, that the play was a new piece when produced at Dorset Gardens is not lightly to be set aside. The epilogue, written for the performance in Dorset Gardens, refers to ‘packing to sea,’ in allusion to the pending war with the Dutch, which was formally declared in March 1672. The ‘Gentleman Dancing-master’ is a light comedy of intrigue, concerned chiefly with the schemes of a daughter and her lover—disguised as a dancing-master—to elude the vigilance of the lady's father, a merchant who apes Spanish habits and customs. The general idea of the play is borrowed from Calderon's ‘El Maestro de Danzar,’ in which a lover in disguise is placed in similar difficulties by the father insisting on witnessing the dancing lesson; but the whole tone of Calderon's play is different from Wycherley's. The ‘Gentleman Dancing-master’ is witty and amusing, and is comparatively free from the coarseness and cynicism which mark Wycherley's later work.
Probably Wycherley was one of the gentlemen who ‘packed to sea’ early in 1672. It is known that he, like many others who knew little of naval matters, was present at one of the battles with the Dutch (see ‘Lines on a sea-fight which the author was in betwixt the English and the Dutch’ in the Posthumous Works), and 1672 or 1673 seems the most likely time for this incident, though Leigh Hunt thought that the engagement at which Wycherley was present was that between the Duke of York and Opdam in 1665. However this may be, Wycherley's third play, ‘The Country Wife,’ was produced by the king's company at the theatre in Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, in 1672 or 1673 (Genest, i. 149). We know it was not brought out before the early spring of 1672, because in the prologue Wycherley, referring to the non-success of the ‘Gentleman Dancing Master,’ speaks of himself as ‘the late so baffled scribbler,’ and the production must have been before March or April 1674, when the ‘Plain Dealer’ appeared, because in the second act of that play the abandoned but hypocritical Olivia is made to profess that she is scandalised at a lady being seen at such a filthy play as the ‘Country Wife’ after the first night. The ‘Country Wife’ was published in 1675. It is the most brilliant but the most indecent of Wycherley's works. When it was revived in 1709, after an interval of six years, for Mrs. Bicknell's benefit, Steele, in a criticism in the ‘Tatler’ (16 April 1709), said that the character of the profligate Horner was a good representation of the age in which the comedy was written, when gallantry in the pursuit of women was the best recommendation at court. A man of probity in such manners would have been a monster. In 1766 Garrick brought out an adaptation of the play, under the title of ‘The Country Girl,’ which is still acted occasionally; but, as Genest says (v. 116), in making it decent he made it insipid. Another adaptation, by John Lee, was published in 1765.
Wycherley was indebted to Molière's ‘L'École des Femmes’ for his idea of Pinchwife, the jealous husband who endeavours to keep his young and ignorant wife from general society for fear she should be unfaithful to him; but there are not many resemblances between the story of Mrs. Pinchwife and that of Agnes. As Taine observes, ‘if Wycherley borrows a character anywhere, it is only to do it violence, or degrade it to the level of his own characters.’ Wycherley has also borrowed some incidents from Molière's ‘L'École des Maris’ (Klette, Wycherley's Leben und dramatische Werke). The play is certainly full of life, and, as Thomas Moore says (Memoirs, 1853, ii. 269), of ‘the very esprit du diable.’
‘The Plain Dealer,’ Wycherley's fourth and last play, was produced by the king's company at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, probably early in 1674. It cannot have been later than April, because in the ‘Apology’ prefixed to his ‘State of Innocence,’ which was registered at Stationers' Hall on 17 April 1674, Dryden wrote the following eulogy of Wycherley: ‘The author of “The Plain Dealer,” whom I am proud to call my friend, has obliged all honest and virtuous men by one of the most bold, most general, and most useful satires which has ever been presented on the English theatre.’ One scene in the second act, at any rate, based on a passage in Molière's ‘Critique de l'École des Femmes,’ which contains a candid criticism of the indecency of the ‘Country Wife,’ cannot have been written before 1672 or 1673. The ‘Plain Dealer’ was printed in 1677, having been licensed by Roger L'Estrange on 9 Jan. 1676[–7]. Wycherley was indebted to Molière's ‘Le Misanthrope’ for the general idea of his plot, and for certain scenes in particular; but he has greatly elaborated upon Molière, and the whole tone of the play is different. There is but little in common between the sincere and upright Alceste, the misanthrope, and the ‘honest surly’ sea-captain, Manly, who behaves so brutally at the close; and there is still less between the coquettish lady, Célimène, and the vicious and odious Olivia. Voltaire—who afterwards bowdlerised the ‘Plain Dealer’ in his ‘La Prude’—gives some indication of the contrast between the kindly humour of Molière and the often brutal satire of Wycherley, when he says, ‘All Wycherley's strokes are stronger and bolder than those of our “Misanthrope,” but then they are less delicate, and the rules of decorum are not so well observed in this play’ (Letters concerning the English Nation, 1733).
The coarseness of Wycherley's touch is nowhere more obvious than when we compare the picture of Fidelia, the girl who loves Manly and follows him to sea in man's clothes, with Shakespeare's Viola in ‘Twelfth Night.’ Fidelia, with whom we are expected to be in sympathy, aids Manly in his revolting plot against Olivia. But much may be forgiven on account of the underplot of the litigious widow Blackacre, and her son Jerry, a raw squire. They are the forerunners of Goldsmith's Mrs. Hardcastle and Tony Lumpkin, and of Steele's Humphry Gubbin, and the scenes in which they appear enabled Wycherley to make use of such knowledge of the law as he had picked up at the Temple, and supply a much-needed lighter element to the play. Wycherley's indebtedness to the litigious countess in Racine's ‘Les Plaideurs’ is very slight. One of ‘honest Manly's’ remarks in act i., ‘I weigh the man, not his title; 'tis not the king's stamp can make the metal better or heavier,’ must have been in Burns's mind when he wrote
The rank is but the guinea stamp,
(Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xii. 25, 5th ser. ii. 31, 158). Congreve (Prologue to Love for Love, 1695) said that
Since the Plain Dealer's scenes of manly rage
An adaptation of the ‘Plain Dealer’ by Bickerstaffe, in which the plot was not materially altered, was produced at Drury Lane in 1765, and an edition with alterations by J. P. Kemble appeared in 1796.
On 28 Feb. 1674 Wycherley received a commission as ‘captain of that company whereof George, duke of Buckingham, was captain before the regiment under his command was disbanded;’ but he resigned the commission a week afterwards (Dalton, English Army Lists, i. 170). We know nothing more of Wycherley's life until the winter of 1678, when, as already stated, he suffered from fever, and was sent to Montpelier for change of air, with a present of 500l. from the king to meet his expenses. He returned to London in the late spring of 1679, when Charles II told him that he had a son (the Duke of Richmond) whom he desired to be educated like the son of a king, and that he could make choice of no man so proper to be his governor as Wycherley. The remuneration was to be 1,500l. a year, with a pension when his office ceased; but those plans were never carried out, for not long afterwards Wycherley went to Tunbridge Wells, and while in company with his friend, Robert Fairbeard, of Gray's Inn, he met a young and rich widow, the Countess of Drogheda, who was asking at the bookseller's for the play ‘The Plain Dealer.’ Fairbeard said, ‘Madam, there he is for you,’ pushing forward his friend; and after an exchange of compliments about plain dealing, Fairbeard said, ‘Madam, you and the Plain Dealer seem designed by Heaven for each other;’ and after assiduous courting in Tunbridge Wells and Hatton Garden the lady agreed to marry Wycherley (Dennis, Original Letters, i. 221–3). Lætitia Isabella, daughter of John Robartes, first earl of Radnor [q. v.], had married, in 1669, Charles Moore, second earl of Drogheda, and the meeting with Wycherley must have been subsequent to June 1679, when the earl died. Klette (Wycherley's Leben und dramatische Werke, pp. 12, 13) argues that Dennis probably gave 1678 by mistake instead of 1679 as the date of Wycherley's illness; if so, the marriage was in 1680, after Wycherley's return to England. The marriage was secret, but before long it became known at court, where it was looked upon as an affront to the king and a contempt of his offers; and when Wycherley, fearing the royal displeasure, avoided the court, his conduct was construed into ingratitude. In 1683 he published anonymously, in quarto, ‘Poetical Epistles to the King and Duke.’
The Countess of Drogheda proved to be a very jealous wife, and could not bear to have her husband out of her sight; and we are told that when Wycherley went from their lodgings in Bow Street to meet his friends at the Cock Tavern, which was on the opposite side, he was obliged to leave the windows open, in order that his wife might see that there was no woman in the company (Dennis, Original Letters, i. 224). The countess settled all her estate upon Wycherley, but his title was disputed after her death (which took place probably in 1681), and law expenses and other debts caused him to be thrown into prison. His father would not support him, and the publisher of the ‘Plain Dealer,’ from whom he tried to borrow 20l., refused to lend him anything. Wycherley remained thus in distress for seven years, until James II, pleased at a performance of the ‘Plain Dealer,’ at which he had been persuaded to be present by Colonel Brett, gave orders for the payment of the author's debts, and added a pension of 200l. a year while he remained in England. Wycherley was, however, ashamed to give the Earl of Mulgrave, whom the king sent to demand it, a full account of his debts, and he therefore remained in difficulties for some months longer, when his father paid the remaining 200l. or 300l. (Spence, Anecdotes, p. 33). The estate that became his on his father's death in 1697 was left under limitations, he being only a tenant for life, and not being allowed to raise money for the payment of his debts. In 1694 Dennis was writing to Wycherley, at Clive, calling him ‘a humble hermit’ (Dennis, Select Works, ii. 491). When in town Wycherley was a great frequenter of Will's coffee-house, and Dryden wrote of his ‘dear friend,’ ‘I will not show how much I am inferior to him in wit and judgment by undertaking anything after him’ (ib. ii. 498, 505–6, 509, 534). Curiously enough, Jeremy Collier, in his attack on the immorality of the English stage (1698–9), made very little reference to Wycherley, though he dwelt much on the improprieties of Congreve and Vanbrugh; probably this was because these younger writers were then more before the public. Mr. Gosse (Life of Congreve, pp. 113–14) suggests that Wycherley was the author of the lively but anonymous tract ‘A Vindication of the Stage’ (17 May 1698); this piece is concerned especially with the defence of Congreve, and is noticed briefly at the end of Collier's ‘Defence of the Short View’ (1699). In another reply to Collier, ‘The Usefulness of the Stage,’ Dennis defended Wycherley, whose satirical dedication of the ‘Plain Dealer’ to Mother Bennet had been used by Collier as an authority against the stage.
In 1704 Wycherley published a folio volume of ‘Miscellany Poems,’ most of them written, he says, nine or ten years earlier. Wycherley lost the subscriptions to the book through the printer becoming bankrupt, and never telling Wycherley what he had received or from whom (Addit. MSS. 7121 f. 75, 28618 f. 85). The verses are poor and ribald, but the appearance of this book seems to have led to the strange friendship with young Pope, then a lad of sixteen. The correspondence which Pope published many years later, in 1735, was no doubt carefully edited, with the object of proving Pope's precociousness; it is known that some of his letters as published are concoctions from letters of later date written to other persons (Athenæum, 1857 pp. 12, 32, 1860 ii. 280, 319; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. x. 485), and Mr. Courthope has shown, by publishing Wycherley's actual letters from the manuscripts at Longleat, that in Pope's version they were elaborately altered so as to convey a sense of his own superiority as a lad over the older writer (Pope, Works, v. 73–4, 378–407). At sixty-four Wycherley was an old man whose memory had been very bad ever since his illness of 1678. Pope afterwards said: ‘He had the same single thoughts (which were very good) come into his head again that he had used twenty years before. His memory did not carry above a sentence at a time’ (Spence, Anecdotes, p. 121). He would read himself asleep at night with his favourite authors—Montaigne, Rochefoucauld, Seneca, or Gracian, and next morning would write verses with all the thoughts of his author, without knowing that he was obliged to any one for his ideas (ib. p. 150).
The first letter from Pope to Wycherley—alleged to have been written in December 1704, when Pope was sixteen—relates to the manner in which, at their first meeting, Wycherley had defended his friend Dryden. Wycherley replied with compliments from the ‘hardened scribbler’ to the young beginner; and early in 1706 we find Pope revising and cutting down his friend's manuscript poems, and advising which of the pieces in the 1704 collection were worthy of reproduction. Pope's alterations were numerous, and he added lines of his own; ‘they are no more than sparks lighted up by your fire,’ he said. In November 1707 Wycherley said he was resolved to print some of his verses, and urged Pope to proceed with the papers. Pope apologised for the many changes he had made: ‘If I have not spared you when I thought severity would do you a kindness, I have not mangled you where I thought there was no absolute need of amputation.’ Wycherley said that, however much Pope might conceal it, he should always own that his ‘infallible Pope’ had saved him from ‘a poetical damning a second time.’ Tonson's sixth volume of ‘Miscellany Poems,’ published in 1709, contained Pope's ‘Pastorals,’ the third of which was addressed to Wycherley, and also some verses ‘To my Friend Mr. Pope, on his Pastorals,’ by Wycherley, but probably corrected by Pope himself (POPE, Works, i. 21–2). Wycherley talked of publishing Pope's letters to him in revenge for his raillery. By this time Pope was writing to Henry Cromwell about bearing Wycherley's frailty, and forgiving his mistake, due to a scoundrel who had insinuated malicious untruths (Pope, Works, vi. 82, 86–7). The friends were sending each kind messages again by the end of 1709, and in April 1710 Wycherley said he should soon return to town from Shrewsbury for the summer, and begged Pope to proceed with the revision of his papers, in order that he might publish some of them about Michaelmas. Pope found numerous repetitions, and Wycherley asked him only to make marks in the margin without defacing the copy. Pope replied that he thought it would be better for no alterations to be made except when they were both present; most of the pieces, he considered, would appear better as maxims and reflections in prose than in verse. Here the correspondence, as we have it, ceases. Pope complained to Cromwell of his friend's silence; he had only done sincerely what Wycherley bade him. Wycherley was staying with Cromwell, and Pope sent friendly messages, and said he could not understand what was the cause of the estrangement, unless it were Wycherley's long indisposition. But in October 1711 Cromwell wrote that Wycherley, who had visited him at Bath, now again held Pope in high favour, and intended to visit him that winter, after inviting Pope to town. Pope said he was highly pleased at this change, but seems to have been slow in accepting Wycherley's invitation (Works, vi. 125–7).
The genuine Wycherley letters suggest that Pope has grossly misrepresented the relationship between himself and Wycherley, who, at any rate at the beginning, treated Pope as an old man and a famous writer might be expected to treat a clever lad of seventeen or eighteen, calling him ‘my great little friend’ and ‘my dear little infallible.’ ‘My first friendship, at sixteen,’ wrote Pope to Swift in 1729, ‘was contracted with a man of seventy, and I found him not grave enough or consistent enough for me, though we lived well till his death.’ Mr. Elwin thought that Wycherley's coolness arose not from Pope's criticisms of his verse, but from the discovery that Pope, while professing unlimited friendship, had made him the subject of satirical verse. In the ‘Essay on Criticism,’ published in May 1711, he spoke of those who,
In sounds and jingling syllables grown old,
Still run on poets in a raging vein,
E'en to the dregs and squeezing of the brain;
and added, ‘Such shameless bards we have.’ It is difficult not to believe that this was an attack on his old companion (Pope, Works, ii. 70–2). Afterwards Pope said: ‘Wycherley was really angry with me for correcting his verses so much. I was extremely plagued, up and down, for almost two years with them.’ However, Wycherley followed Pope's advice, and turned some hundreds of his verses into prose maxims. Pope's additions are to be found especially in the pieces on ‘Solitude,’ ‘A Life of Business,’ and ‘A Middle Life’ (Spence, pp. 113, 149).
On the marriage of Sir William Trumbull in 1709 Wycherley wrote to Pope: ‘His example had almost made me marry, more than my nephew's ill-carriage to me; having once resolved to have revenged myself upon him by my marriage.’ He often said that he would marry as soon as his life was despaired of; and accordingly, on 20 Dec. 1715, eleven days before his death, Wycherley was married, at his lodgings in Bow Street, by John Harris, with special license, to Elizabeth Jackson, of St. James's, Westminster (Register of St. Paul's, Covent Garden). ‘The old man then lay down,’ says Pope, ‘satisfied in the conscience of having by this one act paid his just debts, obliged a woman who he was told had merit, and shown an heroic resentment of the ill-usage of his next heir. Some hundred pounds which he had with the lady discharged those debts; a jointure of four hundred a year made her a recompense; and the nephew he left to comfort himself as well as he could with the miserable remains of a mortgaged estate’ (Pope to Blount, 21 Jan. 1715–16). Pope saw him twice afterwards, and found him less peevish than in health. After making his young wife promise, on the preceding evening, never to marry an old man again, Wycherley died on 1 Jan. 1716, and was buried in a vault under the church of St. Paul, Covent Garden (Le Neve, Monum. Angl. 1717, p. 305). Pope says that he died a Roman catholic. We are told on the one hand that his wife brought him a fortune of 1,500l., and on the other (by Pope) that she proved a cheat, was a cast mistress of the person who recommended her to Wycherley, and was supplied by him with money for her wedding clothes (Spence, p. 14). But this last statement is incompatible with Pope's other story that the lady's money enabled Wycherley to pay off his debts. Noble (Continuation of Granger, i. 240) describes her as daughter and coheir of Mr. Jackson of Hertingfordbury. In any case, she married again, her second husband being Captain Thomas Shrimpton, Wycherley's ‘loving kinsman’ and sole executor, who describes himself in a letter in Mrs. Oldfield's ‘Life’ as the nearest relative Wycherley had living on his mother's side (Gent. Mag. 1850, ii. 366). There were afterwards lawsuits about Wycherley's settlement on his wife.
Captain Shrimpton sold a number of Wycherley's manuscripts to a bookseller, but they were in so confused and illegible a state that it was necessary to employ Lewis Theobald [q. v.], the critic, to edit them. They were ultimately published in 1728, with a memoir by Major Richardson Pack, as ‘The Posthumous Works of William Wycherley, Esq., in Prose and Verse. In two parts.’ Neither these nor the 1704 collection have ever been reprinted, nor is there anything in them worth preservation, though the prose maxims are better than the verse. Pope said that this volume was derogatory to Wycherley's memory, and unfair to himself (Works, v. 282, vi. xxxviii), and made it the excuse for the publication of his correspondence with the dramatist. Collected editions of Wycherley's plays appeared in 1713, 1720, 1731, 1735, and 1768. They were included by Leigh Hunt in an edition of the plays of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar (1840 and 1849), which formed the text of Macaulay's well-known essay; and they were carefully edited by Mr. W. C. Ward in 1893 for the ‘Mermaid Series of Old Dramatists.’
Wycherley was painted by Lely when he was twenty-eight, and this portrait of a ‘very genteel’ man (Spence, p. 215), in a flowing wig, was reproduced in mezzotint by Smith in 1703, and prefixed to the ‘Miscellany Poems’ of 1704. The original was in Sir Robert Peel's collection at Drayton Manor, and was sold in London on 11 May 1900. The motto to the engraving (‘Quantum mutatus ab illo’) was, says Pope, ordered by Wycherley himself (ib. p. 13). The same painting was reproduced by M. Van der Gucht for the collected edition of the plays. Another painting, by Kneller, is at Knole Park. It was drawn at first with the old man's straggling grey hair, but, as Wycherley could not bear it when done, the painter was obliged to draw a wig to it (ib. p. 255).
Lord Lansdowne said that, ‘pointed and severe as he is in his writings, in his temper he had all the softness of the tenderest disposition; gentle and inoffensive to every man in his particular character.’ He wrote lines in defence of Buckingham (‘Your late disgrace is but the court's disgrace’) when that nobleman was in prison in the Tower; and he did his utmost to interest the duke on behalf of Samuel Butler when that poet was in want. He was much attached to his friends; Dryden called him his ‘dear friend’ (Dennis, Letters on Several Occasions, 1696, p. 57), and Wycherley wrote of ‘my once good friend Mr. Dryden, whose memory will be honoured when I have no remembrance’ (Posthumous Works, ‘Essay against Pride and Ambition’). After their reconciliation in 1711, Wycherley and Pope dined together, and when Pope said ‘To our loves,’ the old man replied, ‘It is Mr. Pope's health.’ Writing in 1705 or 1706, Lord Lansdowne asked a friend to meet Wycherley and ‘a young poet, newly inspired’—Pope—whom Wycherley and Walsh had ‘taken under their wing.’ He added that it was impossible not to love both Congreve and Wycherley ‘for their own sakes, abstracted from the merit of their works.’ Rochester (Poems on Several Occasions, 1680, p. 42) spoke of ‘Hasty Shadwell and slow Wycherley:’
But Wycherley earns hard whate'er he gains,
He wants no judgment and he spares no pains.
On this Lord Lansdowne remarked, ‘If it had been a trouble to him to write, I am much mistaken if he would not have spared himself that trouble.’ Pope said that he was far from being slow, and wrote the ‘Plain Dealer’ in three weeks (Spence, pp. 151–2). Steele tells us that Wycherley once gave a sarcastic definition of ‘easy writing.’ ‘That,’ said he, ‘among these fellows is called easy writing which any one may easily write’ (Tatler, No. 9). Dryden spoke of Wycherley as ‘so excellent a poet, and so great a judge’ (Prose Works, iii. 335); and from an ‘Epistle to Mr. Dryden’ in Wycherley's ‘Posthumous Works’ it appears that Dryden asked his friend to join with him in writing a comedy. Elsewhere Dryden speaks of ‘the satire, wit, and strength of manly Wycherley.’ Evelyn said that ‘as long as men are false and women vain … In pointed satire, Wycherley shall reign.’ It is Wycherley's serious intentness that at once marks him off from the brilliance of Congreve, the boisterousness and humour of Vanbrugh, and the pleasing good fellowship of Farquhar. As Hazlitt says, in Congreve the workmanship is more striking than the material, but in Wycherley's plays we remember the characters more than what they say. But it is harder to agree with Hazlitt that the ‘Plain Dealer’ is worth ten volumes of sermons, and that ‘no one can read this play attentively without being the better for it as long as he lives.’ Lamb said that he always felt better because gayer for reading ‘one of Congreve's—nay, why should I not add even of Wycherley's comedies?’ In Wycherley's plays the immorality is more realistic, and therefore more harmful, than in other Restoration dramas; but his vigour and clearness of delineation are his greatest merits.[The principal original sources of information for Wycherley's life are Major Pack's memoir in the Posthumous Works, 1728; Dennis's Original Letters, 1721; Dennis's Select Works, 1718; Spence's Anecdotes; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope; Dryden's Prose Works, ed. Malone, I. ii. 402, iii. 168, 177, 335. See also Biogr. Britannica; Biogr. Dramatica; Cibber's Lives of the Poets, iii. 248–57; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. iv. 527; memoir in Leigh Hunt's edition of Wycherley; Macaulay's Essay on the Comic Dramatists of the Restoration; Mr. Ward's edition of Wycherley, in which various misstatements of Macaulay are corrected; Klette's Wilhelm Wycherley's Leben und dramatische Werke, Münster, 1883; Genest's Account of the English Stage, i. 134, 136, 149, 161, ii. 417, 622, v. 89, 116; Dr. A. W. Ward's English Dramatic Literature, ii. 577–82; Swift's Works, ed. Scott, xvii. 21, 284, xix. 16, 245; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 451, 550, v. 176, 7th ser. xii. 146; Giles Jacob's Poetical Register; Langbaine's Lives, p. 514; New Atalantis, 1741, iii. 217; Lord Lansdowne's Works, vol. ii.; Granger's Biogr. Hist. v. 248; Noble's Continuation of Granger, 1806, i. 237–40; Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. pp. 70, 71; Lamb's Essays of Elia; Tinsley's Magazine, xxxii. 235–43 (by J. F. Molloy); Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Comic Writers; Gent. Mag. new ser. 1871, vii. 823–34 (by Charles Cowden Clarke); Voltaire's Lettres sur les Anglais, p. xix; De Grisy's La Comédie Anglaise 1672–1707, 1878; Villemain's Études de Litt. 1859, pp. 307–16; Taine's English Literature, 1871, i. 480–8.]